Chapter 1: The Front Row Hierarchy
She'd outgrown loud chiming bangles years ago, but the click, click, click of two inch heels on a tiled hallway floor still made her feel like she could take the world by the balls and rule it like a queen.
Today the world's balls were waiting in room 247 of one of the ugliest buildings she'd ever seen in her life. She straightened her back as one heel hit the ground and sent a shiver up her spine. Oh, she'd take those balls and squeeze.
A year and three quarters of classes, two musicals, one production of As You Like It, eight one act plays, and three student films had taught Sharpay Evans exactly three things:
1. The world had too many actors.
2. Too many actors and not enough people with Vision.
3. Apparently Vision was directly related to truly perfect hair because she was the only human she'd ever met with either one.
That was how she'd ended up here, in the front row of Hector Pestor's period design class, two thousand miles from drama school and New York City and all those very, very poorly coiffed actors. She'd hated the cold anyway, and the way it forced her to layer. Even girls with perfect figures started to look lumpy, and there was no way she was subjecting her favorite shoes to yellow-gray slush or black ice ever again.
Notebook on the table in front of her, she corrected her posture, checked her nails and then clasped her hands on the table-top. She positively radiated Bright Attentive Articulate Student.
Nothing else in the room moved. Being the very first person to class always gave her too much time to think. Which was possibly thing number four that those almost two years working in a BA in acting had taught her. Sharpay was a lot less shallow than even she had thought.
She hadn't even realized it until the very end either. Not until she was standing in front of the dean of admissions for LA's newest and most cutting edge fashion school and had actually heard herself say, "I don't care about being famous. I just want to learn how to be better and more interesting than everyone else out there."
And she'd meant it.
Self-discovery, however, was no reason to get sloppy and the arrival of several black-clad, long haired fellow students brought her chin up higher and a bit of a pout to her lips. Just because she didn't care about being famous didn't mean everyone else had to know that.
It was hard not to fidget, nerves demanding their outlet, but that scene from The Winter's Tale where she stood like a statue through seemingly endless Shakespearian dialogue had shown Sharpay she was capable of it if really necessary. She practiced. Some things were still easier if she imagined she had an audience.
As a girl carefully led her bike into the front of the room, she took a moment to roll down her pant leg. Sharpay looked her over from head to toe and realized, Too much blue. Passing judgment on the people filing into the room helped to calm her, and after a moment Sharpay found herself back on comfortable ground. It was easy being the prettiest and brightest looking student in the class when you knew quite certainly that you really were.
The thing about fashion students, she was realizing, was that it wasn't cool to sit in the front row. Most of her fellow students clustered in the back rows, talking, making jokes, acting disaffected and misunderstood. It was quite fine with Sharpay, as she rather preferred the scent of her perfume to cigarette smoke and bicycle grease.
Front row seats were competitive, and the language spoken always came through loud and clear. Her talent glittered just as brilliantly as her earrings and nobody seemed to want to challenge her. Until the seats directly to her left were taken, filled so gently the chairs almost didn't squeak.
She glanced over out of the corner of her eye and saw, oh. Twins. Suddenly, more than anything, she missed her stupid, wonderful brother and his atrocious taste in hats. She couldn't believe she even let him out of the house some days. The boys next to her certainly seemed attached at the hip. And hands, and shoulders, and knees. They were passably cute at least, not a freckle out of place on either, with excellent color sense. Sharpay could appreciate a good matched set that wasn't actually matchy-matchy, though she wouldn't have pushed the width on the collar on the one on the left.
Then again, nobody was perfect, and especially not next to her. She could forgive them their flaws, even as she bettered her posture. Blonde curls tossed over her shoulder, she adjusted the lay of her notebook, already opened and dated in dark pink ink, with an orange highlighter for emphasis waiting in the wings. As she lifted a hand to ready her pen, her elbow brushed against the boy next to her.
Sharpay gave him a brilliant smile. He returned it, winked, and in unison with his twin, said, "Ohayo" in a little sing-song.
The only useful thing she'd ever learned from Zeke's unabated love of ninja movies, because the myriad ways abdominal muscles could tense didn't count in the classroom, was a tiny smattering of Japanese. She knew "Please", "Thank you", "I'm Sorry", "Die", "Ouch", and various other words highly important to ninjas. As well as "Good Morning."
She winked back. "Good morning, cuties," she replied, and proceeded to completely ignore them with Professor Pestor's arrival.
Sharpay knew, from the instant the two next to her called him "Professor-sensei", it would be war.
The class was part survey, part practice. The Professor spent the first few minutes of class asking questions about the history of fashion design to gage how well his class already understood the basics. Sharpay knew it wasn't fair to raise her hand to answer every question, but she always nodded along with the correct answers, listening politely as other students had their chance to try. She made a few notes, shifting in her seat to keep from bumping the elbow of the boy next to her again. It was cruel that all lecture halls in the entirety of the universe relegated left-handed writers' desks to the aisle seats. She refused to be shuttled to the side of the classroom.
The boy next to her seemed to think it was funny at least, and kept looking over at her when his brother compensated, giving her these small, knowing smiles. She'd seen better, but she'd seen worse, and she knew the smiles she gave him in return were always just a little bit fiercer. Even though the twins appeared to be trading turns taking notes, she'd still written down the same volume of information, and in her personal, round, perfect handwriting.
She and Ryan had always taken notes in tandem in their advanced classes in high school. He seemed to fit his observations in with hers, like puzzle pieces. And owing to his faint dyslexia, he needed her to remind him just what dates were accurate and required for their history finals. She'd passed many of her classes feeling the way his weight shifted against the back of her desk. Ryan was never a foot-bouncer, never a pencil-tapper. He'd been a classmate she could rely on to create an atmosphere in which she could perform to the best of her ability.
They'd never outright cuddled in class, however. The twins next to her seemed so physically comfortable with each other she was rather unsurprised when the one with the dye job yawned.
Well. Sharpay would never fall to the depths of rudeness of yawning in class. The professor was working hard to impart knowledge and she was not taking it for granted! She raised her hand to land a very well-thought-out question, and was rewarded with a smile. If the boys couldn't handle the front row, they could bask in her presence from the next one back.
She knew they had begun to watch her, alternating glances. Sharpay had no intention of being intimidated by the gaze of others; in fact, it was one of the galvanizing forces behind her continued success. Sharpay Evans had an audience, and she would show them how to be the best student in the class. And she was still the prettiest.
She didn't even let it rankle when they chirped out, "Arigato, Professor-sensei," at the end of class. If that was the best they could do, they had nothing on her. With another toss of her hair, she stood, shouldered her purse, gave the professor a smile of blinding wattage, and flounced from the room. Knowing how to try, and when trying too hard was a sign of desperation, appeared to be another trait only bestowed upon Sharpay. It was terribly hard, sometimes, being alone in her brilliance.
If she had any faults, she knew they lay in her competitive nature. After class, she'd realized she'd missed two very important things:
1. The class culminated in a group project. If she scared everyone away, she'd probably end up doing all of the work on her own, and while she knew she'd do a better job than anyone else, she liked her beauty rest as much as the next girl.
2. Twins, one fair-haired, one dark-dyed, with Japanese accents and a penchant for mixing plaid and paisley. She'd seen them before. She knew it.
It wasn't until the next morning that it clicked. Most of the girls' diet plans appeared to be the Smoke Instead of Eating plan. As Sharpay valued both her curves and her teeth, she followed good, old-fashioned exercise and diet rules. Her personal trainer at home had given her a regimen to follow, but all of the nearby gyms were filled with muscleheads and women who brought their purse-dogs and left them on the treadmills. Sharpay had to forsake Boi for New York living two years previously, and she absolutely could not stand watching those pampered princesses forget their babies in a stinky, sweaty, steroid-glorifying hotbox.
Instead, she went on morning jogs and practiced cardio with a personalized DVD her trainer had made her. She varied the distance she ran, but that morning her feet took her past one of the more popular coffee shops just outside the campus grounds. And she overheard one of the more excitable girls, wearing a pair of knitted kitty ears that were almost loud enough to drown her out, gushing about the Hitachiin Brothers attending their school.
She did not trip, nor stumble dramatically to a halt. Theatrics were best left for appropriate times, and she was in no mood to entertain witnesses. Instead, she stayed in rhythm, minding her breathing. She'd heard of them. Anyone with their head in the fashion world knew their mother and the sheer versatility of her body of work. For her twentieth birthday, her parents had given her a trip to the only Hitachiin showroom in the entire United States, and it had been a thoughtful present indeed.
But the work of the mother was not the work of the sons. The more she considered it, the more she realized she hadn't seen anything they'd done. They were students, just as she was.
As an actress, Sharpay was no longer impressed by celebrity. She resolved not to be star-struck, nor steamrolled. She had always grown up with loving, affirming parents that told her she was special. Just because they knew the truth didn't preclude other parents from telling the same things to their children. They probably had whole teams of people telling them how wonderful they were. That, to Sharpay, sounded like a crutch.
She was there to learn, not to be seen. She would claw her way to the top of the fashion world on her own steam, even if it killed her. Or preferably anyone underneath her.
By the time Professor Pestor's next class had rolled around, Sharpay had been unable to escape rumors about the Hitachiin brothers, about their mother, their living arrangement, their girlfriends, their boyfriends, their shoes, their favorite foods. She'd done her best to keep her nose above the flow. It wouldn't do to be swept away, but neither was it fair to condemn the boys just because everyone loved them from afar. She knew that feeling, and it often wasn't pleasant.
She was still the first in class, settling herself comfortably in the center seat. They sat down right next to her as she flipped to the appropriate page in her notebook, and waited until she'd laid it on her desk to chorus, "Ohayo, Blondie-cha-an!"
Sharpay turned, her smile already growing. When she saw them in two unique variations on argyle, she wrinkled her nose. They were kind of like puppies. Adorable and floppy and crawling over one another. She tilted her head to the side and chirped, "Good morning to you too!" in response.
The mirrored grins she got in response to that one were broad and sharp. They knew it was a war just as thoroughly as she did. The one with the natural hair spoke softly, his accent a little thick, his words a little stilted.
"We are new to California, United States. You are very nice."
His brother leaned over his shoulder, tucking an arm around him, and echoed, "Yes, hello," in much the same tone.
Her classification appeared accurate. These weren't boys, they were puppies! Why else would they fake the accent? She knew their mother sounded nearly natural in her English speaking, and she couldn't believe a woman that powerful could neglect the education of her sons. She smiled her sweetest smile and said, "Aw, don't let yourselves be fooled by appearances."
The fair one laughed, bringing both hands up with his fingers curled like talons. "Ah! Pretty face, fang like tiger?"
She giggled. "Claws like a tiger. I'm not about to get my mouth dirty."
He wiggled his fingers. "Ah-ha, claw."
Sharpay felt compelled at that moment to shoot the one with the dye job a bit of a sympathetic look. It had come to her attention, in twin-based relationships, that sometimes there was a Stupid Twin and a Helper Twin. Being the Helper Twin was a labor of love, and too rarely acknowledged because Stupid Twin tended to be nearly unbearably cute. Oh, there she was missing Ryan again. She bit the inside of her lip and smiled as she added, "Mm, like the ones at the corners of your eyes, honey."
The fair one brought his hands up to the corners of his face and wiggled his fingers again. His twin cracked up, laughing with his head thrown back. He reached around his brother, holding out his hand to shake, though palm-up. "My name is Hikaru."
She shook her head, indulgently correcting the angle of his hand and shaking it. "Sharpay Evans."
Hikaru wrinkled his nose, obviously holding back a laugh. His brother, the one that had to be Kaoru, and she'd remember that even without his having to introduce himself, bit the insides of his lips and blew out his cheeks. She waited for the amusement to pass. Funny how nobody made fun of her name once they knew her. She gave Kaoru a very firm handshake when he offered his name.
She tossed her hair over her shoulder, and was gratified when both of their gazes followed the movement. "It's nice to meet the Hitachiin twins in person."
The twins, unfazed, smiled back. "You say 'Hitachiin' much better than we say 'Sharpay'," said Kaoru graciously.
"You'll get practice, I'm sure," she responded, and smiled when they both broke into laughter and applause. It was a knee-jerk reaction, but the two of them seemed genuinely amused.
"Shar-pay," murmured Hikaru. "Sharpay. Sha-shar-pay." He wrinkled his nose again. Apparently these two traded Stupid and Helper hats frequently, because as Kaoru settled into his seat, and better into Hikaru's hold, he said her name for him, and correctly.
Hikaru grinned. "It is very nice to meet you, miss Sharpay Evans," he said, and Kaoru applauded him with a little pat to the back of one hand.
"You see what a little practice can do?" she murmured in response. "It is very nice to meet you too, mister Hikaru Hitachiin."
It was to a chorus of laughter beside her that the professor finally made his way into class. She realized, only then, that the rest of the class had been more or less quiet behind them. Usually, under those circumstances, Sharpay could be reasonably assured that the silence was only preparation for her next words. In this case, as the twins settled beside her in a different cuddly pile than before, she couldn't be sure she wasn't sharing the spotlight. Ah well, nothing for it but to ignore them. Already they were chasing her attention, and she was an excellent target of pursuit.
Hikaru and Kaoru had, thankfully, dropped "Professor-sensei". Kaoru did adjust the way he sat to give Sharpay full use of his armrest, which she appreciated thoroughly as they still insisted on sitting on her left side. When, as Professor Pestor shuffled through his slides, she accidentally-on-purpose dropped her highlighter, Kaoru swooped in to recover it, and gave it back only after drawing a smiley face at the top left corner of her notes. She could ignore the silliness for his gallantry, this once, she decided.
By the end of class, she knew that Kaoru's sighing was a signal for Hikaru to start taking notes. She knew how they smelled, and that Hikaru had a cut on the back of his right wrist that only showed when his sleeve was pulled taut. She also knew that their notes skittered between English and Japanese, sometimes within sentences. It made for some odd angular adventures in their script. She also learned that the group project due by the end of the semester was going to be assigned according to seating.
As soon as class ended, both boys rose and turned toward her. "Sharpay-chan!" they cried in unison, looking absolutely gleeful.
"If you want you can come to our apartment," said Kaoru.
"It is very nice," interjected Hikaru.
"We have big tables for working," added Kaoru, his smile growing broader. Hikaru's broadened to match, and as he tucked his arms around his brother they started to turn on the puppy eyes.
She considered, taking longer than she usually would. The effect was only enhanced when she pressed the cap of her pen to her lower lip just to remind them of how full it was, and how shiny. "Hm-m, alright. But only if you promise to drop the accents, boys. If you can't even use them consistently, it's obvious they're not real."
Hikaru blinked, but Kaoru recovered more quickly, his smile softening. In impeccable, California-accented English, he murmured, "Accepted, Miss Evans."
In unison, the twins rose, and extended their hands to her to help her to her feet. As she slid her hands into theirs, Hikaru said, "We can have a driver come by to pick you up."
She rose, guided expertly, and wondered where boys like these two had been all her life if they were going to make even walking seem like a dance. Even shifting her hips to get past her notebook balanced on the arm of the seat hadn't altered their balance together. She smiled, looking up at the two of them. "No, thank you. I like driving."
"I'll write down our address, shall I?" murmured Kaoru, gently releasing her hand. He could have just as easily slipped it into his elbow, or twined their fingers. Oh, he was good. Stupid Twin still had her hand, and was examining the rings on her fingers, running one thumb down to take in her manicure as well. Kaoru ignored him, and Sharpay took her cues from the Helper Twin, knowing her nails were as impeccable as the rest of her.
"Please." As Kaoru dug in Hikaru's bag, she wiggled her fingers a little to get Hikaru's attention and said, "By the by, I just love your necklace. It really balances the rest of your accessories."
He looked up from her hand and exhibited a little honest humanity when he flushed with pleasure at the compliment. "Thank you," he said, then grunted as Kaoru started using his shoulder as an impromptu writing surface.
Kaoru slipped one arm around Hikaru, and passed the note to Sharpay. "There. If you get lost, our phone numbers are at the bottom."
"Call his," said Hikaru with a grin.
Kaoru rolled his eyes and tweaked Hikaru's ear, but without malice. "Either. Say, this Friday afternoon?" he offered.
She folded the note with perfectly even creases and slipped it into her purse. "Five if you'll have food. Otherwise I can't be there until seven."
Hikaru smiled. "We'll have food."
"Five," agreed Kaoru, grinning.
Sharpay nodded, slipping her purse up onto her shoulder. "Five it is. I'll see you then, boys. Ta."
She felt their eyes on her back as she walked away. Among other places. Boys were boys no matter where they were from, it seemed.
Chapter 2: Steamrollers and Straight Pins
Sharpay gave the convertible up for a Prius. She gave the puppy up for New York. She will never, ever, ever give up bagels.
Friday evening, promptly at four forty-five, Sharpay parked her silver Prius in the visitor parking spot of a luxury condominium complex. At four fifty-one she closed her compact, slipped it into her purse, and stepped out into the softening afternoon light. At four fifty-seven she found the correct numbered condo and stepped lightly up to the gate. At four fifty-nine she pressed the call button.
A woman's voice answered her, speaking first in Japanese, then saying, in English, "Welcome to the Hitachiin residence. Please state your name and time of appointment."
She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, but just barely. Sweet and crisp like an autumn apple, she said, "Sharpay. The boys are expecting me for dinner."
"Miss Evans, come right in," responded the woman without missing a beat. The door opened on its own, admitting her to a small, well-furnished courtyard with a fountain. Beyond was the true front door, and she knocked to both announce herself and give herself a moment to adjust her blouse. The walk had ruffled her slightly, as it would any woman with as much hip to sway on heels as Sharpay had, and she was prepared to show no weakness.
The boys weren't either. They were absolutely dressed to kill, each in white and gray casual wear and looking sharp as tacks. Their smiles bloomed in unison. "Miss Evans, welcome," they purred, offering their hands to help her over the threshold.
Sharpay made it a point to ignore all irony in princess treatment. She deserved to be treated as such, certainly, and for reasons these boys didn't know yet. However, the gentle strength in their hands, the honesty of their smiles, were starting to convince her that this treatment bore no irony whatsoever. Even in her heels they towered over her, but between them their size wasn't intimidating. She felt as though they were giving their power to her. She made a soft sound of approval.
The condo was bright and airy, decorated in a modern style with pockets of eye-watering kitsch disguised as Japanese Cultural Artifacts, and housed as such. There was something tongue-in-cheek about their living space, and Sharpay honestly meant to comment on it when she found herself seized by the urge to grab Kaoru's belt buckle to get a better look. Sharpay often gave in to her urges.
"Oh! It's precious! Where did you find it?" she cooed, weighing the buckle in her hand. It was pure cowboy, dinged on one edge, and heavy enough to really belie its past usefulness. Kaoru was skinny enough that it was only decorative, and if she were in the mind, she could have given it a good enough yank to get it an inch away, at least. She had, after a few memorable incidents, made it a policy never to yank without asking, but it was a good method for estimation still.
Kaoru, exhibiting the kind of catlike balance she'd only attributed to Theater People before this, bent slightly backward and rose up on his toes to get his hips higher for her. "It was a gift," he said, laughter in his voice.
She patted his belly, ignoring the way Hikaru had started to snicker. "You should tell them thank you," she admonished, and caught the way Kaoru instantly winked at his brother.
She straightened, dropping Kaoru, and tossed her hair over her shoulder. "So, where are we going to work?"
Helper Twin, in this case Kaoru, took her elbow in a gentle grip and guided her to the back of the condo, to a room lit by the sun and multiple very bright lamps. "Here. We have a dining room if you'd prefer to take your dinner further from the sewing machines."
And sewing machines did line one wall, including one gorgeous antique that was just for show. A small army of dress forms stood naked and waiting in the opposite corner. Hikaru, catching up, insinuated himself between Kaoru and Sharpay, tucking his arms around them both. "Dinner will be a minute," he said, his fingertips gently smoothing her sleeve. "There's time to plan."
Sharpay smiled back at him, finding that he wasn't really putting any weight on her at all. "Let's plan."
Kaoru grinned, then led them further in, pulling a rolling file cabinet from beneath one of the work tables. He quickly laid four huge black binders on the desk before him, and Hikaru flipped them open expertly, but only after helping Sharpay settle in one of the chairs. Inside the binders were pages of swatches, drawings, magazine clippings, photographs, plans. There were broken bits of pencil, pressed flowers, glitter.
Kaoru said, "We keep old portfolios with us to draw from. If you'd like, we can use them as a starting point."
"It's good to know where we're all coming from. We have things we've done in our spare time, too," agreed Hikaru. He hopped up and headed for the wall. The panels turned out to be retractable closet doors, and they revealed racks on racks of clothes.
Sharpay, taking things in order, accepted the binders as Kaoru passed them to her. She examined them, flipping through the first couple pages of each, with the sort of quiet that had served her well in the recent past. When a pretty blonde was quiet, most people assumed she was overly impressed, or cowed. Sharpay was neither, fiercely analytical of the ideas before her, quickly sussing out the twins' senses of aesthetic and inspiration. When Kaoru didn't interject with commentary or translation, she realized they were waiting for her opinion.
She rose, walked deliberately over to a rack, and began another examination. She examined their work, at times pulling pieces from the rack, flicking back lapels, rolling up sleeves. When she turned, decisively, her heels tapped together with a click.
"You've got good color and nice lines. You need to find someone better with doing your hand stitching, but I've got that handled so for this project we're set. More importantly, I want to know where you found this and how you managed the darts. Because," she pulled the dress from the rack and cuddled it. The tiny, happy moan was about ninety percent involuntary, but the wiggle was all Sharpay. "It is gorgeous."
The twins pointed to one another, and said, in unison, "Ask him."
She laughed, hanging the dress again. "Right. Should have known."
As she returned to the table, she knew they were waiting. The gentlemen went first, but she also had to show her stuff. She pulled a much slimmer binder from her bag and laid it on the table with a firmness that hid her nerves. She waved a hand over it. "Here are photos of my past work. Some of it, at least."
Sharpay turned, then, and walked back to the rack. She heard the slide of plastic on the tabletop as they turned the binder and brought it close. She heard, as well, the sound of plastic page protectors rubbing against metal rings as they turned the pages. However, she would not give them the satisfaction of begging their approval on their own turf. Especially not when an absolutely gorgeous white and rose asymmetrical minidress was calling her name from the back of the rack.
She had to turn, however, when they purred in perfect unison, "We are looking forward to this partnership very much, Miss Evans."
Sharpay turned, holding the dress up to herself, and smiled. "Oh, we're going to set the curve on this one, I can tell."
But their smiles had changed. They weren't the anticipatory smiles she'd turned to see. Hikaru was practically vibrating as he asked, "Do you like it?"
Kaoru's eyes flicked toward Hikaru as Sharpay said, "Pardon?"
Kaoru smiled. "Yes, Miss Evans, do you?"
"I'm a good tailor," interjected Hikaru. "I'll suit it to you. Whichever one you'd like."
"We already have photographs of everything anyway," said Kaoru, his smile quirking.
Sharpay raised an eyebrow, calculating and teasing at once. "May I try on a few before I make any final decision?"
Hikaru leaned a little more heavily on Kaoru, who said, "Perhaps after dinner and at least minor progress on our project?"
"We have the rest of the semester," said Hikaru quickly.
"Plenty of time," agreed Kaoru.
Sharpay looked at their blatantly hopeful expressions, looked down at the dress, and smiled. "Well. I think I'll start with this one. I think better in white anyway. Excuse me for just a second." She turned, and the rack of clothing was certainly stuffed enough to hide her. She slipped behind it, shimmying out of her clothes and into the dress with the speed bestowed upon her in many a costume change. She stepped back into view, heading for the large mirror by the window, her heels dangling from her hand. She smoothed the dress in front of the mirror, turning to give the boys a smile over her shoulder. "It's a little big, isn't it?"
Hikaru was already on his feet. "I'll need to take in the waist. Pull in the hem. Perhaps something-" He stopped himself, even his forward motion halting when Kaoru cleared his throat. "It. It becomes you, Miss Evans."
She paused, then flushed a little, her smile growing. "Aw, thank you," she said, and couldn't resist giving a little twirl on her tippy toes. Oh, even unaltered it was sweet and girly, with just enough knowledge in the silhouette around the thighs.
As he tucked an arm around Hikaru, Kaoru said, "Stunning. With the right styling, you would kill."
There was a rather pregnant moment as she looked back at him, then gathered her hair in a messy handful and pulled it up off of her neck. "Up, do you think?" she asked. They both knew it was an offer, and Hikaru fairly turned green with jealousy.
Kaoru gently guided Sharpay to face the mirror again, then veritably buried his hands in her hair to pull it up. From seemingly nowhere, he materialized pins and clips, enough control to adjust the way the ends fell against the line of her neck, but never controlled enough to necessitate removing one hand from her hair. Hikaru, ever helpful, slipped his hands in between them and cinched the dress in at the waist, taking out some of the excess air.
Sharpay sighed as they held the pose. "Well?"
"It's a basic idea," murmured Kaoru, loosening his grip so she could turn her head.
"Uh huh," said Stupid Twin. His smile softened with appreciation, giving Sharpay the entirely suppressible urge to pat him on the head, though she dearly wanted to try.
Kaoru said, "After all, even after this project ends, there is nothing to... bar you from visiting from time to time, is there?"
She swayed a little, pleased. "Obviously not." She tilted her head, meeting Kaoru's eyes in the mirror. "Do you think I could wear it for the presentation?"
Kaoru laughed. "We'd like the professor to focus on the project, Miss Evans."
She wrinkled her nose. "Would you just call me Sharpay already?"
"We would if it weren't hard to say," answered Hikaru, having the grace to look faintly embarrassed. "I don't want to get it wrong."
She waved a hand. "Pfft. You say it just fine."
Hikaru made eye contact in the mirror, and smiled. "Right. Sharpay."
She could have happily stayed in their collective hold, under their collective appreciation forever. There was something very safe about them, their interest an aesthetic one, their appreciation natural. Sharpay knew she was beautiful, and there had been people in her life before that had noticed, but never without a catch. Between the twins, she felt like a princess, respected, without waiting for the other shoe to drop. She didn't want it to end. Neither of the boys seemed entirely intent on moving, certainly, but there was a knock at the door of the workroom.
The woman whose voice had previously been known to Sharpay only through an intercom stood in the doorway. "Sirs, miss, dinner has been served."
Without looking, the twins said, "Thank you," in a soft, dismissive tone. Sharpay only saw her reflection in the mirror as she bowed and disappeared. The first person to break the moment was Kaoru, gently sliding his fingers out of her hair. The backs of his knuckles brushed the back of her neck as he let go. Hikaru followed suit, standing again.
"We should probably go before the food gets cold," said Kaoru.
"But please, Sharpay. Would you mind changing? If you wear that to dinner it will drive me absolutely crazy." Hikaru's expression was a touch shy of pleading.
Sharpay knew it wasn't an overblown compliment, but honest craftsman's obsessive compulsion. She turned to him, touched the tip of her nose and winked. "It's too early in the project to be crazy yet, right? I'll take care of it."
She turned to change to the tune of Kaoru's laughter. When she'd gotten back into her clothes, the boys were waiting by the door. Each took one of her hands to guide her into the rest of the condo. They walked her gently, treating her like a princess, their steps stately. Yet, each was looking at her. And grinning.
Hikaru pulled out her chair, and Kaoru guided her into it. Before her was an immaculate table, wood polished to a high shine, set with plates of eclectic color, shape, and style. Even the napkins were different, hers a pale green with white polka dots. Already on the table, a steaming array of serving platters arranged tastefully, even the simple salad garnished with a sprig of mint and deep violet cabbage.
The twins served, as if they hadn't paid someone to make the food. They were comfortable, casual, Hikaru rising to take Sharpay's plate and fill it for her. She permitted him. Everything was fresh and prepared beautifully, and Sharpay had a definite weakness for good food. She'd learned, during multiple dinners with her father's business colleagues, her mother's society friends, and her own "working lunches", just how to eat without looking awkward. The twins had, obviously, attended the same school, though with different teachers. Sharpay bent, her neck swanlike, to enjoy her meal. Hikaru and Kaoru sat nearly stock-straight, taming their boyishness with impeccable posture.
The food was, to put it simply, heavenly. For all that she came from money, meals like this were a rarity. She'd gone to a public high school to build character, a public theater school because of the connections. Cuisine sometimes came in the form of chili fries and Zeke's cookies. She'd followed her mother's diets in solidarity, and had, while Ryan had been trying to impress a certain aforementioned baker on the basketball team, consumed enough practice-quiche to turn her away from eggs for six months. But Sharpay came from the kind of money that reminded everyone present of its depth with constant elegance. The meals at the country club had always been rich, meticulous, overwrought.
There was no less meticulousness in this meal, but it felt effortless, and so light and fresh and simple it felt like an idea she could have had herself. When her plate was empty, she realized they hadn't really spoken, but had fallen into the sort of warm appreciation good food prompted among people... comfortable with one another. Funny how the war seemed less prominent as a bit of sauteed onion nearly melted in her mouth.
Hikaru broke the spell as the same woman from before came to clear away their plates. "Coffee, Sharpay?"
"Oh no, thank you, but I like to keep my caffeine tolerance low just in case."
They both laughed, even as steaming mugs of coffee were placed at their elbows. Hikaru went much heavier on the cream, Kaoru on the sugar. "It's not fair of us not to offer you anything else. We have tea-" "-herbal tea," amended Hikaru, cutting Kaoru off. He smiled a little. "Chamomile?"
"Oh, alright," said Sharpay, and not seconds later a mug was steeping before her. She resisted the urge to look surprised. It was almost like dining in a private restaurant, and being catered to by a helicopter mom at once. She watched the flowers leech color into the mug from the kind of silk teabag that was obviously handmade.
Kaoru confirmed her suspicions. "We order the supplies, but one of the cooks takes care of the bags in-house. I'm an absolute mess with a tea egg."
Hikaru chuckled. "Why, just last week he was playing with one, and it snapped open toward him, not away! He got a huge purple stain on one of my shirts-"
"Hikaru," whined Kaoru. "Do you really have to tell her that? You always tell such mean stories about me." He pouted, his shoulders hunching, one hand coming up to nearly cover his mouth.
Sharpay raised an eyebrow as Hikaru's expression softened, and he leaned over to stroke the side of Kaoru's face. "Oh, come on, Kaoru, I couldn't help it. You almost cried! It was so cute. Don't be mad at me, please, you know I can't stand it when you're mad at me."
Kaoru leaned. "I can't be mad at you," he sighed, putting his head on Hikaru's shoulder. "Not when you beg like that."
Hikaru snorted. "Pixie." He gave Kaoru a pinch, pinking his cheek. "Don't push it."
Kaoru busted up laughing, his head thrown back, and Hikaru flushed only mildly, shooting a glance at Sharpay.
She took a slow, demure sip of her tea, then stood, the mug balanced between her hands. "I don't know about you boys," she said, tilting her head to the side. "But I think I'm ready to get to work."
"Yes," said Kaoru, flopping out of the chair and rising, gangly tangle of limbs again turning into a young man with some semblance of grace. He held out his hand and Hikaru popped him one in the gut. He doubled over and laughed again. "Hi-ikaru, stoppit!"
Hikaru took his place at Sharpay's other side and laced one arm around her back. "I told you not to push it, you big baby, so stop pushing."
Kaoru, still snickering, wrapped his arm around Sharpay and tugged a wrinkle out of Hikaru's shirt with the motion. "Ruining my fun," he murmured.
Sharpay ignored them, letting them chauffeur her around the condo without a word. Whatever they needed to work out was between them, though she knew a show when she saw it. She slotted it into her mental file, building up the image the twins wanted to project and adjusting it with the new information. She was almost lost in it when the boys let her go and started a flurry of activity, moving their old portfolios out of the way, bringing out measuring tape, drawing pencils, fabric samples, and a large, white binder.
"We were thinking," said Kaoru.
"Something inspired," said Hikaru.
"Along these lines," finished Kaoru, as Hikaru flipped open the binder to reveal an extensive set of preliminary plans.
She stopped still, looking it over. Ah, they'd done a brainstorming session, and gathered ideas, and begun work picking fabrics. Without her. And had been spending the entire evening molding her into a model. She understood.
Sharpay had worked with celebrities before. Scene-stealers, show-usurpers, the beloved and the ambitious. She'd been steamrolled as often as she'd done the steamrolling, and a few times she'd even deserved it. Yet, these two had taken one look at her and written her off.
She lifted her chin. "Your lines are good," she began, her voice firm. "But girls don't have pointed boobs, and that color, frankly, will turn disgusting under the fluorescent lights in the lecture hall. Besides that, pattern mixing can be innovative but that one's Van Gogh levels of seasick."
She cocked her head to the side. "But I like the skirt." She lifted her gaze then, looking each one in the eye. It was an unfortunate side effect of her maturity, anger management. She could hold it in, could refuse to scream at them for being absolute fools, but doing so always gave her the flush that could be easily misinterpreted as a girl forcing herself not to cry.
Sharpay never cried when she was angry. She cried a little before, and a lot after. Without pure rage to power her, especially with the safety of their attention stripped away so suddenly she hadn't realized she'd missed it, crying was her first instinctual recourse. She wouldn't do it, but that didn't mean her throat didn't close.
Softly, Helper Twin, recognizing the fault first, said, "That's why these are just basic ideas. A starting point."
Catching on, Hikaru said, "So let's sit together and bring your talents in as well."
"We're missing a lot. We need you," finished Kaoru.
"Okay?" asked Hikaru, looking about ready to go after her if she ran.
Sharpay raised her eyebrows, her expression sharp and skeptical. Boys were boys, no matter which brains they were using. She would not be discounted just for being beautiful anymore. She stepped forward slowly, deliberately, and lifted a charcoal pencil. "Fine."
Kaoru had the good sense not to shut the binder entirely, but at least to move it out of the way. "So. No pointed boobs."
Hikaru flushed, sitting down like a wounded puppy. Sharpay smiled sweetly, not voicing the are you cracked? begging for release in her head. "No. No pointed boobs." Still, Hikaru's sadness gave her an idea. She grabbed a blank piece of paper and thrust the pencil into his hand. "Here. You draw, we'll." She looked to Kaoru. "Adjust."
Kaoru laughed, and said, "Come around to this side of the table, dear."
As she did, Hikaru made room, scooting closer to Kaoru. She took a stool beside him and leaned her elbow on the table. "Are you alright with an audience, honey?" she teased. They could play pet name bingo.
Hikaru laughed. "I'm great with an audience, darling," he shot back, and started sketching. Kaoru interjected a helpful, "Too pointy, sweetheart," a half-second before Sharpay could grab the eraser, and Hikaru grumbled.
And yet. And yet it was working. Between them, Sharpay and Kaoru arguing, Hikaru working, sometimes all of them touching the paper, smudging the charcoal, turning their fingers gray, they got it to work. Kaoru, with the cleanest hands, ran around grabbing fabric squares. Sometimes buttons. At one point he lost himself to the giggles and a rack of swiftly tangling tulle. Hikaru had to extract him, the diversion giving Sharpay just enough time to redraw a seam line.
When, finally, she felt it was right, Sharpay smacked Hikaru in the shoulder in triumph, leaving a little fingerprint by the seam of his collar. "Perfect!"
"Huh?" said Hikaru, blinking up at her. "You think?"
"Obviously. Especially if we use that purple," she said, pointing to one of their top five swatches.
The green paisley, hotly debated just a few moments prior, still sat just outside the top five. Hikaru cast it a longing glance and said, "What about the lining?"
Sharpay put her hand over the swatch. "We'll work this in, I promise. Not the lining."
"I found the lining!" cried Kaoru, lifting an ivory satin and wiggling it like a flag. "Oh, feel it."
There was a moment of silent contemplation, until Kaoru reached out and rubbed it on Hikaru's face. It would have turned into a scuffle had Sharpay not caught the swatch and run it through her fingers. "I don't know," she began, chewing the inside of her lip.
"What don't you know?" asked Hikaru.
"We need to sleep on it," said Kaoru, nodding already. "Instincts are important, but they might be dull because it's," he glanced at his watch. "Late."
Sharpay looked down at her own. It was Saturday. She rubbed her forehead. "Yes."
"We need a model, too, before we start cutting," said Hikaru, tilting his head to the side. "And one who can stand up to Sharpay in that white dress, too."
Sharpay snorted. "Or I could wear it."
"You model?" asked Hikaru, his eyebrows drawing together.
She pursed her lips and waved a hand. "I've done it before, for friends, yes. Between shows. I've even been an artist's model, but no nude work." She tossed her hair. "You don't want to trust this project to an amateur, trust me, and I'll always be around for fittings. And it'll pad my portfolio."
Kaoru was giving her a look. It was a downstairs-brain sort of look, like someone had sent a runner upstairs to tell them to switch shifts. She raised an eyebrow at him, and he fell back, tucking an arm around Hikaru. "That it will," he agreed.
"Alright, fine, that's decided," she said, putting her hands on her hips. "But I don't want to have to wait longer than a day to decide. Ideas get cold too quickly if you don't act on them."
"If you don't mind giving up your weekend, neither do we," said Kaoru.
Hikaru held up the measuring tape and grinned, looking rather silly. "We can do the measurements and pick the lining fabric."
Sharpay did a bit of math. "I'll be here at nine-thirty then," she said, giving them a Cheshire Cat smile of her own.
Hikaru's face fell as Kaoru, quite diplomatically, said, "Someone will let you in."
"Perfect," replied Sharpay. And shouldered her purse. "Get some sleep, boys. Tomorrow we'll start to knock it out."
For her sixteenth birthday, her parents had gotten her a car. It was a hot pink convertible with her initials painted on the hood, and it was perfect for a teenage girl in Albuquerque. New York wasn't so accommodating, with a parking space running at the same rate as her rent, sometimes higher, and she had made the hard decision to leave it behind, just as she'd had to leave Boi. While she knew her beautiful baby was happy in the arms of one of her housewife aunts, she shuddered to think what had become of her car and its glorious paint job.
Since then, she'd acquired the Prius, getting into the California Spirit. It was certainly a pretty little thing, silver and sparkling, and it not only had more room on the inside than she'd expected, it had cup holders. Even the seats were deep enough to protect a coffee shop carrying tray and attendant bag of bagels from the particularly exciting sharp turn she had to make to get into the condo complex.
At nine-thirty on Saturday morning, she tapped the buzzer to the twins' condo with her elbow, waited through the State Your Name speech, and chirped, "It's Sharpay. I have breakfast."
When the door opened, a woman in black stepped quickly forward. "I'm terribly sorry, miss, but the masters are still in bed. If you'd like to wait-"
Sharpay cut her off with a smile and an impressive balancing act as she held out her purse, but kept a hold on the coffee and bagels. "Which room?"
The maid took her purse out of pure reflex, and spoke with a speed she obviously found disquieting. Sharpay spoke the same authoritative language the twins used and her reactions were nearly involuntary. "At the end of the hall, miss."
Sharpay beamed. "Thank you." She turned with a flounce, heading down the hall. There were two rooms at the end of it, but one door was closed, the other open. She tested the knob of the closed door and it swung open to reveal a rather sparse, surprisingly clean bedroom. Two shirts were in a crumpled heap on the floor, a vase of lilies stood in the window, and various pictures of actual people, sometimes with the twins themselves in, hung on the walls.
The boys, however, were dead asleep in bed, Kaoru with his head tucked under Hikaru's jaw, their bodies a tangled mess of limbs. Hikaru was drooling on Kaoru's hair, Kaoru's fingers laid gently on the back of Hikaru's neck. There was a fading bruise at the far end of Hikaru's collarbone. They'd tossed the bedsheets off in the night, somewhere, and were barefoot, but even their pajama pants were color coordinated.
It occurred to Sharpay in that moment that sometimes playing a part so extravagantly that it couldn't be realistic often hid the fact that the truth mirrored the farce. She stood, frozen with shock, the image burning into her head. She should have known, shouldn't she? But who would assume it, especially with the ridiculous way they talked to each other - she should have known.
They certainly were lovely. And she knew, beyond a doubt, she hadn't misinterpreted the hunger in the way they had both looked at her. Boys were boys, and she'd never met one that was one hundred percent anything, straight, gay, whatever.
It was with this thought that she stepped right into the potential emotional minefield with a singsong, "Good morning, cuties!"
She set the bag of bagels down on the bedside table as Hikaru winced, groaned, and appeared to try to ignore her by squeezing Kaoru very tightly. Kaoru grunted, opened one eye, and watched her for a moment.
His voice was sleep-rough. "Good morning, Sharpay-chan."
Sharpay grinned at him, swinging the little coffee holder. "Look who brought coffee."
Hikaru looked over his shoulder, giving her an identical one-eyed stare. "Do we have to get dressed first?" he asked with a healthy wariness.
She snorted. "I don't care. Now get your cute little ass out of bed so we can get to work." Buoyed by this, she gave his butt a resounding smack and scooped up the bag of bagels.
Hikaru squawked, and Kaoru groaned, rubbing his face against the pillow. He ran a hand through his hair, found the wet spot, wiped his hand on the sheet. "A sip before standing."
"Two," amended Hikaru. He sat up, yawning hugely, and Kaoru used him as a handhold to sit as well.
"I'll let you smell it," murmured Sharpay, wiggling a cup before him.
Hikaru whined like a puppy. Kaoru tucked his arms around him and gave her a narrow look. "It's not fair to play games when we're not at our best. Hikaru has a tendency to tackle."
"And risk spilling it?" she asked, eyebrow raised. "I think not."
"Would too," mumbled Hikaru, hunching. But as Sharpay moved forward, lifting a cup free of the holder, he sat up a little straighter and caught her wrist. He guided her hand to first press the cup against his forehead.
He looked so pathetic she said, "Oh, alright, one sip each." Hikaru looked up at her, half-smiled, and guided her hand again, bringing the cup to his lips. He sagged a little with the first taste, and passed Sharpay's wrist to Kaoru.
When they'd both had a bit, she pulled the cup back slowly, luring. "Up. I'll meet you in the kitchen." She turned, smiling over her shoulder, then walked away. She had the feeling they'd follow no matter where she led them, which was exactly the point.
Sharpay made herself perfectly comfortable in the kitchen, telling their cook to take a break. She'd mastered the toaster oven and the flatware by the time the twins, rumpled and still in their pajamas, stumbled in. Hikaru pounced on the coffee and Kaoru, who had been leaning on him, followed by dint of gravity.
When they'd gotten long drinks, Hikaru deadpanned, "There is a reason we pay other people to work here, you know."
She followed his line of sight to the toaster oven, then turned back and pouted, looking at him through her bangs. "And let them burn my sun dried tomato and basil bagel? I don't think so." She reached out and rattled the bag. "Pick which ones you want, I got about a million kinds."
Hikaru toddled up to the bag and, after a bit of digging, pulled out two. He handed one to Kaoru, and went to cut the other.
Dryly, just before he had a bite of uncut, untoasted cinnamon raisin bagel, Kaoru said, "It's good to know you have faith in the sort of people we'd hire."
"I'm very particular about my bagels." She watched him take a bite, then sighed. "You want me to take care of that?"
"Take care of what?" asked Kaoru, looking nonplussed.
"You're just going to eat it like that?" she asked.
Kaoru paused. Then huffed. "Yes. I like it this way."
Hikaru, having found the peanut butter, offered helpfully, "He's weird."
Sharpay could only agree. She pulled her bagel out of the toaster oven, slathered it in cream cheese, and had a bite. Carbohydrates, those rare, precious indulgences, made her sigh more deeply than coffee ever could. Her addictions had nothing to do with caffeine. She leaned against the counter, chewing with her eyes closed. Beside her, Hikaru went after the peanut butter on his bagel with similar gusto.
From across the kitchen, Kaoru sighed softly. He had a long sip of coffee, and picked at his bagel while the other two finished, then crossed the open space to catch Hikaru by the chin. He licked his thumb, then dragged it over Hikaru's lips, his expression one of little more than exasperation. He licked his thumb clean, moved to Sharpay, and repeated the motion, except. He used the back of his index finger and moved with more tenderness. And looked right into her eyes as she let him.
With every affectation of boredom, Kaoru just said, "You two are sloppy."
Sharpay wrinkled her nose, sucking her lower lip into her mouth. "No, just hurried. I forgot the napkins."
Kaoru grinned then, nibbling on the side of his own thumb. "Huh. Well, that's no excuse for Hikaru. He knows where they are."
Hikaru, without speaking, grabbed Kaoru's other hand and wiped the back of it over his mouth. Kaoru laughed and smacked him.
Sharpay rolled her eyes. "Right. Can we get to work, now?"
Hikaru grinned, and tucked an arm around her. Kaoru followed suit just a moment later, as around her they said, "Mmhm."
And, perhaps contrary to her instincts, that was exactly what they did.
Chapter 3: Conflict Resolution
Ryan sings. There is a fight. There is an understanding. Professor Pestor docks their final grade.
The day had been going reasonably well, all things considered. They'd measured Sharpay, run about finding fabrics in the twins' massive stores, fought over buttons and finally decided on a lining. Kaoru had, at one point, given up on being productive and convinced Sharpay to let him braid her hair, a practice at which he was surprisingly gentle and quite adept. Hikaru decided that wasn't fair and Kaoru had to soothe him with ice cream after lunch, the homemade kind with fresh blueberries and peaches. Sharpay hadn't minded.
When they actually started working, however, the twins fell silent. They cut fabric, pinned fabric, passed tools to one another without saying a word. Sharpay could see that they were attuned to each other, their movements even and well-balanced. But she could feel herself being shut out. So, the next time Hikaru passed a piece of chalk to Kaoru, she reached out and caught it.
"Hi, I'm here too," she said, raising an eyebrow.
After a pause, both of them realized, and ducked their heads. "Sorry," said Hikaru. "It's kind of a twin thing, I guess."
"We've always been in our own little world," agreed Kaoru, waving a finger in the air. "Talking without talking."
"It's the kind of bond you can't make without being born into it. We forget other people don't have it. We'll be better," said Hikaru, nodding. But both of them wore expressions of faint pity, enough that she set her jaw and lifted her chin. What would they know about twins anyway?
"You still need to talk to me."
Kaoru squeezed her hand. "You're right. Sorry, Sharpay-chan."
She huffed, and moved to sit between them. Hikaru leaned closer. "You're either an older sister or an only child, aren't you?"
"No, actually," she said evenly, managing to smile a sweet little smile.
He raised an eyebrow. "Younger?"
Kaoru laughed. "Any older sibling would have to be a practice run. Our Sharpay-chan is not a draft."
Sharpay turned a pattern marker over in her fingers. "Not that either," she murmured thoughtfully, not looking up.
Dryly, Hikaru said, "Middle child. Really? You don't seem the type."
"Oh, hardly," scoffed Sharpay. She looked over at him, then, and smiled, so sweet and serene she could have been in a commercial. "We're twins."
The clatter of Hikaru's pencil as it hit the ground was the only noise to break the ensuing shocked silence. The noise of it spurred Kaoru into action. He caught both of her shoulders in his hands, squeezed, and looked down into her eyes. "Oh, baby," he said softly. "Where- how-"
Calmly, so calmly, she said, "He's in New York." She was impressed with the evenness of her tone. She would not cry over Ryan, not when she'd been so damn' good about it for ages. It had been two whole weeks!
Hikaru was behind her, then, tucking his arms around her. "We're so sorry," he said softly.
"Tell us about him?" asked Kaoru, looking down at her with the most honest empathy his evil features had ever displayed.
"He's an actor. A fantastic one." She swallowed, standing straight up. Sharpay refused to lean on anyone, especially not these two, because then they might think she was soft. Which wasn't true even if she did miss her brother so much it made her feel like a child sometimes. "I'm going to visit him on break-"
"But that's still weeks away!" cried Hikaru, his voice tinged with horror. They both pressed closer, compensating for her posture with an encompassing bear hug.
Helper Twin murmured, "Tell us more?"
She sighed. As though she were doing them a favor, she said, "He's my brother. He's taller, and doofier, and he has a weakness for bad hats. I mean really bad hats, with flowers and neon accent piping and- and otherwise he dresses so well I feel like I just got all of the good genes for dressing from the neck up. He has good taste, and good posture. But sometimes he forgets to employ both of them, especially around boys. He has weird taste in men." She shook her head, swallowing. "And he's the nicest, most self-sacrificing person I know. And he's dyslexic about numbers, and he can't cook to save his life, and. And he can dance like Gene Kelly when he puts his mind to it, without looking down, even if it is a jazz square more often than not. He's doing musicals, you know, moving up from background characters to lead roles. He was Jack in Into the Woods in the fall. I've got the recording."
Hikaru's hands tightened. "Can we hear it?"
"It's only a burned copy," she offered gracefully, shrugging. She didn't suddenly crave the sound of Ryan's voice just then, not at all.
"We don't mind," murmured Kaoru.
Sharpay paused, sighed, and finally softened enough to rest one hand over Hikaru's where it pressed against her ribs. "It's in my purse."
"I'll get it," said Kaoru, stepping back after kissing the top of her head.
Hikaru guided her, gently, into motion. "Let's go sit, okay?"
Sharpay, feeling light and shaky at once, let herself be led. She settled onto the sofa in the next room, finding herself unsurprised by how well she fit under Hikaru's arm. It was natural, the way he cuddled up to her, his height providing a cozy protection. Kaoru, with a minimum of rummaging, found the CD and set up the stereo, sinking onto the sofa on her other side as the first orchestra hit sounded.
Sharpay did her best not to sigh, but the sofa was soft and the boys were warm and she missed Ryan. When his voice finally came in, she closed her eyes and just listened. This was Ryan, all Ryan, and the sound of him still soared. Plus that, the stupid musical always made her feel mushy on the inside, and her brother only made it worse.
The boys were silent until the applause. Hikaru put his nose in her hair, and Kaoru held her against his chest, and together they said, "He's good."
"Of course he is," she said, huffing. "He's my brother."
They laughed, soft and warm. "Of course," said Hikaru.
As the musical progressed, they cuddled closer, no snark, no silliness, no irony. Sharpay listened with her eyes closed, aware of the movements but only dimly. It wasn't until the end of act one that she blinked and realized she had been maneuvered into their collective lap. But it wasn't insulting. They'd been quiet, had listened and let her focus on the music and that was better than any sympathy or coddling. She rested her head on Kaoru's shoulder, her hands over Hikaru's where they laced over her hip, and listened.
She totally didn't cry either, not until "No One Is Alone", but everybody cried at that point if they hadn't already. She had waterproof mascara, so her eyes only glistened a bit more brightly than usual before she could swallow it down. She was proud of herself for making it through "Giants in the Sky" this time, too, though she had to scrunch her eyes shut to make it.
There was a time when, hearing a musical soundtrack, she would itch to sing along, or take over the lead role, imagining herself as the Witch, or as Cinderella. Then, as she matured, perhaps the Baker's Wife would be more appealing. But this one, with Ryan's voice as clear as a bell, just drained her with missing him. She'd thought, when she'd first headed for New York, that she needed independence. It was true, but the price she paid for it didn't reveal itself until she realized, the day after she'd stood in her empty apartment waiting for the furniture movers, that she had nobody to talk to about it, and she only wanted to talk to Ryan.
In the end, he'd come to stay with her, as she'd desperately hoped he would. Once in the New York theater scene, he blossomed more fully than she did, finding his own group of friends, joining an improv group, working on choreography every spare moment he got. When she'd realized she needed to move on, Ryan had found his own place to be, and hadn't followed. It had been a hard decision, but she'd told Ryan he had better beat the pants off of anyone in his way, that nice-guy act only worth the people he used it on.
He'd laughed and gone with her to the airport at four in the morning to see her off, even. That was Ryan. Her stupid, wonderful million-miles-away other-half twin brother.
The CD had finished. It was silent, but the twins hadn't moved, hadn't spoken. She wondered how long it had been, and when she sighed she realized it was a little shakier than she'd intended.
She cleared her throat. "I. I don't know if I'm feeling very inspired right now."
"We have all semester," said Hikaru softly, petting with his thumb.
Kaoru laid his chin on the top of her head. "Do you want to spend the evening in, Sharpay-chan?"
"Here 'in'?" she asked, caution rearing its head.
To their credit, they neither shifted their hold nor let go. "Or somewhere else, if you don't like this sofa," murmured Hikaru.
Kaoru hummed. "We're comfortable here, but we'll move if you like."
She clicked her tongue. "Of course you are." After a moment, she sighed, thoughtfully biting her lip. "But I could use a new pair of sunglasses. And then a cupcake," she added. It was an admission, but they'd been good and deserved a bit of gratitude. And she needed to get moving to calm her nerves. She didn't think she could just sit on that couch all day but... but maybe when they came back, a bit more cuddling with cupcakes couldn't hurt.
They hummed in unison. "Retail therapy," they murmured in agreement. "Did you want to drive, Sharpay-chan?" asked Hikaru.
"I will let you take me," she said graciously, lifting her chin.
"Thank you, Sharpay-chan," said Kaoru, smiling into her hair. Gently, they disentangled themselves and held out their hands.
As graceful as the dancer she was, Sharpay took their hands and let them help her rise to her feet. She didn't quite remember when her heels had slipped off, but she held their hands as she stepped back into them. "Thank you."
They smiled down her in unison. As they walked beside her to the garage, Kaoru said, "Would you mind letting us have a copy of that soundtrack?"
She lifted her nose. "I would, in fact. You ought to purchase it from the playhouse, like everyone else. I just burned a copy so my original wouldn't get damaged." She looked over and smiled a little, patting his arm consolingly. "But I'll tell you who to call."
The ensuing days were nice. Sweet, even. The twins started sitting on either side of her in class, too, platonic and respectful, but providing a bubble of protection. They took notes together, though sometimes the corners of Sharpay's notebook were so filled with doodles she had to make the both of them sit on their hands so she could get some actual work in. On Friday nights, instead of going out, they all stayed in at the Hitachiin condo, working late into the night. And she always drove herself home, and came back with breakfast or, in a few cases where the distinction was quite important, lunch.
The war never quite ended, but it was different. She liked them. They liked her. It was comfortable, and genuine, and often they meshed so well creatively that it felt like they fit.
Which meant that the fight, the real fight, the big one, shook them all to their cores. Hikaru was bent over a seam ripper, cutting stitches for the hundredth time, his teeth clenched together. Kaoru, by the window, was watching, his mouth carefully closed, his hands busy with coiling the cord on the iron.
Sharpay was across the room, vibrating, her shoulders shaking and her posture so straight. She'd only told the truth, had only ever told the truth. But the boys had been equally unsparing, and she'd taken on the burden of the hand stitching. Somewhere between the button holes and the buttons themselves, they'd lost it, fighting down personal attacks and only pressed deeper into personal rages.
Kaoru's fires had faded some time before, and his position as spectator was only thinly veiled. He'd been messing with the iron for fifteen minutes.
She took a slow, calming breath, but her voice still came out with that tremor that threatened tears. "Next time you should just let me do the stupid buttons."
Hikaru hissed, slamming the seam ripper down with a flat hand as he pushed himself up. "The. Buttons. Are. Fine."
She didn't want to fight. Sharpay didn't like fighting, not with the people she'd come to think of as her only friends here, not when they were already exhausted and she only had one week left before break to go see Ryan. But Hikaru looked menacing, and she would be damned if she would let some stupid boy intimidate her just because he was bigger. She bared her teeth, leaning forward. "If you want us to fail, sure! They're fine!"
Hikaru narrowed his eyes. "If the lining on the sleeves doesn't fail us first."
She stared, her shock showing in the way her jaw dropped. Then she sneered, "Are you blaming me because you fell in love with kitschy paisley satin?"
In the intake of breath, she could see Hikaru's posture had changed. His shoulders had dropped, and he just barely breathed it when he said, "Bitch."
Then, he lunged. It was the kind of full-body tackle Kaoru had always threatened him capable of, pulling Sharpay to him hard and catching her by a fistful of her hair and kissing her so hard she felt his teeth dig into her lip. She squeaked furiously, grabbing his shoulders and digging her nails in, ready to push him away and wreck him when she realized. Realized he was kissing her, because he knew.
He pulled back, breathless and rough, saying, "Don't lie. You loved it too. You made Kaoru buy fifteen extra yards when you thought I wasn't around but he-"
She grimaced, then smacked him, good and hard, so it resounded and his face turned away and his cheek went white before it went red. She waited for him to look at her again and held him tightly by the chin. "If you ever call me a bitch again, it'll be the last thing you ever say with your own teeth, Hikaru."
He gritted his teeth, but she held his chin tightly. "And if you think you're going to get away with kissing me, you had better do it right."
"Do I get a chance?" he asked after a moment, his cheek already gone a brilliant pink. His hand hadn't left her hair, hadn't even pulled when she'd hit him. The other, in the center of her back, moved slowly down her spine, fingers spreading.
Sharpay growled, and pulled him down. If he thought he was going to run her over, he had another thing coming. And, after a few moments, it appeared he actually got the idea, too. It was messy, and breathless, and passionate, their resolution. She hadn't forgotten what they were fighting over, but it mattered less with Hikaru's hands on her, his mouth on hers, and that little sound he made that sounded like he hadn't forgotten the fight either but kissing was more important. Doing it right was more important.
About the time she started actually getting lightheaded, the press of her body against his turning into something too close to a request for support than she liked, Hikaru pulled back. He was panting, his eyelids heavy, his hands moving to her hips. She glared up at him, daring him to make fun of her for liking it. And for that matter, she paused to check and make sure the idiot hadn't ruined her truly perfect hair, her spine straightening as she ran a hand through it.
Hikaru swallowed, started to lean toward her again, when Kaoru said, "Hikaru." It stopped him, and he turned as if he'd forgotten the audience.
Sharpay glanced between them, then settled her gaze on Kaoru. He'd always looked the hungriest, and it. It hadn't changed. She bit her lip, fighting through her indecision, and said, "Well?"
Kaoru half-smiled, crossing the room from the window, maintaining eye contact. Hikaru moved back out of the way without a word, and the only warning Kaoru gave was the briefest flash of a grin before he dipped her. Sharpay gave a little cry, her mouth widening in surprise, and she caught his shoulders for balance. But she realized, very quickly, that a skinny little boy holding up a skinny little girl was surprisingly stable. Before she could start laughing, Kaoru pressed his lips to hers, pulling her back up to her feet. His movements were slow, warm, soft. Where Hikaru had been nearly an attack, Kaoru was a question, working up to full strength.
Of course, thought Sharpay. Of course the both of them would be fabulous kissers. It only made sense. It only made sense to feel Hikaru's chest at her back and the tickle of his breath behind her ear-
She realized only an instant later that both she and Kaoru had caught Hikaru by the hair to stop him. Kaoru broke the moment by starting to laugh, and pulling Sharpay that much closer to him. "I'm sorry, Sharpay-chan," he murmured, "that my brother is so incorrigibly rude sometimes."
"He-ey," whined Hikaru, stuck bent over in their collective grip. "That's not fair!"
"Not fair is not letting me finish. I was so gracious," murmured Kaoru, his grin baring teeth.
Sharpay thought, quite clearly, boys. It had been an obscure, unacknowledged worry of hers, ever since she'd realized Hikaru had been in earnest. Things like this only happened in stupid romance movies, right? There was no way she'd be part of a triangle if she could help it. She ducked out of both of their hold and said, "Not if you two are going to fight."
It was Hikaru who started laughing first. The two of them nearly collapsed, holding on to each other and laughing with their heads bowed forward. Kaoru started to hiccup, and Hikaru had to sit down on a work table.
Sharpay put her fists on her hips. While it was relieved, she still didn't see the point of the extent of their laughter. They didn't need to be snotty about it, really. It was rubbing it in.
It was finally Kaoru who said, "But Sharpay-chan, it's so much more fun. Look, Hikaru, even if she needs to go slow, you can always use mine."
There was, in the immediate tension that followed that statement, a flicker of doubt on Hikaru. He glanced over at Sharpay, then hummed and kissed Kaoru's throat below his ear, saying, "Hm." Kaoru watched her, his expression a dare and invitation at once.
Even though she'd been expecting it, it sent a flutter through her belly. Somehow she'd almost wanted it to be weirder than it was. But, at the end of the day, they would still be themselves, with or without her, and nobody moved on from Sharpay. She raised an eyebrow at him. "Fighting in a relationship is only fun if you want to be a brat."
Hikaru snorted, straightening up again. "You've nailed him, Sharpay-chan."
"Ch," said Kaoru, shrugging and tilting his head away.
She huffed, shaking herself out a little. "So. It's nearly two in the morning, if I'm not mistaken. Are we going to keep working tonight?"
The twins looked shifty. Sharpay sighed. "Okay, focus broken. And I don't know about you, but I'm tired. Really, really, ridiculously tired. So I'm going to go home and go to bed."
"If you're that tired, you shouldn't drive yourself," said Hikaru, finding his words first.
She smiled. "I'm not tired enough to sleep yet," she said, and Kaoru snorted. Sharpay straightened the cuffs on her sleeves and said, "Be good boys and kiss me goodnight. I'll come back with... lunch. In the morning."
"Afternoon," said Hikaru, and Kaoru murmured, "Uh huh," in agreement. Obviously one of them had given up on syllables for the evening. She got two kisses at the corners of her mouth for her trouble, which was, she'd realized, just the way to leave it.
She gathered up her purse and left them at the door, walking down to her car in the bracing chill. In Albuquerque, the sky turned black at night. In LA, dark gray was the best she ever got. Somehow, the thicker air helped cool her down enough to focus on the drive home.
In twenty minutes, Ryan would be getting up in New York city to go on his morning run, then take a shower and have a bowl of granola over yogurt with blueberries. Just like every day, even weekends. If she disturbed him then, it'd throw off his workout and make the rest of his day feel a poor fit.
She decided, as she sank into bed, that she'd tell him later. Somehow she didn't think she was going to take too much teasing very well, at least not until she'd finished Pestor's class.
Sharpay took it as a good sign any time Hikaru started to vibrate. Though she, alphabetically, was the first on the grading sheet and therefore the one who received it, Hikaru had snatched it out of her hands in his absolute excitement and buried his face in it. And then had started wiggling.
"Well?" she said, as Kaoru leaned up against her to get a better look. Hikaru turned the paper with the sort of grin cats wore when well-fed from questionable means. Kaoru crowed.
"Ninety-nine!" he crowed. But Sharpay took the paper in her hands and frowned.
"That means something marked us down. I want to know what it - oh." She squinted to read Pestor's handwriting at the bottom of the sheet. "Oh, for heaven's sake."
"Speaking in unison," read Kaoru, "makes a presentation feel overly rehearsed."
"It's not like we do it on purpose!" cried Hikaru, his expression falling.
Sharpay patted Hikaru's arm. "It's a sign of a lack of vision. I personally think it's darling, and this is just the first sign of his growing inability to change with the times. It's an unfortunate downward spiral that will eventually make his sense of style obsolete, but it happens to the other ninety-nine percent."
Kaoru wrinkled his nose, even as Hikaru took heart. "That's so sad," he said. The three of them cast identical baleful looks at the closed door to the lecture hall.
Sharpay sighed and turned smartly on her heel. "Well, at least we can put that behind us."
"That brings me to a question, Sharpay-chan," said Hikaru, stepping out front to block her.
Kaoru linked arms with him. "How do you plan to spend your Fridays?"
She looked from Hikaru to Kaoru, then rolled her eyes. "You owe me three seasons of Project Runway." She brushed past them, walking with her head up. Only when they caught up, kissing her cheeks, she added, "And it's your turn to host dinner anyway."
When they said, "We know," she thought it might be love. Ryan was on quarters, and still had three weeks left of school. She'd have to bring him in for outside consultation when he was done with his finals. Until then, she was content to remain undecided in their arms.