When the party was safely under swing, Kyouya took up position at a vantage-point overlooking the hall and took count.
The Hitachiin were toying lazily with a prospective client for their fashion boutique, a twin hanging over each anorexic shoulder. Honey and Mori were hovering around the chocolate fountain. That had perhaps been a bad idea. Honey would need at least two changes of clothes before the night was through. Kyouya would have to remind the help to be at hand with replacements for Honey's tuxedo -- he kept a tailored wardrobe for each of the former members of the defunct Host Club, with clothes in every style and of every degree of formality. Haruhi would doubtless have been amazed by the five palatial walk-in closets maintained for people who didn't even live in the house, had she been aware of them, but they had proved useful before.
Tamaki was entertaining a group of young ladies, quite unconscious that a boost in investments in the Ootori Group was bound to ensue as a result. Kyouya allowed himself a smile, and looked around for Haruhi.
It was the first gathering of this sort that she was attending. Kyouya had believed it best to insist on her coming, though Tamaki had dissuaded him, citing, among others, "the tentative, fawn-like awkwardness of the novice flung in the midst of the crème of the aristocracy", as well as "the commoners' pain at seeing the luxury they can never sample".
Kyouya pointed out that Haruhi could now sample any kind of luxury she could think of, at any time she wanted.
"Mother! Do not be cruel to our young, innocent daughter!" Kyouya wondered if the Suou family had the knees of Tamaki's trousers reinforced, or if they just bought new pairs whenever they wore out. Probably the latter. A household competently but wastefully run.
"Think of her," said Tamaki, "lost amongst those with whom she shares no common interests -- no commoners' interests -- forced to resort to lingering at the buffet table just to have something to do with her hands, striving to maintain an appearance of happiness as inside her heart bleeds with loneliness, with the awareness that she does not fit in -- "
"Haruhi has managed perfectly well at the Ouran parties, and this will be attended by much the same people," said Kyouya. "Some of the guests, I grant you, will be different."
"And that! That will make all the difference!"
"They will be taller than they were at school," said Kyouya.
"How can you ignore Haruhi's anguish so heartlessly? You, who put that sacred ring on her finger, who promised to love and protect her all your life; to clone yourself so that future Kyouyas, equally handsome and determined, could protect her in case you, the original, should die prematurely; to extract your respective DNAs and mingle them in the cement that would be used to form a massive statue of the two of you wrapt in passionate embrace, as an eternal albeit aesthetically offensive monument to your love -- "
"We didn't actually use the wedding vows you wrote for us, if you recall," said Kyouya.
Tamaki clutched at his chest, stricken.
"You didn't whisper them silently in your heart?"
"But then what was the magical buzzing, almost too low for the human ear to detect, I heard on that epochal day? It crept into my own heart, enchanting my senses, telling me that yes, no obstacle could come in the way of love when it was thus preordained -- "
"That was my cousin Akane's cellular phone," said Kyouya.
"I have no wish to make Haruhi uncomfortable," said Kyouya. "I will let her know that it would please me very much if she attended the party, but the decision is up to her."
"She will say yes!" wailed Tamaki. "Her generosity of nature will not permit her to give any other answer!" He paused. "And she has no excuse; she'll be on leave from the agency that day!"
"Oh? I really hadn't realised," said Kyouya. "What exactly do you want me to do to make the party a less, ah, anguished experience for Haruhi?"
Tamaki stopped to think. It looked painful.
"An ootoro table?" he suggested.
"We will have sufficient ootoro, even with Haruhi there," said Kyouya, but it was a good thing Tamaki had brought it up. He reminded himself to have industrial amounts ordered in, just in case. Haruhi's appetite had not diminished since she had left school. "Anything else?"
Tamaki brightened. "Ah!"
Kyouya had offered no objection to Tamaki's next suggestion, though he had secretly harboured doubts as to how successful it would be. His fears had not materialised -- Arai-kun seemed to be having a good time, though he looked out of place in his rented dinner jacket. He was chatting with the Deputy Minister of Agriculture about his grocery, with an unaffected ease that impressed Kyouya. A natural, he noted out of habit.
Still, where was Haruhi? A quiet word to Arai was no help: she had left him after introducing him to the Deputy Minister and seeing that he was comfortable. The twins shrugged in tandem. Honey suggested a cake break, which hypothesis Mori supported with a grunt. Kyouya was just going to essay an attempt to get through the crowd around Tamaki when he caught sight of the black-and-white checks Haruhi was wearing. She was slipping quietly out of the room through one of the many flower-wreathed exits, this one leading to a balcony.
Kyouya followed her. He found Haruhi with her elbows on the marble railing, looking up at the night sky. She was in an asymmetrical monochromatic gown that was one of the twins' first designs. It was silk, severely-cut, dramatically simple, and it was odd to see Haruhi's head emerging from an outfit so pointedly sleek and aggressive, when for years they and her father had dressed her in lace and tulle.
"Do you feel strange?" said Kyouya. His eyes followed the line of her back. She was slouching a little, even after the rigorous training in correct posture they had all given her. He wondered if he dared bring it up, then Haruhi turned her head to look at him, her eyes gleaming cat-like in the glow of light from the party indoors.
He decided he didn't really care.
"Why?" said Haruhi.
"You look different." He could spare some time away from the guests. It was only a fortnight since the honeymoon, and he had scarcely been alone with Haruhi since then. Kyouya put his hands in his pockets and joined her by the railing.
Haruhi looked down at herself, surprised.
"It's only a dress like the twins always make me wear," she said.
"A little different in style," said Kyouya. He looked at her bemused face. "It's not pink."
It was a detail she could grasp, but all the same it was clearly lost on her. Haruhi shrugged.
"No matter what colour it is, their purpose is the same," she said. "They're just telling a different story about me now."
"Ah," said Kyouya. It made sense that Haruhi understood fashion so well despite not understanding it in the least. "And what story is that?"
Haruhi rested her chin on her fists.
"Now what did they say? Oh, that I'm a lawyer now. I gave up a partnership at a successful law firm to work at a domestic abuse agency. I'm a New Woman who is -- " she counted it off on her fingers -- "ambitious, driven, confident -- what was the fourth word?"
"Married?" Kyouya suggested.
"No, that wasn't it," said Haruhi, utterly without malice. "I can't remember it. -- Anyway, they don't want me to be pretty anymore."
Kyouya blinked. "What do they want you to be now?"
Haruhi thought about it.
"Kaoru cares less," she said. "But Hikaru ... I think. Inaccessible."
She seemed sad.
"Ah," said Kyouya.
Somehow his hand had ended up in hers. Kyouya found himself grateful that this new outfit of hers didn't come with gloves. Haruhi's palm was warm. He could feel her writing calluses against his own skin, and it struck him that he couldn't remember the last time they had shared a bed. Last week, it might have been. In catching up with the work that had piled up during the honeymoon, he'd barely been able to afford to stagger from the desk to the sofa in his office and snatch a few hours' worth of sleep every night.
"He's not angry at you," he said. "Even Tamaki ... "
But that was unfair. Tamaki had taken it surprisingly well, but then maybe Kyouya should have expected that. Tamaki turned everything that happened to him into gold. It was by way of being a hobby of his.
"I know," said Haruhi.
"Things should slow down after the next week," said Kyouya. "I'll have more time."
"I won't," said Haruhi serenely. "The agency's understaffed. We're going to a university next weekend to recruit."
"That will help, I assume," said Kyouya.
"We're not in an attractive location," said Haruhi. Kyouya had to agree. So did the covert team of bodyguards he had posted around Haruhi's workplace.
"And the pay is relatively low," she continued. "But people will want to help when they hear what we're doing."
"Which university is this?" said Kyouya. He made a mental note to tell the head of the family's personal guard to plant a few operatives in the crowd, to offer better incentives to the students than Haruhi's agency would be able to afford. He had slightly less faith in the altruism of the average law student than Haruhi.
They were silent for a while. The moon was nowhere to be seen, but the stars made its presence unnecessary. Tamaki would have compared them to a spray of diamonds on dusky velvet, but Kyouya made it his business to know the relative values of things, and it would cheapen starlight to equate the stars with coal.
"Shouldn't we be going back to the party?" said Haruhi. She didn't sound very enthused at the prospect. Kyouya raised his head.
"You're not enjoying yourself?"
"It's all right," she said.
"This sort of thing is necessary to grease the wheels of business," said Kyouya. "But you don't have to attend any of the others unless you want to."
"I didn't mean -- "
"I do," said Kyouya. Tamaki's proposed wedding vows had included a promise to 'keep my beloved Haruhi in a state of ecstatic content in between the stratospheric highs of euphoria that will comprise the best part of my wedded life'. Kyouya didn't think anybody could make Haruhi happy except herself, but marriage was a deal like any other, and he'd contracted to do his best to help.
Haruhi wavered. "Doesn't your wife need to be present for these occasions?"
"My wife has a life of her own," said Kyouya. It was the 76th time he had used the title to describe Haruhi. Besides some newly-acquired civil rights and a debit of millions in his bank balance, it made no difference, of course.
It was the first time Haruhi had said it.
"Kyouya," said Haruhi. She waited until he turned to look at her. "Why did you marry me?"
Love perpetuates cliché.
"Because I wanted to," he said honestly.
When he'd first seen Haruhi without her glasses on, the beauty of her eyes had struck him, the way real beauty always stuns the observer at first sight. The years had worn the effect thin. Now they were just a part of Haruhi. He had their striking colour and limpid quality catalogued, the grave innocence of their gaze labelled as a marketable commodity, the length of their lashes noted as a product like any other he could turn to his profit -- but when he looked into them himself, he only saw Haruhi, the one thing he couldn't sell.
Not without breaking several laws, endangering the family reputation and being exiled from the hymeneal bed to spend his nights in one of the several guest bedrooms for the rest of his life, that is.
She was waiting.
"I wanted to marry you," said Kyouya. "And not only because it would amuse me."
Haruhi seemed to accept this. She smiled.
"Haruhi," said Kyouya.
"Why did you marry me?"
Haruhi fell into her thinking pose again, holding her chin. "I think. Hmm, how do I say this? It could be -- well, no, that's not quite it. I wonder ... "
"You are going to come out with something appallingly blunt, aren't you."
"Ah!" said Haruhi, not listening. She looked up at Kyouya, completely serious. "It's because you're less annoying than the others."
Kyouya managed not to wince. The amusement helped.
"Fair enough. -- Surprising, though," he said. "I took you for a romantic, Haruhi. Didn't you once say you only believed in marriage for love?"
"Oh," said Haruhi. She had already turned to go, and she spoke in the most casual of tones, as if what she was saying was perfectly obvious: a well-established fact everybody knew. "I did that. I love all of you. You were just the least annoying.
"Imagine being married to Tamaki-senpai," she added absently. "Or Honey-senpai. There was Mori-senpai, but that's the same thing as marrying Honey-senpai, isn't it? There's Hikaru getting himself punched in the face again. I'd better go before Kaoru hospitalises the guests."
"Haruhi," said Kyouya.
Haruhi looked back, half-lost amidst the flowers wreathing the entrance. She drove a 15-year-old rust-coloured (and rusty) Nissan to work, though Kyouya had had the engine sabotaged three times now. Unless he told the servants to lay out specific clothes for her, she wore the same black top and trousers to work every day, and he still hadn't been able to get a definite answer from her on what gender her co-workers thought she was. He suspected the disappearance of half the ootoro from the buffet was on her account. She had never really been afraid of him, and she knew him better than almost anyone else did, but she didn't seem to realise how momentous this was. He was, to her, just like any other person.
It was an insult, of course, but one he'd grown to enjoy.
"Thank you for being my wife," said Kyouya formally.
He half-expected Haruhi to roll her eyes and mutter something about crazy rich people, but she smiled.
"You're welcome," she said.