"So for the next two weeks," Kyouya grins, as though the benefits of winning the game are only just dawning on him, "Haruhi is to be my slave?"
"Ne, Tono, you want five costume changes for the Host Club at the festival?" Hikaru's tone carries a distinct note of grievance, to Kyouya's ear.
"That's thirty-five costumes we'll have to create," Kaoru chimes in, in the same key. "In only three weeks."
"Nowhere near enough time," Hikaru complains.
Tamaki gives every appearance of listening to the brothers, but perhaps fails to hear what's being said. This is not unusual for him.
Kyouya saw them enter the Third Music Room moments ago in familiar formation: Regent Tamaki flanked by his matched pair of Court Jesters. Now Tamaki slides into another role from his repertoire, the one Kyouya thinks of as War General Addressing His Troops.
"No effort is too great for our showing at the festival," he tells them. "The Host Club's public debut must be a triumph of lavish style and ingenuity! No expense must be spared--." From his seat across the room, Kyouya clears his throat meaningfully, and Kaoru interrupts.
"It isn't an issue of effort or expense, Senpai," he says. "Hikaru and I would need at least another month to design that many garments. Never mind the time the seamstresses need to make them."
"Besides that, we have the Class 1-A costumes to do," adds Hikaru.
"And you wouldn't want us to skimp on our designs, would you?" Kaoru asks.
Hikaru fills in with, "Sacrifice quality for quantity?"
"Unthinkable," they say in chorus.
Tamaki deflates in the face of their mutiny. The mutineers turn their backs on him in whispered conference, leaving Tamaki to address the only audience he has left: Kyouya, who was only hoping for a few quiet moments to work before the doors opened to customers.
"Mother, do you hear this news? We're ruined! These Hitachiin have taken other commitments, with no thought to their family's reputation."
"Then we should call the rental company we use for theme days," replies Kyouya. "Although they may be booked with orders from the rest of the school. We might have to be content with whatever they can offer us."
Tamaki gasps as though he'd said something scandalous. "Unthinkable!" echoing the twins' earlier sentiment. Kyouya does not bother mentioning that rented costumes will be considerably easier on the club budget than thirty-five custom garments bearing the Hitachiin Couture label. Tamaki's ability to assimilate practicalities is limited after all, and Kyouya hates wasting his breath.
"The jewel of Ouran High School, in hired costume for the premiere event of the year!" Tamaki declaims. "Are we to simply accept this? It is of course no great sacrifice for myself but Kaoru, Hikaru, think! Would you subject poor Haruhi to this ignominy as well?"
As if summoned by the words, the girl in question enters. The twins' mutterings abruptly cease, as they look first to her, and then to their distraught leader. For a moment, the tableau holds; Tamaki staring at Haruhi, anguished by whatever bizarre drama plays out in his imagination, the twins obviously calculating something and Haruhi, having just walked into the midst of this pregnant pause, looking as if she'd like very much to walk right back out.
"Whatever it is," she says guardedly, eyeing Tamaki, Kaoru, and Hikaru with equal suspicion, "my answer is probably no."
Kyouya, to all appearences absorbed in his notes, privately approves her caution. Smart girl.
Hikaru's head snaps toward Tamaki. "We can do three costume sets, if two of them are uniforms."
"But no period designs, or custom fabrics," Kaoru stipulates. And with that, they dismiss Tamaki and the negotiations, in favor of stalking Haruhi.
Kyouya tunes them all out from there. Something is tugging at his conscience, some detail he ought to remember, and he wants to take a final look at the Club's schedule and designations in case he's missed something. A guest's birthday perhaps, or a food allergy. Something.
Thorough as he is, the detail eludes him until moments before the guests arrive. Until he opens his briefcase to store his folders, and sees it. The card deck, gone untouched all day.
By then it's too late, of course. Examination of the cards, and all the rest of his plans, will have to wait until day's end. For now, the Third Music Room is coming to life with the flutter and hum of more than a dozen eager ladies, the afternoon's first group of customers.
The Host Club is open.
A new complication awaits him at home, as if he didn't have enough complications already. Perhaps this is a new season he didn't know about; the Complicated season, when odd signs and portents flourish. Perhaps his diet needs more calcium, or he needs more sleep.
He stands at the south entrance to the house, key in one hand and briefcase in the other, trying to make sense of what's been left there. It's probably safe for him to inspect, but he takes the route of caution, and rings estate security on his mobile.
"No one saw who left this?" he asks.
"We've reviewed the surveillance tapes, Ootori-san," the man tells him. "But no identification has been made yet."
The paper envelope wedged in the door frame offends him by its very presence, and he glares at it. "I assume an inspection has been done?"
"We examined the paper thoroughly for chemical and biological hazards, but it's clean. It's been replaced exactly as we found it."
"Very well. Thank you for your attention to the matter." He rings off and returns the phone to his pocket.
I don't have time for this, he thinks, snatching the envelope from the door crevice on his way inside.
His first impression of the letter is that it's, well, vulgar:
Withdraw from the salon race, or else!
It's made in the style of a ransom note, each letter cut out individually from a printed source. He is amused that the messenger went to the trouble of proper punctuation but aside from that, the words are too vague and simplistic to lend any consequence to the threat. Withdraw from the salon race, or else what?
Knowing that the entire security team has already seen this message and drawn their own conclusions, he rings the office again.
"Has Master Ootori been notified of this incident?" he asks.
"He is aware that there is a situation we are monitoring," the chief says carefully. Meaning they hadn't bothered Kyouya's father with the details of what was most likely a prank. Good.
"I will take responsibility for oversight in this matter," he tells the chief. Implying that his father's involvement is not at all desireable, and should be avoided regardless of any perceived inconvenience to Kyouya himself. It's only what is expected of him, after all.
With that established, he sets the note at the far left side of his desk, placing it at the end of the evening's priorities. Opening his briefcase, he puts the card deck atop the note as a paperweight, and then organizes the rest of his work in neat stacks from left to right--last priority to first--as always. Then he removes his tie and shoes, leaving them for the valet, and is just hanging his uniform jacket when a subtle knock at his door announces the delivery of tea and refreshments. It is precisely on time.
There are instances when Kyouya nearly chafes under the mechanical predicability of his home life. Times he almost wishes there were more room for invention, spontenaiety, in this place.
Like Tamaki's life, which is nothing more or less than a perpetual whirlwind of spontanous happenings. But he knows Tamaki's life isn't really for him. The boy is an ongoing force of nature, steered into the right channels by sheer luck and the odd flash of his own lopsided brilliance. Kyouya doesn't posses that brand of luck, and likely never will. Instead, he relies upon his ability to manipulate his environment, always looking for a new advantage, and directing all his energy at maintaining the advantages he has.
It seems that the more responsibility he takes on, the more variables and uncertainties he must navigate. And knowing the successes he desires are predicated upon both responsibility and risk, he chooses to appreciate predictability when he finds it.
This is why, with competition for the Central Salon and the threatning letters becoming foremost in his thoughts, he falls back on rigid, predictable routine to restore matters to their proper perspective.
He drinks his tea, and reads the assigned pages for Economics first. Then he proofreads the History essay due tomorrow. With his second cup of tea, he tackles Calculus and once that work is complete, he takes a break to shower and dress for dinner.
It is only in the shower, his eyes closed and head bent under the pounding hot water, that Kyouya allows his thoughts to wander unsupervised. As the steam billows, and his skin reddens, he wonders about the Hitachiin's festival costumes, what shape they'll take this time, and whether they might for once be more practical than artistic.
He replays his conversation with the security chief earlier, recalling with some pleasure that the man had spoken respectfully, as though he were addressing the master of the family, and not merely the third son. He thinks about his Physics exam that morning, how it was almost too easy, and briefly tries to guess what's being served at dinner tonight.
The tension in his neck and shoulders washes gradually away, with the sud-specked water streaming down his skin. He rinses his hair, and lets the water pound at his lower back until the muscles feel as loose and pliant as a gum eraser. And then clean, clearheaded and hungry, he dresses for dinner.
At last, after dinner, he turns his full attention to the items at the left end of his desk. He opens the package of cards first, and tips them into his palm. The cards feel cool and rigid in his hand. He taps the deck against the edge of his desk, once, twice, and uses his thumb to split the cards evenly between both hands.
The first shuffle is awkward; the deck is too rigid to flex, and the cards collapse unevenly together. The second shuffle is no better, and on his third attempt several cards scatter from his hands and go flying.
He smiles a little to himself, thinking he was better coordinated in his dream, and begins picking the stray cards off his desk. One lays face-down on that ridiculous threat letter, and it isn't anything like supersition that makes him turn the card over when he picks it up. He was going to anyway.
And the only reason the goosebumps go prickling down his spine, when he sees what card he's turned over, is that he'd just been thinking, Hmmm. Wouldn't it be funny, if I got the Joker?
But of course it's the Joker, because he's dealing with Host Club business here, where the normal probability of coincidence becomes meaningless and the truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's stranger than any other frame of reference Kyouya's ever had.
It happens in the very instant he sees the card, even as the chills are fanning out across his arms, that he knows what his plan is. He sees the entire scope of it, as plain as a topographical map bathed in a spotlight. He understands exactly how he will employ Haruhi, while at the same time keeping her close to his chest (so to speak) in case of need.
It is a good plan, too. One of his best to date, in that it's both elegant and practically fail-safe, and if played correctly, the return on it will be considerably more than the effort he himself puts in.
All he will have to do, is stay on his toes with respect to the details. Just like always.
The plan doesn't go into action straightaway; Kyouya waits for the optimal conditions before making his first move. He waits for an afternoon when the twins are looking restless, two identical pairs of bright eyes scanning the Third Music Room, in search of new diversion. When their heads are turned, Kyouya discreetly palms the cards from his briefcase, and sets them at the edge of a nearby table. By the time they discover it, he's across the room checking on the coffee supply.
"Eh, Hikaru, look. Someone left these cards here."
And with that, the trap is set.
Three days of bad weather lead to a drop in activity, and prompt a contagious restlessness among the club members (excepting Mori-senpai, who has a natural immunity to the condition). It is the perfect opportunity for a gaming mania to briefly sweep the group, the way such things sometimes do. It is started by the twins, who then badger Haruhi mercilessly until she surrenders and joins them. Her inclusion draws Tamaki's interest, and with his participation comes the added challenge of playing for stakes.
The trap is baited.
On the the fourth day of hard rain, sensing the novelty of the cards is just passing its peak, Kyouya stages himself at a table conspicuously within Tamaki's sight line. He takes up a book instead of his usual work, and does his best to radiate ennui.
"Come join us for a game, Mother," says Tamaki, adding some perverse nonsense about wholesome family bonding activities which has both Haruhi and the Hitachiin rolling their eyes with disquieting similarity.
Kyouya bites the side of his cheek hard to keep his smugness in check, and pretends to weigh the merits of the suggestion.
"I suppose there's no harm in a game or two, provided the stakes are reasonable."
"We'll play Stinking Rich," says Kaoru, flicking his glance at Haruhi. "You can't go wrong with those stakes."
Hikaru snickers, Haruhi looks lost, and once again Kyouya wonders which is it?
Do they corner her like this because they truly have no grasp of interaction with anyone who isn't themselves, or are they trying to keep her at arm's length because she terrifies them as much as she fascinates them? Everyone's seen her reduce Tamaki to a pile of silent ash, with nothing but a look and an offhand comment, and Tamaki is the boldest of them all. And in his way, as obtuse as she.
It's an interesting mystery, really.
"What's Stinking Rich?" Haruhi asks. From the far end of the table, Mori-senpai sighs.
"Don't worry," Hikaru tells her. "We'll play by commoner rules. It's easy."
Kyouya takes his time winning, for appearences' sake, but twenty-seven minutes later, the trap is sprung.
"Destitute!" Haruhi moans.
"So for the next two weeks," Kyouya grins, as though the benefits of winning the game are only just dawning on him, "Haruhi is to be my slave?"
It is always extraordinary to him, the moment a good strategy rolls into motion. And this truly is one of his very best. He wastes no time giving Haruhi her assignment: to discover the author of those crass, piddling threat letters. He has a short list of candidates already in mind and judiciously keeps it to himself, suspecting she will better appreciate a problem she has solved on her own, and if he gives her any hints she'll work it out much too quickly.
As it is, he assigns Tamaki to work with her for added confusion, and for last-minute insurance on the day before the contest, he hands her a copy of the school blueprints and strongly suggests she memorize them.
The school newspaper publishes a special edition the day before the contest, billing it as a "Cross-Campus Ultra Race" and to Kyouya's annoyance, touting the Football Club as team most favored to win. All week he had been generating an illicit point spread on the eighteen teams participating, and had halfway hoped to circulate his numbers among Ouran's wagering types for a tidy commission on contest day. But this newspaper publicity not only skews the points hopelessly, it sets fire to the school grapevine, already buzzing with the supposedly dramatic rivalry between the Host Club and the Football Club.
Said rivalry is in truth nothing but an absurd grudge against Kyouya himself, held since kindergarten for some damned reason by Kuze Takashi, the Football Club president. Regardless, the odds-shift and this new public perception of his club as dark horse favourite exclude him from offering a fair wager, and he's forced to bin the project.
Kuze comes by to gloat and glower, giving Kyouya opportunity to finally confirm that he isn't the one responsible for the threat letters. The language fits Kuze's mentality, excepting the punctuation, but Kuze isn't the sort to employ an indirect approach. He prefers his intimidation unsubtle and personal, and he could certainly never muster the patience to wait upon a reaction.
He isn't the only one ready to strike Kuze from the list. After witnessing the boy's visit, Haruhi goes into an abstracted sort of trance, wandering the Third Music Room with a familiar light dawning in her eyes. In the nick of time Kyouya identifies this harbinger of her insight, speeding toward him like a freight train, and he grabs the blueprints to distract her with.