the prince and the princess
After a while, the little boy had to rest again. While he was sitting, he looked up and saw a large crow.
Takashi is used to strangers disguised as friendly visitors coming in and out of the household. He does not think much of this one, at first, and it is his mistake not to quicken his pace as he makes his way to his own room.
Before he is able to walk completely past the drawing room, his mother calls out his name with as much warmth as she could muster. It is the first time she has directed this much amount of feeling since she has left her regrets with the dead – a very long time indeed, but she finds no need for such trivial emotions. For what use does she have for her heart? She certainly was not brought up to be a mother; their family dictates that they become, first and foremost, loyal servants, and people of importance, character and wealth. It is enough to make him stop in his tracks.
He remembers watching his parents argue in the privacy of their room. "When I love, I get left behind," his mother wailed. From then on, he vows to never set foot in there again. He is not used to seeing his mother as human – flawed, imperfect, and filled with bitter recriminations. He thinks to himself that it is the first time he has seen her this tired.
And after that, he does not see her as such again. She has perfected the art of pretending too much to let it go.
Takashi ends up feeling a little cold and frozen up inside, as if the North wind has blown its way into his lungs, his chest, his heart.
He does not like it one bit.
He inclines his head towards her, and does an admirable job at not reeling back in surprise at her friendly countenance. Beside her sits a guest, obviously the reason for such excellent dramatics, welcome and unwelcome all at once. When he first saw her, he thought she was Haruhi. Now, he wonders what could have possessed him to admit such thoughts into his mind.
He nods at both of them, swiftly and coolly, and reluctantly steps forward to his mother with a questioning glance at the visitor. She ignores his unvoiced question by turning her attentions to the girl, who simpers and blushes as any well-bred young woman of any remarkable lineage is taught to do. Takashi spends half an hour studying her, and, when it gets to be too much, he stops looking at her and listening to her idle, slightly nervous chatter in favor of examining the pastries set on the coffee table. He makes the mistake of observing his mother, once. The exposed skin of her slender arms is white and smooth, as if it has not seen an hour's worth of work in her entire lifetime (it hasn't). The way she holds her tea cup reminds him of a predator observing an unsuspecting meal. If he even bothers to look at her face, he would know that it is impassive and calculating.
Unnecessary, he thinks to himself. She does not have to be this kind, as far as her concept of kindness goes. Unless, of course…
He turns his attention to the younger woman. (His mother allows herself to smile a little, at this. He does not acknowledge this visible suggestion of triumph.) She is young enough for him, he thinks, and, certainly, his mother is of the opinion that it is best if she finds a suitable woman for him to marry, but the truth is that he cannot help it if he compares her to his first love; surely this girl (or any other woman) is far superior to the other in aspects of the aristocracy, but she would not – could not – stand to be weighed against the value of another whose rank is perceptibly far beneath that of theirs. It would be an insult insupportable to any other of his kind.
(With this, he toasts to himself in slight success. Few people would accuse him of carrying the arrogance that his family's wealth and power is automatically attached to, but he himself has this flaw, only in occasion. No one else needs to remind him of that.)
The guest leaves as he samples the pomegranates in the fruit basket. He does not look up at her when she says the obligatory thanks. He cannot bear to.
He does not even know her name, nor does he wish to know it.
Arrogant, indeed. Or, perhaps, something else.
If your mother only knew, her heart would surely break in two.
The crow had been looking at him for some time. It asked him where he was going all alone like that in the world, and he told the crow his story. When he asked the crow if it had seen or heard of anything about the little girl, the crow nodded very thoughtfully and said, "It might be! It might be!
"It might be her, but she has forgotten you for the prince!"
The door shuts, and with it comes the veritable tide of indignations and suggestions that the girl has left with. He remains to face the onslaught of his mother's estimations.
"Don't look so sullen," she says with a hint of exasperation as he spears the cake in front of him with a fork, "I only want to know what you thought of her."
A million protests and complaints enter his mind. Even then, he cannot say all of them. He is not in the habit of being very expressive of the inner workings of his brain. "I don't like her." She raises an eyebrow at that. "I don't dislike her, either."
"Then what," his mother says, very slowly, as she is wont to do when extremely displeased and faced with the blunt edge of his stubbornness, "are you trying to say?"
His mouth runs a little dry. I won't marry her. I won't, I won't. "I don't care for her." Not even a little bit. Not even at all. How wonderfully honest. How honest and obstinate and single-minded as a fairytale protagonist.
"You'll learn to, in time," Her index finger encircles the rim of her cup and taps impatiently on the edge of the handle twice, a sign of her increasing impatience. Takashi has to hide his frown by sipping his tea, even if it is scalding and bitter. "Arranged marriages don't work the way you think it does. It's not horrible, really."
Her voice begins to change a little as she begins to caress the flowers in the vase set on the coffee table. He feels a little in danger, somewhat. "Or, perhaps, I should search for more promising young ladies that suit your type?" She says coyly, an indirect provocation that gets on his nerves. She holds up her flawlessly manicured nails; they glint ominously under the light. "Dark-haired, doe-eyed dolls to be put on display. Beautiful objects that suit your fancy and mine." Her eyes darken, a little. "People we come to know and love without any effort at all."
It is too much. "Haruhi," he announces, eyes meeting hers, "is not a doll."
There are days when he feels that he cannot understand his mother, and with this comes the feeling that he will never be able to love her if she were not precisely that. Today is not one of them.
Today, he feels crushed under her weight. He feels a little more like a pawn and less like the son she claims he is. He is powerless in her presence, but it is this that makes him feel more capable of fighting back.
She looks a little surprised, even angry, as if he has hit a harsh note. For a moment, he catches a glimpse of her weaknesses in her eyes. They look a little lost, a little afraid.
He realizes this: there is no way to make her truly and completely happy again.
"Did I," she pauses in the middle of her sentence, fumbling as she tries to find the right words, "say anything about Haruhi?"
When she says her name, it sounds like a reverent prayer, or the ghost of another name that she cannot speak of in his company. He begins, then, to feel repentant of his retaliation.
"No," he answers, quietly, gently, feeling as if their roles were suddenly reversed.
They regard each other thoughtfully, as if measuring up the sum of their lives through five minutes worth of words said in the heat of the argument, wondering whatever happened to them and if they could ever fix it. But Takashi knows that she is merely repairing her broken façade, and that he is preparing for another match.
"I've arranged another meeting with her," she resumes the conversation with a business-like air, "she's the daughter of a well-known broadcasting corporation CEO, didn't you know?
"I didn't catch her name," he answers in the plainest tone he could gather, just to humor her. She seems a little pleased at his effort.
He has to curse the slight bloom of pride in his chest. It cannot be helped, the way we seek approval for the things we say or do in the face of those we love.
"Yes," she says, "yes, you never do."
He wants to say, I did, once. He wants to take her hand into his and tell her that she should stop trying.
"Mother," he swallows the trepidation in his gut. She looks up at him, because it is the first time he has ever called her 'mother' in this way. "Mother, I don't need this."
Her lips press against each other and form a straight, displeased line. "I'm your mother and I'm telling you that you do."
He lets his hands rest on his lap, just so he could hide the way his fingers curl a little and tighten as he struggles not to appear like a child. "Since when was Haruhi never enough?" he whispers, and she hits the table with her right hand and stands up in a fit of fury.
"Since when was she ever enough?" She half-shouts, and he notices, for the first time, that this is the way she tries to prevent herself from crying, from feeling the flood of grief as it soaks her bones and rests in her heart for an interminable amount of time. They stare at each other, one incensed, the other stunned, until his mother loosens her grip on the back of her chair with the other hand and sinks to it as if she has somehow lost her soul in the process. When she continues, she sounds as if she has also lost the will to live. "She's a wonderful child," she says, and he has to wonder if she has not practiced this, if she has not told herself the same things over and over again when she sits in front of the mirror and remembers things she would rather bury with the dead, "but she lacks rank. Power. Wealth. Influence.
"Everything that matters, she doesn't have," she finishes, not looking at him this time; it makes him think that she is talking to herself.
"That doesn't matter," he says resolutely, bowing his head a little. It hurts to watch her like this. "Not to me."
With that, he stands up and leaves the room without looking back. For all he knows, she may still be staring in the distance at another person, in another time.
He thinks that she never heard him at all.
"Won't you lead me to that palace?" the little boy asked.
"That's easily asked!" scoffed the crow, "but how are we to manage that? But I may as well tell you that you could never get permission to enter the palace."
"I will get in!" said the little boy. "When she hears that I am here, she will come out at once and fetch me!"
He is wrong, of course. It is not the first time.
His mother summons him to the same drawing room after dinner, where she spreads a hundred different pictures on the coffee table with gentleness and none of her usual alacrity. He sifts through them, one by one, as she speaks from her seat.
"Sooner or later, you'll find that they do matter." Here is a picture of her on her wedding day. She is splendidly dressed in an elaborate kimono for the shinzen shiki at a large Shinto shrine. She is smiling, a little, but it seems as if she is smiling at the photographer and not for her own enjoyment. It is an informal picture, something that seems to have been taken with a cheap camera, unprofessional but clearly treasured for sentimental reasons. "I married your father for these reasons." Here is a picture of her sons, both dressed in western formal wear. Satoshi looks as if he is near tears, and Takashi is still and unaffected even as he holds his brother's hand in an effort to keep him motionless even for a few minutes. "Look at how successful we are and have always been."
Takashi's fingers curl a little when they grasp an old picture of a woman few people remember now. He's always known it, but now that he has proof in the form of keepsakes painstakingly kept and hidden, the realization settles slowly in his mind.
"But you were never happy here with us," he murmurs, holding her head to his stomach gently to support her weight. She lets her hands come to rest at his sides. "Before Haruhi came."
"I don't want you to regret anything," she whispers, defeated and undone. Hearing this makes his fingers involuntarily comb through her hair when she begins to cry without making a sound. This is how it must be, he thinks, to love a dead person without understanding it.
He takes a deep breath and waits for her body to stop trembling before he speaks. "I don't regret her."
(When he says it, it sounds infinite and definitive. When was the last time he ever said anything that left him proud and humbled at the same time?)
"It's too late," she tells him, her words coming out in a labored hiss, "an Ohtori has taken her away."
"It's too late," she repeats, and Takashi curls inward and holds on to her a little tighter, a little longer.
Later that evening they went into the place garden, and when the lights were put out, they went through the back door.
The little boy's heart beat with anxiety and eagerness. He wanted so much to know if it were her. He could see her in his mind's eye smiling as she did when they were at home under the rose trees. She would be so happy to see him.
Now they were on the stairs. The little boy took a lamp that was burning on the top of the stairs and they made their way through many rooms. Finally, they came to the bed chamber, where there were two beds shaped like lilies. The prince lay on one, and, in the other, the little boy hoped it was the little girl. He pushed back the curtain and saw a slim neck. He called her name out loud, holding the lamp toward her.
She woke up and turned her head.
It was not the little girl.
The little boy cried.
He wakes up, the next day, feeling oddly refreshed.
His mother is not present at breakfast, excusing herself with business. Satoshi is puzzled, as his mother rarely makes it a point to miss breakfast, but does not press the issue. Takashi is grateful for that, at least.
In the car, he picks up his PDA and goes through his schedule. He has a class in the morning, and a meeting with his adviser afterwards. It is too tiring to go through this day without fearing that he will go mad from not being in contact with Haruhi.
He comes to class and finds out that it is cancelled from a classmate. He considers hanging out with a few people in his class; the day is cool enough to spend in the company of a crowd exchanging mundane stories and catching up with those he has not talked to in a long time. He is about to accept the invitation from one of them when he catches a glimpse of short, dark brown hair in the distance.
He does not even pause to think; he begins to run after her.
What should he say or do? He knows he should apologize, and that she would be righteously angry, at first. But they would be alright, anyway, because they've never held grudges, right? Yes, his mind supplies feverishly, it will be okay. He cannot even bear to think of the worst case scenario. He would be lost without her and --
"Haruhi!" He half-shouts, and grasps her shoulder to stop her from walking away. She turns her head, eyes wide with surprise, and --
It is not Haruhi.
He immediately feels a rush of embarrassment. "Sorry. I thought you were someone else."
The girl recovers from her shock quickly, and laughs a little. "That's alright," she says, "I got that a lot when I cut my hair."
"Kuragano," a thin, gangly boy with glasses calls out to her, "we're going to be late for class!" The boy looks a little peeved at seeing her with him. Takashi can't help but wonder if he's jealous.
"In a minute!" She shouts back, laughing a little and waving him off with a shooing motion. The other boy frowns a little as he walks off. Kuragano smiles as she watches him leave, and when she turns her attention to Takashi, the smile she gives him is a different sort. More friendly, less soft. "I'm Kuragano Momoka. You're Morinozuka-san, right?"
He blinks and nods. He doesn't know how to reply to that.
"Haruhi's a girl in my Econ class," she informs him, "I saw her in the library earlier, but she probably has a class right now."
"I…" He says very intelligently, then clears his throat and looks away. "Thanks."
He leaves before she can say anything else, but his heart beats wildly in his chest with each step he takes. He now knows his destination; the only problem is getting her back.
It makes him wish that it doesn't feel as if he is running out of time.
The prince and the princess put the little boy into bed, and he thought to himself as he fell asleep, "how good people are to me!"
The next day he was dressed from head to foot in warm clothes and given a little carriage, a horse, and a pair of shoes for her journey. When the crow had said goodbye, it flew up to a tree and flapped its big black wings for as long as the carriage was in sight.