Six Days of Worry; or How Laundry Makes Everything Better
"Think of it like a vacation," his father told him. "It's not even your turn to supervise the cleaning of the dojo. You get a whole week off."
Takashi nodded silently and was dismissed. He walked more slowly than was quite usual. He had not known before, that his father misunderstood so much.
It was not Mitsukuni's first omiai, but it was the first that would take him away from Tokyo. During a regular school week, no less. His family must be getting worried. He was still boy-sized, although 18, and more sinfully committed to cakes and sweets and cute things than ever before. Perhaps marriage would sober him. Perhaps a young wedding would make him more respectable. Perhaps he would at least seem more respectable. The women were older, already finished with college, and Takashi understood that the chosen lady's role would be to anchor Mitsukuni to the appearance of a stable home life while he got his degree and, presumably, matured into a man worthy of inheriting the leadership of the Haninozuka. This woman Mitsukuni was going to meet would consider it an advantageous alliance, to be wed into the famous martial arts family. She would watch him, as would his family, for signs of his good favor. Signs that she had perhaps won out against her rivals, that she deserved to be aligned with him, as his caretaker, as his wife. She would watch him to find the failings she simply couldn't put up with, the reasons that would force her to pull out, to give up, to forfeit the competition. All those eyes, with all their assessment. Takashi wished he could go with him.
His father told him on Monday. Mitsukuni wouldn't tell him about it himself until Tuesday night.
"So I'll be gone for a week, okay? Don't worry, I'll bring you souvenirs! Let's see, what would Takashi like from Sapporo?" He tapped his chin with his forefinger, like a child imitating his parents. His body was alert, on guard, as usual, but his toes were pointed slightly inward, his small shoulders were slightly slouched, so only an experienced martial artist would be able to tell. His voice lilted in the usual way, two octaves too high. He faced the window, not looking at his friend, unusually. Takashi watched his profile.
He tilted his face up now, three quarter profile, and smiled. "Don't worry."
Takashi worried anyway.
Mitsukuni left Wednesday right after school, right after telling the host club why he wouldn't be around for a week.
The host club took the news in predictable fashion. Kyouya offered no visible reaction. Tamaki was subdued and well-wishing and clearly concerned – and clearly figuring out the best way to make this as un-awkward as possible. The twins showed their surprise all over their faces, immediately and without restraint. Hikaru wondered aloud to Mitsukuni what the hell was up with that, and Kaoru wondered silently to Takashi if this was really okay. Haruhi's little face went momentarily blank, and then something clicked behind her eyes and she accepted this latest piece of aristocrat politics with her usual deliberate indifference. Takashi evaluated their reactions, judging which were likely to hurt Mitsukuni. Hikaru, Kyouya, Haruhi – all characteristically just a little bit insensitive. Kaoru, Tamaki – understanding what was really going on, trying not to make it worse. Of course, since it was Mitsukuni, none of their reactions would hurt him. Mitsukuni was an island, as much as Takashi, and there was just one bridge between them. Since it was Mitsukuni, Kaoru and Tamaki were the most likely to hurt him, with their well-meaning concern, the burden of their feelings. Takashi decided to forgive all of them. Since none were being malicious. But he still worried, about all the feelings Mitsukuni would have to carry with him to Sapporo. They would not make it easier.
On Thursday Takashi went to school by himself. He attended all his classes by himself. He left Kendo practice and arrived at Host Club by himself. He hosted the girls by himself, which was awkward, although less awkward than he had feared. He had worried how he would deal with Mitsukuni's customers. Fortunately, they didn't come to him. They divided themselves between Haruhi and the twins, or they didn't come at all. They all understood, apparently, how very incapable he was of actually hosting without Mitsukuni. Takashi was grateful for this. Instead all he had to care for were three girls who designated him specifically; demure, serious girls who sipped their tea quietly and made shy, hesitant conversation between bites of gingerbread. Every once in a while one of them would get up the courage to direct a question at Takashi, and every once in a while Takashi would get up the courage to volunteer a thought for the conversation. Most of the time they all sipped tea and munched snacks and tried not to look at each other. After club Tamaki announced that he had important business-related affairs to attend to over the weekend, and that his loyal and loving subjects would therefore have to make do without his usual schedule of entertainments for Saturday and Sunday. Nobody seemed to mind. Hikaru and Kaoru were irritated at being called "loyal and loving subjects." Haruhi looked relieved. Takashi was touched – it was a kindness, not planning any grand activities while Mitsukuni was gone, not having any fun that he would have to miss out on. He appreciated it, and he was surprised that it made him feel lonely.
He woke up on Friday worried because of a dream he had had. In his dream, Mitsukuni was forced to marry a gargantuan Ainu woman and had to wear two-foot-tall stilts on his wedding day. And he wouldn't let Takashi carry him anymore. It took Takashi the better part of the morning to convince himself that it was highly unlikely that the purist Haninozuka would marry their heir to an Ainu woman, and that even if they did, Mitsukuni would not have to wear stilts to his wedding. But then, on the way from kendo to Host Club, he saw Yasuchika perched atop crate, lecturing the karate team on manliness and discipline. He was barely as tall as all the other boys' eyes. The thought of Mitsukuni having to stand on a crate to get married to his gargantuan Ainu fiancee worried Takashi so much that he tripped on the stairs. Nobody saw.
Haruhi stopped him before leaving, after club. She looked up at him and he could not read her expression. Like Mitsukuni, she was too cute. Takashi had a hard time seeing the meaning behind all that cuteness. It was only because he knew Mitsukuni so well that he could catch and decipher the minute changes in expression – the pressing together of the lips, the tightening of the skin at the temples, the direction of the eyes. With Haruhi, most of the time, he had no idea what she was thinking. Her face showed few obvious emotions; mostly it showed many different ways of looking cute.
She had caught his attention with the sleeve of his blazer, right at the elbow. She held the fabric pinched between her fingers as she spoke, as if to hold his attention trapped. This was not necessary, but he supposed she didn't know how cute she was.
"I'm not doing anything this weekend except for maybe some laundry and a few errands, but if you need something quiet to do on Saturday or Sunday, you can always come over to my place. It might be too noisy for your taste, if you went to visit Tamaki-senpai or the twins."
He smiled at her. He felt soft. "Thank you." He patted her head, covering the whole crown of it with his palm.
He had not known before, that she understood so much.
Saturday morning passed normally for him. He woke up, made his way to the dojo, meditated silently, engaged in morning practice alone. Until his noisy little brother joined him, whom he beat soundly before going to take a morning bath. That was his favorite thing about weekends – the morning bath right after whipping his little brother. Satoshi always stayed behind in the dojo, training, sometimes for hours, after Takashi beat him. Their skirmishes were always loud with the sounds of feet and nearly lost balance and Satoshi's incessant "Doryaa!" and "Yoshi!", which he swore helped him to concentrate. Takashi enjoyed the contrast – the loud, heavy exertion of training, and the silent repose of a bath alone.
After that he spent some time in the garden, tending his flowers and his daikon. He did all his homework for the weekend and read a little bit of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. His father had recommended it. Takashi found it distasteful.
By early afternoon he had exhausted the list of things he typically did with himself before Mitsukuni called, so he went for a run. He was gone for hours, exploring the extensive grounds of the Morinozuka Estate in a way he had not since he was a boy. He rediscovered an enormous old tree about two miles away from the main house. He remembered Mitsukuni trying to climb that tree when they were just nine or ten. He had been too short, and Takashi had had to help him up. There was a branch that had been their favorite to rest on, because it was wide enough that you didn't feel like you were about to fall off just sitting there. Takashi tried climbing the tree, for old times' sake. It was easier than he remembered. He remembered having to find hand holds all over the rough bark, having to use the knobbly outcroppings of tree-flesh to rest his feet on. He remembered skinned knees and elbows. Now he jumped a bit, landed a hand on the top of the sitting branch, and pulled himself up. He bumped his head hard against another branch, up higher. He had not remembered that higher branch being there, but there it was, hanging just too low for head-clearance, preventing him from getting comfortable on his old sitting branch. He didn't fit anymore. Mitsukuni still would.
He got home in time for another bath before dinner. Mitsukuni hadn't called. He read a bit more of The Art of War before going to sleep.
Sunday morning passed less uneventfully than Saturday had and by 10:30 Takashi was the only member of his family left in the house. He was sitting politely on the low porch overlooking his father's Zen garden. His eyes were closed. He was trying to concentrate on the feeling of his jeans against his legs, his cotton shirt against his chest: simple physical sensations to quell the complexity of his thoughts. He could hear no voices, no doors sliding, no sound of servants; no sound at all other than the transparent chirping of birds. He breathed deeply. He smelled the sand and the stones and the patterns they made. His brow remained furrowed. A bead of sweat slipped down his temple.
He was engaged in intense debate with himself, and he was afraid he was losing.
Should I really go? She invited me.
I shouldn't go. It may have only been a courtesy invitation.
She wouldn't extend an invitation she didn't mean. Not her. Never.
I still shouldn't go. We aren't that close.
She's my kohai and my friend. We're in the same club.
It would look strange.
People visit friends all the time.
It would be just the two of us.
It wouldn't be a date or anything.
I have no idea where to take her or what to do with her or what to say to her…
She invited me to her house. Maybe we'll play cards. I like playing cards. She seems like she might enjoy a quiet came of cards.
How would I even get there?
I could take the train. I could get to the train station by bike. If any of the servants ask, I can just say I'm going out. I like bike riding.
I don't even know where the train station is.
I can look it up.
I have no omiage.
I can buy a cake on the way. She likes strawberry.
I shouldn't go. I should stay home.
I have nothing to do. I don't want to stay home by myself.
I should find something to do at home.
Mitsukuni isn't here. I have nothing to do.
He released a breath he hadn't realized he was holding and opened his eyes. He had lost. Either that or he had won. He rose and went to his father's library, where the computer was, to look up a map of the train system.
When Haruhi opened her door shortly before noon, she looked only mildly surprised to see him standing on the other side of it. Of course, he might have misjudged her expression. Her eyes were so big already, it was hard to tell. She had a bandana over her hair and was wearing a plain blue dress that covered her shoulders but not her arms.
"Mori-senpai. Hello. Come on in." He entered silently, remembering to remove his shoes. "I was just making lunch. Are you hungry? I only have leftovers, but…"
"I brought a cake." He extended a thin plastic bag in her direction.
"Oh good. Thank you," peeking into the bag, "Oooh, strawberry. We'll have this with tea after lunch, okay?" She smiled up at him and he nodded, grunting his assent. As she turned away from him and his face relaxed, he realized he had smiled back at her, reflexively, without even knowing, her pretty smile triggering an answering smile from him the way a sharp pressure applied below the knee cap triggers an answering kick. He blushed.
"Lunch will be ready in a few minutes. Please make yourself comfortable. Oh, we should probably put the cake in the fridge."
He obediently put the cake in the fridge and made himself comfortable. The next few minutes of lunch preparation passed in genial silence. Takashi examined the room. Clean, as it was every time he came. Made of low-cost materials, though not poor. Minimally furnished but comfortable except for the low ceilings. Takashi examined her. He admired the way her small hands passed deftly through the motions of cooking. She stirred the curry rice quickly, folded it on top of itself, tilted the pan at slight angles, to keep it from burning instead of just reheating. She chopped a cucumber in between, keeping a precise rhythm: chop chop chop chop chop chop, stir, stir, fold, tilt, chop chop chop chop chop chop. She mixed a vinegar dressing for the cucumber. She didn't need to measure. Her small hands, her large eyes knew how much spice was needed. He wondered if perhaps he would be good at cooking, or if his hands were too large. Perhaps only people with small hands and wide eyes were good cooks. He wondered if she would let him try.
"Lunch is ready." She served two steaming plates of mixed curry rice and two small bowls of cucumber salad. "I hope it's enough food for you. There's always the cake, if you're still hungry." She placed a plate, bowl and chopsticks in front of Takashi. "Oh! Tea! I forgot to make tea. Do you mind water with lunch?" She was pouring a glass of water from a filtered pitcher before he could answer.
"Water is fine."
She placed a glass in front of him and joined him at the low table.
"Itadakimasu," he said. And then, "It's good," because it was.
"Thank you," she said. He was grateful for her simplicity. Host Club had trained him to fear eating the food that girls cooked, because they would gush about it. They wavered confusingly under the weight of a compliment. They put intentions in his mouth along with every bite. But Haruhi just ate. Accepted the compliment, and ate. They passed a few minutes of companionable quiet together, eating, during which Takashi became convinced he had never sat on a more comfortable floor.
Then there was a sound like a timer going off.
"Ah, the dryer! I'm sorry, I've got to fold the clothes while they're still hot or they'll get wrinkled. You keep eating, this will only take me a few minutes." She unfolded herself and disappeared into a narrow room Takashi hadn't noticed earlier. The doorframe obscured most of her. All he could see was her back as she bent to pull the clothes from a dryer, the movement of her shoulder blades as she folded. The size of her shoulders impressed itself on him. They were even smaller than Mitsukuni's. Proportional to her slight hands, conversely so to her great, soft eyes. He wondered if laundry was another thing that only people with small hands were good at. He wondered if she would let him try. He got up and joined her in the narrow room.
There wasn't quite enough space for the both of them. He felt a bit cramped, prohibited from freely using his limbs. This worried him, partly because his years of martial arts training had taught him to be wary of any situation that would restrict his physical movements, and partly because perhaps he really was too big to be good at laundry. Takashi had nurtured for many years the suspicion that domesticity was a quality native to small people and dearly acquired in large ones. All the maids in his house had always been delicate and small. He himself had always been sturdy and large, and had always feared he might break the butterfly girls that flitted quietly through the halls with feather dusters and polishing cloths. He had never actually tried housework, and he knew plenty of small people who were incompetent at it (Mitsukuni, for example), but the notion remained regardless. He pulled a pair of pants from the pile of warm clothes Haruhi had made on top of the dryer and commenced folding.
"Mori-senpai, go eat! Please don't feel like you have to help me with the laundry. I'm really used to doing this, and it won't take me long at all." She was looking at him, waiting for him to leave. He went on folding. He didn't feel like he had to help her. He wanted to. He wanted to know if he could be helpful with things like this. He felt her eyes on him. He focused on her face without looking at it. Her lips were small and tilted down on one side. There were no lines around her eyes or on her forehead. She stared for a few moments, and he folded. Then she shrugged, sighed, and pulled another pile from the dryer. Takashi smiled privately to himself, because now he knew what her face looked like when she was considering.
It turned out that he was quite adequate at folding laundry. And not bad at all at dusting. And especially good at changing light bulbs.
"I'm sorry for making you help me with all the chores," Haruhi said to him at one point.
"It's fine," he said, but what he meant was: I am happy that I am helping. Thank you for letting me help.
She made the face again, the considering face. Takashi wondered what she was considering, watching him dusting the high shelves.
"You like to be helpful, don't you, Mori-senpai? It makes you feel good when you can be useful to others." He stopped dusting, turned and faced her, expressionless, worried. Why did she say that? What did she mean? She smiled. "I guess I'm probably the same way." She went back to cleaning the windows. "I don't think you have to worry about Honey-senpai, though. He's already decided how he wants to live, right? Maybe his family thinks they can change him by trying to make him get married, but I think he's made his decision. I don't think Honey-senpai will change to make somebody else happy if it will make him unhappy. It sounds kind of selfish when you say it out loud, but I think that makes him very strong, and I think he owes a lot of his strength to you. Everybody knows that Mori-senpai always stands beside Honey-senpai, so even if your body can't be by his side, Honey-senpai knows that your heart is. I think Honey-senpai probably feels that you're helping him even if you're not in Sapporo with him. It'll probably be very difficult for him to find a way to make his family happy without making himself miserable. But I bet, with you supporting him one hundred percent, he'll be able to find his own solution. So you don't have to worry." Her voice was clear and wide and confident. He started dusting again so that he wouldn't stare at her.
She was right, of course. She was totally and completely and in all ways right. He was lonely without Mitsukuni, because he didn't like to talk, and nobody else understood his silences. Except, apparently, for Haruhi. He worried without Mitsukuni, because he had no one to explain to him the things he did not see on his own, or to say the things he did not know on his own. Except, apparently, for Haruhi. He was restless without Mitsukuni, because he felt helpless (and useless) against the challenges his very dearest friend must face on his own. Except, apparently, that he was not helpless (or useless) at all.
"Thank you," he said, and then again, whispered, "thank you."
"Well. We're friends, right?" She tilted her head back until he could see her face, and she was smiling at him, clear and wide and confident.
They had tea later, after the laundry and the dusting and the light bulb changing were done. There was too much cake for the two of them. They ate all the strawberries but ended up throwing half the cake away. "I hate wasting food, but I won't eat it alone, and dad will eat the whole thing and then complain that it's making him fat," she said.
They watched The Seven Samurai, and Takashi explained for her the relevant points of kenjutsu. He asked her if she liked to play cards, and even though she said, "I've never been particularly fond of playing cards, but I wouldn't mind if that's what you want to do," she still got very excited when she beat him at rummy. They went shopping for dinner and she let him help cook. He found he was good at chopping things. She laughed loudly when he told her it had taken him over an hour to get to her house, and she drew him a simple map so he wouldn't get so lost on the way home.
He placed his hand on her head outside her door, as she was seeing him off. He was glad of his large hands, that one could cover her head so thoroughly. He was smiling, and she was smiling back. "Thank you for today. I had a good time."
After that the days until Wednesday didn't pass quite so slowly.