The Lady Genius' Visit
The Yoshinos seem to never run out of visitors.
Stack upon stack of unwashed dishes testify to the latest activity that happened just last night. Kouko was nearly brain-dead from exhaustion preparing all the meals while Yusuke did the video. In her mind, his was a disproportionately light task. She had insisted to him that the celebration should be moved to the nearest weekend so they could start fairly early in the morning and finish, at most, before sundown. But he maintained that a birthday was a birthday.Besides, he added, she has no work to attend to but the house. As though the house was not enough work already.
As it was still a weekday, her husband woke up early for work, taking some leftovers, and so did Megumi for school (she of course never having minded anything being the bithday girl). To Kouko, however, waking up early after such a hard night was suicide.
Thus, we find our valiant housewife getting up at about nine, groggily. She still had to shower to flush down all the malcontent before taking on the load. If only Fuko was here to help.But hers was a mighty slumber.
However, by eleven, when she has taken care of the dishes and was scrubbing the sink, her mood visibly improved. Sweet Kouko was never one to be grumpy for long, and usually it took but a little expenditure of effort to sway her attention away from all the unfairness, making her forget her erstwhile travails completely. She was up enough to call down her little sister for a lunchtime breakfast.
There was no reply. Oh well, at least she would have only herself to entertain
She rushed to see who it was, and upon opening the door, she found a smartly-dressed lady, with long, flowing bluish hair. She wore chic glasses and the cut of her teacher's attire on her slim figure made her look more like a flight attendant. And a bright, beaming smile. An encyclopedia salesgirl?
"Ohayou," mumbled Kouko warily. "Is there anything I can do for—
The two hugged and squealed excitedly like schoolgirls. Eh, who wouldn't after such a long time apart?
Mei didn't miss a beat. As soon as they have settled down on the table she immediately produced a huge three-floor bento. "I got goodies for you, Kouko-sensei!" she gushed as she unwrapped it. Unstacking it, she revealed a full veggie-and-seafood meal with plenty of rice. One box was all heaps of dessert.
"Oh dear," cried Kouko catching her heartbeat, "Why did you have to bring so much?"
"Tehehe~ It was lunchtime and I hated to drop by at a convenient hour without some chow of my own." Bright, tingling laugh. "If you can't down that, there's always Uncle Yusuke, you know."
"You're really on top of things," smiled Kouko. "But of course you're free to visit here at any hour of the day. Be our guest."
"Actually, I wasn't supposed to drop by so soon, or I would have brought more! Ahaha~ But this is really urgent. I heard you were a teacher at Hikarizaka and I am to substitute for a science teacher there who's on a leave. It's my first time to be a high school teacher and I want to hear from you."
"Really now? How long have you been teaching?"
She counted off on her fingers thoughtfully. "I was in grade school for…four years…then, I finished studying for a high school post just last year." She giggled. "I was about to apply at a school near our place but then my university told me there's a vacancy here."
"Is Youhei with you?"
"Uh-huh. The airport's renovating their housing so he's moving in with me. His air traffic job's just an hour's drive from here, anyway. That way he can also finish…" cough… "some important business here."
"But I'm afraid I don't have much to advise you. You see, I taught art class, and it's not a jot close to Science."
"But Kouko-sensei, science is art! My professor always told us that. And you must know something about how high schoolers learn. Please!"
Sweet Mei was just a bit too much for sweet Kouko. She smiled warmly, reminiscing a little on her old days at Hikarizaka, where she met a student who became very dear to her heart. "Oh, alright. Where do I begin?"
Freak weather kept Kotomi in the house all day Thursday. Frequent travel, sure enough, wore down on her, but it irked her more to get stuck at home with nothing to do (she made it a point to leave most of the workload at school). This predicament, however, was not happening in Japan only; back in the States a major storm was starting to lash the East Coast where she was based when abroad. This, of course, meant that
"All flights to and from the mid- and Northeastern U.S. are cancelled," blared the announcer over the cable broadcast, "and Philadelphia air traffic might have to wait up to two weeks to normalize, as the Category 1 hurricane's path and slow movement is anticipated to take it to a near-landfall, and is likely to linger over much of the Eastern seaboard..."
and her colleagues might want her to stay behind some more while their research, too, warms back to normal.
Friday, also, was somewhat uncertain. At high noon dark clouds gathered and even spat some hail before sending a downpour. Anyway, if she couldn't turn to business just as yet, she might as well do her old high school chums a favor.
She got her chance when the rains finally cleared late in the afternoon. She slipped into casual dress, a plain shirt and knee-length skirt. Out of her professor's suit, with her well-preserved fresh and young look, she could well pass for a university undergraduate. She turned on, surprisingly enough, an FM radio on which played light pop and much jazz. Hmmm, perhaps she thought it best to get some matching music as well.
She always had a good ear for music.
As she neared the apartment she (with Sunohara and the Fujibayashis) visited so long ago, her heart couldn't help but flutter somewhat. For one, she felt sorry for Tomoya and his family being stuck in that place as though they were damned to stay there all their life, a very sharp contrast to her continuing advancement in the academic world. The landlord didn't even bother to use a different color of paint. It looks all varnished.
Parking her car on the street below, the subtle tension in her broke forth in momentary agitation. What on earth is she really doing here, she felt, making a useless cameo in the house of a man who already had his life all set, as far as his family was concerned? If only again somebody else was with her now.
She wavered as she knocked on the newly-fixed door. How did she manage to get herself right in front of another house's door? Surely, this visit was not a matter of business. Perhaps she was just driving around town to clear her burnout-jaded head, who knows? Well, if somebody doesn't hear her soft tapping and answer within two minutes, she might as well call it a day.
The door opened.
The woman inside brightened up so much it blinded her for a while, making her gaping speechless when she should have been smiling, too. But Nagisa did not bother with the niceties of courtesy and went straight to her old beloved friend to wrap around her. "Kotomi-chan!" she gushed. "I never thought you'd really come!"
Kotomi finally regained herself. "Uh, well, nice seeing you, too." She could say nothing more as the lady of the house immediately led her inside.
She's such a neat housewife, thought Kotomi as she sat down waiting for dinner. The place didn't look so sparse the last time I came here. Furnishings have been added over the years, to be sure, but it struck her that Nagisa could have wrought such marvels with only enough stuff. She could have made a good interior designer.
And a good chef. A pleasant aroma wafted in from the kitchen and soon enough she appeared with a steaming duo of homemade gyuudon and miso, a refreshing change from her constantly chomping down on outside food. Besides, no fastfood could offer the wonderful conversation only Nagisa could elicit.
For a good while Nagisa delightedly crammed in all sorts of housewife topics she wanted to share, and, with the professor not relating to even most of these, it already appeared to be a sort of excited monologue. But it was very much fine with Kotomi.
"You look much better now, Nagisa. But I don't think you should be moving around too much."
"It's alright. I have been like this for almost a week now. Your medicine's just miraculous."
So you also know how turn someone's head, Kotomi reflected sadly. You don't have to hide from me. If only I knew how to truly cure you.
"Tomoya said I could return at Ernesto Host if this keeps up for a month."
"Leave the dirty work to the boys." She sipped at Nagisa's coffee, which was made from the pack given by Yukine. "I am quite sure Ushio needs more of your presence now. High school could be very difficult for her. But I must say she is doing better at her studies this time. The principal told me."
"My child will grow to be as strong as her father," said Nagisa with gentle pride.
Outside, the air had ceased to be stuffy, and a gentle breeze whistled through the grass on the sidewalks. Night fell.
"It's getting late," mused Kotomi as they finished the meal. "Isn't Ushio and Tomoya home yet?"
"Oh," said Nagisa as she started to put the dishes away, "Tomoya fetches Ushio at school everyday now. Maybe they passed by the Yoshinos again. Didn't you see them at Hikarizaka today?"
"No. I was supposed to visit a company laboratory the other day and today."
"Anyway," smiled Nagisa, "my younger daughter is here. I'll call her for you if she's not asleep. She goes to bed early, you know."
"Oh, no, never mind, I wouldn't want to disturb…" But Nagisa already went back to the kitchen.
Truth to tell, curiosity smoldered within her as to what the other Okazaki child would look like. Well, since Ushio was modelled after Nagisa, it was only fair to assume…
Soon enough, she reappeared, this time with a pretty little girl in tow. And oh yes! How indeed she resembled Tomoya! The bluish hair, the curious and brooding eyes…
"Mizuumi," coaxed Nagisa, "say hello to Kotomi-san."
"Konnichiwa, hajimemashite," bowed Mizuumi in her funny artificial way. "I'm Okazaki Mizuumi, seven years old," she followed, still bowing. "I'll be glad if you could be my friend."
Kotomi, delighted by such innocence, made a low giggle that she tried to keep to herself. But then, the child looked up at her in disbelief. Certainly not the expected response taught in grade school. The girl looked up in bewilderment at her mother and said,
"Mommy, is she a meanie?"
Nagisa smiled indulgently at her girl, saying, "Don't worry, Mimi. Come on, go to her."
She followed hesitantly. But as soon as she got there, Kotomi picked her up and placed the girl on her lap. "Come now," said the professor gently, "you're not afraid of strangers, are you?"
The child lamely gestured a "no."
"You haven't said what your hobby is."
"What's a hobby?"
"What do you like to do?"
The girl put a finger on her lips as she ruminated on what to answer to this strange woman. "Umm, uh…" she fumbled. Just then, she remembered, but through her tentative smile she still wasn't sure if this was the answer the mysterious lady was looking for. "Aunt Tomoyo showed me around in her car. I like that."
"Do you want me to show you around, too? I also got a car."
"Umm!" she affirmed, suddenly excited. "Are we going tomorrow?"
Now, Kotomi could not restrain herself. She let out a ringing laugh that sparkled like crystal-clear water on a mountainside brook. It was rare enough for her to show mirth, let alone produce this particular laugh, which showed only when she was unabashedly happy.
The professor stopped in her tracks and turned, surprised, to the doorway where stood Tomoya and Ushio, he carrying a toolbox, she slinging a ponderous bag laden with some instruments. It turned out that the girl was having lengthy practice after school which her father simply waited upon. He wasn't going to be deterred from looking after his daughter personally. It made for a tense silence walking back home.
Now, however, they looked somewhat pleased. No, it was actually Tomoya who looked relieved, refreshed by that lovely laugh, and Ushio looked rather as someone indulging in malicious satisfaction. So, the grumpy professor has a soft spot, after all!
Kotomi promptly composed herself, and gently set Mizuumi down on the sofa before carrying herself standing and bowing formally to them. "Konnbanwa, Tomoya-san, Ushio-san."
"H-Hey," smiled Tomoya, "what's with the stiffness? Don't you feel at home with us?"
Ushio went on straight ahead to her room trying mightily to suppress a laugh of her own. Everybody stared at her in puzzlement, but Tomoya added a frown. Oh, Ushio you brat. That's no way to respond when someone your senior is greeting you.
At dinner Tomoya held some subdued chat with Kotomi while Nagisa tied Mizuumi's hair into a bun to keep her loose hair strands from falling into her soup. All the while Ushio relished her meal, shifting her gaze on and off to look at Doctor Ichinose. The business-as-usual woman of Hikarizaka has returned, but she will never let the woman get away for caving in. In fact she already thought of something to take advantage of the doctor's good mood.
"Ushio," said the doctor, "how was your new schedule?"
Cough. "It was fine, madam," she said in a feigned prim manner. "As for my friend Kiyomasa-san I will still be with her for English, Mathematics, Arts, and Homeroom, and I have no malcontent classmates (she had missed ending up in 1-C by a beat). And I got a special class in Music on Fridays after school, because my teacher in Music thought me extraordinarily talented."
"I can see that, Miss Okazaki," she replied in kind. "But I would prefer if you had a coaching session in Science as well, as I hear you're getting behind in that subject. I just got news that a new teacher is coming this month and she might be willing to help you."
"Oh, it's my pleasure, Madam." Cough. "But if you wouldn't mind, I would like you to see for yourself how far I am along in my music practice." Cough. "You may find that my playing… soothes your heart, Doctor Ichinose."
"Ushio," said Tomoya. "You got rice on your chin."
"Wah—" she exclaimed, fumbling with her finger to get it off. Losing her face, she abruptly stood up to go to the sink. "Excuse me…"
The mood lifted once again after the meal, the Okazakis and Mimi settling down in the living room with their esteemed guest. It took a while for Ushio to show up again, but when she did, she brought with her the bag with the instruments. The thing jingled with all that brass inside.
"It would have been enough if you brought only one of those," said Tomoya.
"I may not know which type of music would really please Madam, so I want to give her a selection of instruments."
"You're too kind," smiled Kotomi. "Really I would be fine with any instrument so long as the one playing it does fine as well."
"Ushio," said her father a bit worriedly, "are you sure you can play well already? Didn't you just start practicing?"
"Papa, just watch me!" she beamed.
For her first piece, she produced a recorder out of the bag and, beginning with a long toot, played an upbeat video game track.
The next piece was that of a score from a commercial.
Neither performance was epic; after all, they were only simple pieces the girl had memorized, but they weren't bad, either. Her notes flowed mellifluously and the rhythm was soft to the ears. Everybody obliged her with a round of applause… except Mizuumi, who had seen an orchestra perform on TV.
"No way!" she cried. "That's not how it sounds on Channel 3!"
Ushio sighed in exasperation. "High standards already? Give me a break, Mimi, why don't you try playing this for a change? You don't know how hard it is to get the ropes of this."
"You don't know how to play, Shio-chan! I want Miss Kotomi to play for us!" Amid astounded gasps, the child turned to Kotomi, "Will you, Miss Kotomi? Please!"
Her parents were very startled. Telling a professor to play flat out! Nagisa was at a loss of words, while Ushio's mouth hung. Tomoya, for his part, was also stunned, but there was something else he almost remembered, but he couldn't grasp it yet; he only knew it was dreadful.
"Mimi!" exclaimed Ushio. "Are you crazy? You can't order around Doctor Ichinose like that!" To her utter surprise, Kotomi herself stood up, smiling to herself, and took hold of Ushio's bag as the girl watched in disbelief.
"What else do you have inside?"
"Uh… er… wawa…" She fumbled as she took out the rest of the instruments; there was a saxophone, a violin, a harmonica, and a clarinet. And Tomoya... Deep down in his heart, for some forgotten reason he was actually afraid to recall, Tomoya fervently wished she would just take the sax.
She took the violin.
She slung the instrument on her shoulders as everybody else stared in… amazement? horror? both? They could not take their eyes off of her. But as soon as he saw her pose…he knew. He finally knew! He is not waiting another minute to dive! behind the sofa with a pillow and bury his head underneath. For all he knew, it will come in 0.2 seconds.
0.2 seconds… 0.2 seconds…
Wait...Oh no! No!
It can't be! I just left my family out there! At the mercy of that merciless violin!
Ushio… Mizuumi… Nagisa…
How could I have been such a coward?
Tomoya, do something!
Gingerly, he carefully lifted the pillow off his head, teeth clenched, bracing for the worst.
But there was no sound.
No, there actually was, cheering and clapping, and a wondrous, heartwarming melody playing. On a violin. Is this truly happening?
He stayed down, afraid that the dream might lapse back into horrid reality if he gets up.
The melody finished. Everybody cheered again.
Well... some time has already passed, so it couldn't be just a dream, right? But is it truly happening?
He held his breath as a suspenseful silence followed. This must be it. The dream has ended.
"T-Tomoya-kun…" mumbled a befuddled Nagisa, "w-what are you doing face down on the floor?'
"Daddy," chirped Mizuumi, "shouldn't you put the pillow under your head?"
"Tomoya-kun," said Kotomi uncertainly, "are you drunk?"
Summer was starting to fade into the crisp chill of autumn as dried leaves replaced cherry petals in showering the streets with confetti. Every early morning and evening the winds started to blow a bit colder and harder. Truth to tell, it appeared that fall arrived somewhat earlier this year and everybody in town feared a longer and harsher winter than last year.
Not the least concerned was Tomoya. He knew Nagisa was especially susceptible to cold, and he began to drop by Ryou's clinic every other day to see if Dr. Kirishima has found something for his wife. At one such visit, the doctor told him bluntly,
"I just said there should be a way to treat her. I didn't say I will be doing it. Now, scram!"
Which greatly upset Ryou especially as she saw Tomoya's half-downcast, half-resentful expression as he bade farewell, clearly smothering his anger.
After that, she hounded Dr. Kirishima with reproachful tirades whenever she could and would not eat with the doctor every breaktime like she used to. "If your family was in danger, you would not brush off a dying woman like that." All this the doctor treated as mere sentimentalism. If it was your time, it was your time, was her motto. Clearly, she had more important business to attend to.
"If something happens to my baby," Ryou finally threatened, "I will quit your clinic forever."
"Eh?" she retorted. So her aide was implying that the stress her snubbing caused could be detrimental to Ryou's pregnancy. "Isn't it you who's riled over that friend of yours? I'm not the one bearing your kid."
"You told us. You said there would be a way. You must find it! I oblige you!"
Dr. Kirishima would have just dismissed all this again as usual, even tell the assistant that she was bossing her around when it was she who was supporting her studies, but she couldn't just doff her hidden concern over the baby. Back when she was in Tokyo, a jealous colleague had remarked that she was just trying to set up an abortionist's clinic there. To feign top-of-the-line medical practice for cheap butchery was the height of insult to her. She is not letting herself be linked to the death of a baby, born or not.
About a week later, the Okazakis received mail. Tomoya found a small package in the mailbox, containing a box of capsules and a prescription, along with a note:
Have Mrs. Okazaki take these after every meal to improve her circulation. We are targeting her blood vessel functioning to see if treatment there could compensate for general vulnerability in the body, and are trying to find out if artificial electrical transplants are feasible. Until then, please, no stress.
Kirishima H. and Hiiragi R.
Tomoya's eyes started to well up with tears of joy and he rushed into the house to spread the word to Nagisa. "Nagisa! Come! See this! They have found a cure—"
He found her in their childrens' bedroom. She was keeping watch at the bedside, where Mizuumi lay, sweating profusely and catching her shallow breath.
His wife turned slowly and tried to put up a smile. "Oh, Tomoya-kun," she said. Seeing the box he was holding, she said, "You got medicine for Mimi? I'm so glad."
"Mizuumi!" cried Tomoya, dropping the box and rushing to embrace his child. "M-Mizuumi, can you talk to papa?" he stammered in a breaking voice. He finally hugged her, crying, as his wife looked on, trying to her own grief back.
"Mimi!" Ushio flung open the door to their bedroom. She put a hand over her mouth as she saw her sister's frail body struggle against an unusually high fever. She frantically felt for her temperature with her hand all over the girl's body, as though it would heal her, but the hotness only served to taunt her efforts. She finally lay herself over Mizuumi and wept.
"Sh…Shio…chan?" her sister managed to utter.
Getting up, Ushio forced the tears off her face with her open palm and smiled. "Are you OK now, Mimi? You want something?" She gaped in surprise as Mizuumi took her arm and tugged weakly at it.
"Shio-chan…hum to me…please…"
Wiping more tears off of her with her wrist, she took the girl in her arms and laid the head on her chest, cuddling her. She stayed inside until well into the night.
Word of Mizuumi's sickness spread like wildfire, and the first to arrive on the scene were Akio and Sanae.
All sorts of snacks and toys they put all around her bed, but the distraught grandparents were not impressed by the slow recovery. So they took shifts in watching over the child while Tomoya put Nagisa to bed himself so she could rest, trying to reassure her that help is on the way. The family could not afford two people on the sickbed right now.
Kyou also came early, having been apprised by Mizuumi's teacher. She took half a day's leave to see the Okazaki child herself.
"Kyou-san," said Sanae concernedly, "I am afraid Mizuumi might have to take a week off from school."
"Don't worry, Sanae-san. Everybody there understands. I'm sure they will send some fruits over here soon and get-well cards, too."
"You think so?" She let herself feel some relief, sighing. "I should hope Mimi's temperature at least goes down by a few degrees tomorrow."
"She already looks better now. Being supported by so many people is a boost to her."
The next day, Kyou asked for an extension of her leave so she found herself back at the Okazakis that morning. The Furukawas returned to the bakery to fetch some things to treat the child, as well as call on somebody they trusted to heal the child, but as Sanae had hoped, the girl's fever did go down some.
At about ten, Kyou was placing beddings under Mizuumi's feet while Nagisa wiped the girl over and over with a cold, wet towel, when her grandparents finally came.
"Yukine!" said Kyou, surprised. She stood up to hug her. "How are you? You never call to us."
"I'm sorry," she simply replied. The woman immediately knelt at bedside to take the girl's hands and bring out some fever remedies she made herself. "I could make her recover sooner," she said almost reproachfully, "but you must take care of her enough so she won't go through this again. Where's Tomoya?"
Sanae ears seemed to prick over what she thought was the self-importance in Yukine's voice, but she trusted her too much to be offended. After all, a skilled person like her has reason to be confident. If it's for Mizuumi's recovery, how could she complain? Nagisa, for her part, just thought her friend was worried about the girl, also.
"He's at work. We have to pay for any more medicine she might need."
"This is enough," she mumbled in a flat voice. It was almost a reprimand. "I think you should all go back downstairs and relax. Leave this to me." The commanding authority in her voice calmed them all. Yes, Mimi-chan would be in good hands. "Only," she added, "please send Ushio-chan here as soon as she comes home."
Ushio was determined not to show any weakness today, even as Tomoe expressed concerns over her sister. She wanted to be strong in the face of crisis, like Minako.
Most of time, in fact, Tomoe appeared to be far more worried over Mizuumi than Ushio herself and the latter chided her for being a whiner. After which she promptly went about-face.
"I'm sure Mimi-chan will be back on her feet in no time," asserted Tomoe.
Her friend made a forehead palm. (Or rather forehead fingertips, her refined version of frustration.) "That's precisely what I don't want her to do," said Ushio. "She needs to rest a lot to keep her from a relapse."
"Don't worry, Mizuumi's a strong kid. With her kawaii onee-chan to love her, I'm sure she will transcend the limits of her own body!"
Ushio winced. Why do you have to make me sappy again? I just want to keep my mind off of home for once. To switch topics, "Our new science teacher is due today. I just hope he isn't as bad as Mr. Nishimura."
"You're right," said Tomoe. "I don't want a droner. I fall asleep half of the time in his class. I want some excitement, you know, collecting specimens in fields and stuff."
"Isn't that boring as well?" Ushio was not a big fan of the outdoors unless it meant shopping.
The classroom din was abruptly hushed as somebody entered the room.
"Wha… where's our English teacher?" said one of the boys.
"No," replied a girl. "She must be Mr. Nishimura's substitute."
"They switched the schedules?" uttered Ushio in disbelief.
Even more disconcerting was that the teacher looked too young. A young girl. A student teacher? She appeared to be a high school lass no older than they are. Is she even worth listening to? wondered Ushio. On top of that, the new teacher flashed an expression so bright and sunny it burns. What on earth is she up to?
"Hello!" the new teacher smiled. "I'm Mei Sunohara. Pleased to make your acquaintance!"