A Brother and Sister's Interlude
Minako escorted Ushio on the way home that afternoon. For someone who loved a sick brother, and who befriended a little girl, too, Minako couldn't allow herself not to see Mimi get well.
The two bought a bunch of fresh flowers at a nearby florist so they could lighten the atmosphere in the girl's room. Arata was allergic to pollen, but Minako saw no concern in bringing such beauties to a young lass.
"You won't believe what kind of teacher we had for Science," said Ushio as they walked, "I mean, she was like, 'Morning kids, we're gonna shake some sunshine and eat a lotsa love, love, love! Yeah!'… Yeesh."
"I want to be your best friend, best bud, and bestseller all in one!
"Science is art! Science is fun!
"Whoever passes my subject is the most kawaii person ever!"
"What does Science have to do with that?" said a bewildered Minako.
"It's my fault," cringed Ushio. "I said Mr. Nishimura was boring and now it looks like the whole class is being punished."
Minako laughed out loud. "Oh, I get it! So she's the new sub for Mr. Nishimura. From what I heard she's fresh out of grade school. From what you said, it appears she taught the lower grades."
Great, Ushio thought. First, I get treated like Mimi at home and now I get a teacher fit for Mimi at school. Guahh.
When they have arrived, they were startled by the activity at the apartment.
"Goodness!" Minako cried. The whole town got here before us!"
The place, small as it is, seemed ready to fall apart from the crowd that gathered. Nearly everyone they knew were there: The Yoshinos, including Megumi and Aunt Fuko (who fell asleep on the sofa) arrived there as early as four; the Yoshino couple was chatting lightheartedly with Ushio's parents. Kyou-sensei entertained some teachers and classmates of Mizuumi's. Takafumi (much to Ushio's secret delight) helped out with Akio and Sanae in serving drinks and stuff to everybody.
The girls took this as a hint that Mimi's condition has finally improved.
Excitedly they rushed to the room and found the little girl sleeping soundly. The bedside overflowed with gifts of goodies and flowers and cards. She looked much, much calmer now. With her was a woman who looked a lot like Ushio, stoically keeping guard over Mizuumi, unmindful of the outside chatter as if the people didn't exist.
The girls took the woman's demeanor as a cue to hush and settle down by the bedside as well. Ushio set the flowers quietly at the foot of the bed.
For a good long while, they stayed that way, neither of them speaking, afraid that the least sound might irk the lady or arouse the child from her much-needed rest.
Minako, not being a person to relish such meditative silence, at last grew tired of this. She was disappointed as she expected to crack jokes with Mimi and cheer her up but it dawned on her that there was nothing else for somebody like her to do in here. She carefully stood up and stooped to whisper to Ushio.
"I'm going now, girl. Hey, if she's game again you tell me 'K? Bye, sweetie."
Her chum has left for almost an hour now, and the guests still kept up the brisk conversation as the night started to deepen. Ushio couldn't believe she could actually sit like that for hours as she also gets bored easily, but Yukine's presence reassured her. After all, she was the same woman who lulled her into comfort at the municipal library.
The lady did not affix a –chan. But Ushio did not feel uneasy or anything.
"Ushio, could you come to the library tomorrow before school?"
"Huh—" she muttered. Was it something important?
"Please do, Ushio."
Compelled by the gentle firmness in her voice, she replied unhesitantly, "Yes, I will, Yukine-san."
Ushio woke up much earlier than usual so she could get to the library and still be on time for school. Yukine, for her part, purposely went straight to the library at six so she could prepare early and spare time for Ushio. As planned, the two met there at quarter past, whereupon they proceeded to the reference section.
The kettle bubbled and hummed and the toaster clicked and clicked as Yukine spread a coffee-and-sandwich feast before the astonished Ushio. The girl just sat on the couch waiting if the lady will tell her to do something but Yukine was opening the reference section all by herself. She wanted to speak up and ask for a chore but she didn't want to disturb the woman.
Besides, there is so much to worry down, and leftovers would mean letting her gracious host down. Man, this will be a problem…
After she finished stacking the arrivals from last week, Yukine took the uneaten sandwiches (and there were a lot) into resealable plastic snack boxes. "You can have these for lunch so you can save money. Don't skip meals, OK?"
What is this all about?
"Yukine-san…" mumbled Ushio, wanting to get to the bottom line already and ask what exactly she wanted from her. "Umm…"
But Yukine stilled her by combing her hair and buttoning her uniform. She got the girl's bag, which she had wiped with a moist cotton cloth, and handed it to her.
"Have a nice day, Ushio-chan."
"Uh… hai…" Ushio replied, mystified. She then hesitantly turned to head downstairs. She could already hear footsteps and stirrings from the ground floor.
"Huh?" This must be it. The lady must have only waited for the last minute to reveal her intentions.
She faced the librarian with a resolute and attentive expression, bracing herself for whatever it was she has to say. "Anything I can do?"
Yukine was deeply pleased at this and she almost blushed.
"Ushio," she smiled, "please come here again tomorrow, OK?"
Ushio was having a hard time finding a place to put all those sandwiches in. Her locker was full of the instruments from music practice; her P.E. uniforms were there, too, and so were her tennis rackets. She's going to be late trying to cram the snack boxes into every last bit of space.
And late she was. Everybody in school were already in their classrooms for Homeroom. She tried to catch her breath as she stopped outside the door of 1-B.
Gingerly, she opened it, afraid that the teacher would
"Here, get this!" beamed Miss Sunohara as she tossed a beaker… A beaker?!... at her. "It's plastic," the teacher smiled. "We'll use that to mix in the materials, and since you're late, you will be doing the demonstration." Bright, sunny face.
"Who are you?" said Tomoya at the door.
"Whaaaah!" The man outside exclaimed. "We've only talked on the phone last week! I told you I'm coming today, didn't I?"
"No, I thought you said you're moving to Siberia today 'cause the airport kicked you out."
"I didn't say anything like that!" he shouted clutching his head. "You twist ninety percent of what I say one hundred percent of the time!"
"Shut up. The neighbors will be mad at us."
"Anyway," the man said calming down, "I heard your kid was sick, so I got goodies to cheer her up."
"We have plenty of those in here, so you're not needed."
"Did I say anything like I'm pushing myself!" he yelled.
"Just come in, or the whole city will hear your racket."
As soon as they have settled inside, the man looked around in admiration at how the place was furnished. "Nagisa-chan's a superb housekeeper." But then, his expression sobered. "Okazaki, I don't mean to be mean, but… you never were able to move out of here, huh?"
Tomoya only smiled weakly. "I really don't want to talk about it. You already know why we're still in a place like this, Sunohara."
"Meh," Sunohara simply dismissed. It was about Tomoya's father. "Life can be so unfair."
Nagisa was sleeping in the bedroom at Tomoya's insistence. Mizuumi, however, was already awake and even looked more active than before she fell sick. We find her playing with a PSP as we enter her room.
"Oi, Mimi-chan!" said Youhei as he and Tomoya came in. "How's our little princess doing?" he said tickling her affectionately, sending her into a fit of laughter.
"Mimi," said Tomoya. "Greet Uncle Youhei." But she was lost in laughing even as her father's buddy let go of her already.
"Meh," said Youhei straightening up, "she reminds me of Shio-chan back when she was little."
"Ushio loves her even if she won't admit it."
A breeze picked up and dispelled whatever mist remained from early this morning.
"Oi, Mimi," said Youhei again to the girl after she recovered, "what grade are you in now?"
"Two!" she beamed. "On April, I will turn eight!"
"April?" To Okazaki, "So she was born in spring? I suppose Nagisa didn't have any problems givng birth to her."
"I wasn't as worried as when Ushio was born. For one, the doctors were there. But I was still frightened. I didn't know what a C-section would do to her, but they pulled it off anyway. Even now I still have some debt over the operation.
"However, the hospital window opened on a view of blooming cherry trees and Nagisa must have been relieved by the scene so I think it helped with the labor and after." He scratched his chin thoughtfully. "We thought of naming her Hanami (flower viewing) at first because of the sakura, but we settled on having her follow on Ushio (tide, of the sea), and so, Mizuumi (lake)."
"You got a knack for naming, eh?" To Mimi, "Hey, I got a present for you."
He with not a little pride opened the little bag he was holding and took out a pack of Kersheys Lips.
Mizuumi stared at it… and cried.
"Hah? Hey, hey," Youhei uttered in agitation, trying to calm her down. But the girl would have nothing to do with him, hiding under the blanket and bawling.
"Oh yes," followed Tomoya. "She doesn't like chocolate."
"You didn't tell me!"
"Just admit it, Sunohara, bungling is still your specialty."
"Sunohara-san," smiled a sleep-refreshed Nagisa, "I'm so glad you could visit us. How's your job at the airport?"
"Eheh." He still is just a teeny bit abashed seeing her again after so long. "I'm perfectly fine. My bosses and co-workers all say I should be employee of the month every month." Large hammy laugh. "The driving kills me, though."
"What's the deal?" scoffed Tomoya. "It's just an hour away."
"Listen to him," he snorted. "For all I know, yours is a walking-distance job. Your sense of distance is warped, man."
"Oh, well then," cut in Nagisa, "I think I should make you something to eat so you could recover your strength after the trip."
"Eheh." This time, he was nervous. He has a very bad memory of something that Nagisa also brought for him to eat. "I'm being rude now to expect that, am I not?"
"Don't mind us," said Tomoya. "By the way, is Mei-chan with you?"
"Yeah. We were supposed to move somewhere closer, the school here had a vacancy so I simply followed her here."
"Oh, Sunohara," said Nagisa, "how could you not think of moving here in the first place? All of us here are dying to see you back!"
He laughed a little to himself. "Nagisa-chan, people drift apart. You can't expect us to stay in the same place our whole life."
This made her downcast. "I guess so. I haven't been seeing a lot of you these past years, after all." Suddenly, remembering something, her hope returned. "But the other night we agreed to hold a baseball game to celebrate Mimi getting well! Otou-san said he's calling everybody we knew from high school to come and play. Isn't it great? Ehehe."
"Just like old days, pal," seconded Tomoya.
He rubbed his nose self-importantly. "Hmph. It looks like I get to show my expertise once more. Count me in!" he finished with a thumbs up.
"Actually you'll stay in the bench and all the girls will be at the bat."
"Then you stay with me in the bench, too!" he flared.
"Sunohara-san and Tomoya-kun could only be the best of friends," smiled Nagisa. "Ehehe."
"But surely," said Sunohara being calm again, "it will be hard for you to fix a day where he can persuade all of you to be there."
"Leave everything to Pops. If he was able to convince people to eat Sanae-san's bread…"
"Tomoya-kun," said Nagisa with a bit of hurt, "are you saying it isn't normal for people to eat Oka-san's baking?"
"Nagisa, you look so lovely today."
"Oh," she blushed. "Thank you." Tomoya got away with it again. It always works.
"Heh," beamed Sunohara, "Nagisa-chan alone should be enough reason for everybody to be there! Who could possibly refuse somebody as cute as her? Hmmmm?"
"Oh, come on," she fumbled blushing even more, "You two are just too kind."
"Wow!" said Ushio coming in with the groceries. "Uncle Youhei!"
"Oi, Ushio! Heheh, such a beauty of a carbon copy of her kawaii mom!"
"Uhh… uhh…" Nagisa, too flattered for comfort, stood up. "I-I will check if the rice is done." And she left.
Ushio carried the bag in one hand and with the other she high-fived with Sunohara.
"Ushio," said Tomoya. "Your stuff will fall."
"Oh, sorry," she said, hugging the bag and putting it down. "What malicious wind brought you here today, Uncle?"
"Eh?" he mumbled. "And I was just about to say how lovely your hair is."
"Really?" she said, very much pleased and stroking her hair. "You know, Uncle, you're nearly the only one to appreciate my hair.
"I'm sorry to disappoint you, dear," said Tomoya, "But given that he's your uncle Youhei, you probably shouldn't take his word for it."
"Okazaki, you even had to involve your own daughter just to insult me? Heh, I'm serious. Long hair really fits Ushio-chan, neh?"
"Wha…" Ushio was at a loss for words. "Long?" She stroked her hair again, and found, much to her consternation, that the tips of her hair now reached down to almost half her back. "Umm, excuse me." She went off to her room and shut the door.
Youhei gazed after the girl, and then he looked up, remioniscing. "Ushio is quite the lady now, isn't she?" he said.
Tomoya sobered up. "Honestly," he replied, "I hate to think of it that way. I know I can't keep her from growing up, but if only I could keep her with me. Really, everything she's been doing of late hurts me little by little inside. I really wished she would stay like Mimi is." He toughened up. "Still, she's a stubborn girl, isn't she?"
Youhei smirked. "Like we haven't been there. You know, I'm no parent, but, looking back, I can say that, as a teenager like her, you sure can make me listen to you my father without your nagging me. Why, look at Nagisa.
"I don't think the likes of her are good at nagging, but Ushio's no beast in her presence. If I were her I would look for a good teacher rather than a good nagger. Someone who connects as well as corrects. In her eyes you're only pushing her away from you as much as your dad did, only you're pulling her this time. But the result is the same."
Tomoya sighed. "I guess I was trying to undo what my father did, and all I do is overdo."
"For one, you should let her grow up some. Youth flies by, you know."
"Eeeee…!" It's his sister. She barged in without ado. "What's the deal leaving me at the house while you're at a visit without even telling me? Are you ashamed of me or something? You even brought the car with you." Just then, she noticed Tomoya, and, suddenly, she paled realizing she was in someone else's house. "Oh, I'm sorry, sir, please…"
Hey, it's… It's…
She rushed and clung to the aghast man with all her might, laughing. "I knew it! I knew I was looking forward to someone really special when I came here, and I'm right!"
Sunohara stared at them in embarrassment, but then, he shifted his gaze and it quickly turned into a look of alarm. Tomoya also shifted his attention.
Nagisa stood there staring at them, shocked.
"T-Tomoya…kun… do you… do you love someone else now?" She squinted her eyes shut in distress. "You don't love me anymore?"
"Kawaii!" squealed Mei flinging Tomoya aside. "You look so cute when do that, Nagisa-chan!" She jumped up and wrapped around her. "It's me, Mei-chan! You don't recognize me? Have I grown too lovely you have forgotten me?"
"Mei-chan?" wondered Nagisa. She then brightened up. "Mei-chan!" She returned the affection. "My days, you're such a fine young lady now! I'm right to be jealous of you."
"Nah. I should be the one jealous of you two." She stood back and made a frame with her fingers, as though to take a picture of them. "You are the cutest couple that ever is, and ever was! Say, Tomoya-san, why don't you say, ehem, 'Nagisa, suki da!' "
Which rendered both speechless and turning away from each other. "Is that even necessary?" they chorused.
Mei wasn't amused. "Oh, come on! You're married now, what's the deal?"
"You know," fumbled Tomoya, "I think it's evident. Do you even have to do that?"
"Why of course! Meh, are you pretending to be available, Okazaki-san?"
It shocked Nagisa even more. Squinting and embarrassed, she forced herself to say, "T-Tomoya-kun! I-I love you...v-very much! P-Please don't leave me... Hey, why don't you speak up?"
At that point, Ushio came out after having tied her hair in a loose bun. Upon seeing Mei, "Oh, my goolye!" she went behind her mother to hide. "It's that creepy teacher of ours in Science!"
"Such disrespect youngsters show their teachers these days, humph!" reprimanded Mei. Then, "Hey, you're the…" Who was she again? She took out her school journal and flipped rapidly to see who she had assigned at the Homeroom experiment. "Wah! Okazaki? So you're… you're…" She squealed with delight and rushed over behind Nagisa but Ushio was quick to move to the front. "You look so much ;like Nagisa-chan!" They got to chasing round and round Nagisa. "I'm the one who brought your Mommy and Daddy together. Come on, kiss your mama."
"I don't have a creepy mama who gives diabetes."
"I'm the reason you exist! Technically, I'm your parent. Come on now, kiss me."
"I will not!"
"You owe me!" She suddenly went the other way and caught Ushio. She kissed and kissed and dishevelled her hair, undoing the bun and letting her mane fall. "Oh goodness, you smell really good!"
"Aunt Ryou called last night and asked if you could get your mother's medication at their house. She's approaching her term and is not feeling well enough today to come here."
"Uh, hai!" She broke free of Mei's grasp. Daddy, you saved me! I'm forever indebted to you. She rushed back to her room to dress.
After the girl has dressed and was about to go out the door, Mei playfully warned, "You watch out, Okazaki! I will make your life at Hikarizaka miserable. Teeheehee~"
Ushio was relieved to be out in the open again. This can't be happening! So papa and mama actually know her? Eeek. She struggled to put the terrible implications behind her as she pushed herself onward to the Hiiragis.
Aunt Ryou's house was quite unassuming: a California bungalow with a veranda obscured by riotous growth of potted flowers. Or so it looked. Inside, the house extended well to the back, giving it the appearance of a mansion. Refreshing piano music played somewhere.
"Coming, honey!" called Ryou from the far end of the living room. It was large enough for her to yell. "So you came to get the capsules? Kappei's still sorting them and a number will have to stay in the fridge for an hour or so. Why don't you sit down while you wait?"
The girl did so as her host went outside. The piano was just soothing. If only she could also have lessons after school...
She looked around some more, and noticed the area was tastefully decorated in... plants. To say nothing of the flowers dominating the veranda, there were also luxuriant aloe vera on the window ledge behind her, and the large window was one-fourth covered. There were only huge ornamentals on huge pots under generously-sized skylights. It was all very beautiful, but for a while she wondered if she was actually in some tropical resort or something. A number of the plants she didn't even recognize. Perhaps she should ask her Science teacher... uh... never mind.
"Having a great time?" said Ryou upon returning. Following her was her husband. "It's much better to have nature closer to you, now, isn't it?"
"They're very cumbersome to move when it snows, though," grumbled Kappei. "A lot of these are exotic and a few are actually expensive to maintain."
"So what," frowned Ryou. "Don't you want our daughter to grow up in a beautiful place?"
"Better be careful, hon, or she might grow up to be Tarzania. Say, it's a cool name, now, isn't it?"
"Oh you," she said yanking his hair.
Ushio laughed. "You're a cute couple when you fight." She could hardly hold herself down. "You're just as funny as grandma and grampa."
"But you know," said Ryou, "you shouldn't have a hard time looking for a man when you grow older. I mean, you have the loveliness of your mother and the liveliness of your father."
"Uh? Was Papa lively?" She could only think of his nagging and chiding her.
"Why of course," she smiled. "You should have seen him when he was in high school. Your Kyou-sensei even tried to pair me with him 'cause I was so shy back then, until he chose your Mama, and I ended up with... him. Humph."
"Your Aunt Ryou falls hard and fast when she's in love; she just ashamed of it."
"Oh, how sweet," giggled Ushio. "Though I wonder why you should be the one who's got a family when she's older than you."
"She's very picky. She has dumped tons of guys (trying to look for someone who resembled Tomoya, and chose a foreigner anyway) and even now she still gets love letters." Suddenly, she leaned closer to the girl. "I must tell you a secret, though. Only Kappei and I know this, and Taro, too, but he forgets things like that easily." She whispered. "The elder twin is actually me."
"Hahhh?" She nearly fell off the sofa. "Papa always said..."
"That's what everyone else knows. That's also what we sisters thought all along. Until I saw my birth certificate to prepare for my marriage to your Uncle Kappei, that is. It said I was the one who came out first. Even our kindergarten teacher knows I'm the older one. But I have always been timid while she defended me when the other children teased me. It had been that way since, and then our parents just took for granted that she was the older one and I the younger."
"Woah. That was some story."
"Mom?" called a voice. A boy had appeared at the door off to the side. Taro. The thirteen-year-old was tall, like a fifteen-year-old, and took after his mother's shyness as a teenager. "Is someone with us?"
"Hai. Say, greet her a good morning. She's Ushio Okazaki. She's the daughter of your Uncle Tomoya and Aunt Nagisa."
He bowed timidly and greeted, and Ushio stood up to do likewise. He did not say anything more, only looked at his mother, who seemed to understand and joined him to talk with him somewhere else.
Kappei went for the capsules and got them for Ushio. "Here. You'll join us shortly for lunch, won't you?"
"No. Our house isn't far away. I'll get there on time if I leave now."
"You're not waiting for your Aunt Ryou? Well..." He turned to the door where he could spy them, mother and child, having some private conclave. It must be important. He didn't want to disturb them, and neither did Ushio.
"So it's her who had that lovely laugh," said Taro out of earshot, blushing. "And her hair. So beautiful."
"So you like her?" acknowledged Ryou, restraining a little smile of her own.