Ushio stood on second base while the shadows cast by the afternoon sun shifted at her feet. Ahead stood Nichi, poised to run with his life. It showed in the tense, sharply angled posture and the agitated expression plastered on his profusely sweating face. Behind stood Tenshi, equally nervous but trying mightily to keep it to himself. He is not showing any weakness in front of his avowed archenemy.
Oddly enough, at that moment, with her attention in sharp focus on the third baseman and how to outwit him, she had a fleeting moment's notice of how calm he appeared in the face of enormous risk. It stood in sharp contrast to what she herself felt, to what everybody else felt. What exactly was he thinking? Was he trying to prove something? That he didn't care about the outcome of the game? That he had a trick of his own? That he smelled victory somehow?
For a split-second, she was curious about him.
Tenshi slept at the back seat while Tomoyo parked the car beside the house after ferrying the Furukawa couple home.
It would be useless to wake him up at this point. She decided to get out of the car and take the baseball gear out of the trunk. There was so much of it, her gear and Tenshi's, that it was rather heavy even for her. On the way she snatched a glance at her son through the window… only to stop, and stare at him. He looked so peaceful in sleep. She was starting to see a man in her growing child.
She lay her load on the ground against the wheel and opened the door to look more closely at Tenshi. Most of the time she was too irritated at him to even bother talking to him other than boss him around, and he for his part never relished being approached by or getting close to his mother. But now was her chance. She wanted badly to be on gut level with her own flesh and blood, and now the opportunity, so rare, was now so close it put her on the verge of tears. She stroked her son's silvery hair, the hair that looked so much like hers, and from there she could not get enough of stroking his face over and over. At last... If she was a bear she would lick and lick her cub endlessly… Tenshi, I hope you wouldn't mind if I sneaked up on you. I know you don't trust me well enough. If you don't trust your father, I won't mind, not at all… but me, no, not me. Give me a chance…
"Tomoya, I'm returning to the station first thing tomorrow," she said to him over the phone. "It's OK with you if you looked after Tenshi?
Small sobs constricted her throat and she wasn't able to speak for a while.
"Hai," she managed, recovering. "What do you say?"
When he didn't answer at once, she thought he was unwilling, and she broke down immediately. "Tomoya, please. I seriously don't know how he will get around here in Hikarizaka. He's so unpredictable. He fights and bickers with a lot of people back home, even some of his own friends. He's snappish. You would understand. Right?"
"H-Hey," said Tomoya, surprised. "Easy now. I didn't say I don't want to. What's the fuss about? Did something wrong happen to him?"
Tomoyo did not mind spilling private details now. Tomoya hung in there, listening. Of course he understood how agitated she would get if it was over her son. He would know.
"…His father wanted to be very closely associated with me so he could further his own career in the newspapers," Tomoyo explained. "I thought I could trust him well enough so we married and in the summer of that year Tenshi was born.
"We worked well together and we had a strong partnership for the first five years of Tenshi's life. I was content to leave him to the neighbors all the while I was in Tokyo. But when Tenshi was big enough for kindergarten I wanted to look after him personally, so I set aside a lot of time to bring him to school.
"His father and I found that we lost some time to work together, and he was furious at me often. He treated Tenshi very coldly and did not so much glance at him. Somehow I could put up with that.
"But later on, when he gets very irritated he would shout at Tenshi and frighten him so. Tenshi was a very big bawler back in the day and it only incensed his father even more. We found ourselves getting into fights over the child. I was strong, I tried to be, I could put up with his berating Tenshi and his chewing me out, but he, he could not in the least understand why I gave so much importance to only a boy. That's what he said.
"One night we had a particularly severe quarrel and I was not in the best mood myself after a long trip to Okinawa so I could not muster enough cool to talk to him. I threw very sharp words at him. And then… in his fury, he said… he said that it would have better if I just had a miscarriage."
She choked up at this point.
"Yes… he said he'd rather not have Tenshi born. I could not put up with that. To think so lowly of your own son? I forgot myself and slapped him.
"The next day he left without notice and I never heard of him since. I was regretful. I thought it couldn't have been like this if we just took matters to court. But his father never gave me another chance." She paused to wipe the tears off her cheeks.
"Tomoyo," he consoled, "you shouldn't push yourself so hard."
"Please, Tomoya. Watch over him. Will you?"
For a long time afterwards, phone in hand, Tomoyo just sat on Tenshi's bed looking over all the records and games and stuff he had amassed over the years. At about nine, Takafumi came in. "Sis, I thought you were asleep. Where's Tenshi?"
"Takafumi," she said softly, "please get a blanket out to Tenshi. He's in the car."
The second floor of the library was unusually lively today, even at such an early hour. A group of university students who called last week came in for research, and, of course, Yukine spread a full meal for her guests. Ushio was there as usual and she felt refreshed by the change in scene at the usually hushed auxiliary section.
The girl chatted with a engineering major, a lively woman who much enlightened her on mathematics. Yukine also joined in the discussion. It surprised Ushio that the librarian would be well-versed in such seemingly arcane topics as Geometry. To the girl's mind, Yukine should have been an architect, and she told her so.
"Oh no," giggled Yukine. "I was just parroting things I memorized back in high school."
"But surely, Yukine-san," insisted Ushio, "memorizing and explaining are two different things. You went well along enough discussing things with Madam." The lady could only agree with the girl.
"No, no," chuckled Yukine again. "It takes much more than knowledge to be an architect. I heard it was quite expensive to take up. But you know, Ushio, you were better at talking to Madam than me. It appears to me you could excel in any field."
"Me? I get more than enough trouble trying to move ahead with my grades." Not to mention an exasperating Science teacher.
"It's only because you're in your first year and perhaps do not have a clear vision of what you want to study after high school, so you could not fully apply yourself as you should. But once you envision a clear path and start to focus on what you want, I'm sure you yourself will be amazed at what you can do."
Ushio only blushed. "You think so, Yukine-san?" she could only reply.
The students were a jolly group. They worked cooperatively in pairs or threes. Their closeness was such that they found it easy to laugh even doing serious research. It delighted Yukine and she didn't mind the noise herself, though she will have to ask them to hush when the other librarians arrive.
She turned to face a twenty-something man in casual dress and wearing a cap. "Um, sir, could you please remove your cap?"
He obliged. Yukine was stunned. She gaped as she realized who it was. "Uh, Yukine-san?" Ushio asked, noticing the change.
She quickly composed herself. "No, Ushio, it's nothing. Say, you might be late now."
But it was only six-fifteen. "Um, is it important, Yukine-san?"
Yukine closed her eyes, somewhat embarrassed. She was unsuccessful in concealing things from the girl. With a soft "Excuse me." to the man, she turned and lavished the usual attention and affection she accorded the girl whenever she prepared to see her off. It worked. Ushio never asked another word as she savored Yukine's TLC. As the girl stood to leave and took her load of desserts from Yukine, she once again straightened the girl's uniform and arranged her hair a bit. With a kiss, Yukine said, "Tell me if you find anything funny about the taste. It's my first try on a new blend jelly and fruit."
"I don't have to," smiled Ushio. "Your cooking's always great."
As soon as the sound of Ushio's footsteps had vanished, the man came up right beside the librarian. He was from the gang who fought Kouhei's. These people really know how to blend and sneak in.
"You have not kept your word," he said gravely.
Yukine did not reply. The rest of the people there chatted on amiably, oblivious of the tension.
"You cannot stop another conflict from erupting in this city. We all expected you will fair on both sides."
"I still am, Shimizu."
"You are not."
"Is simply visiting a grave so much ado to you?"
"You came in the middle of the night. You know yourself how shameful your deed is."
"It is people like you who put such unsightly hues into things."
"Nobody will listen to you now, Miyazawa. Before the week is out, as soon as the rest knows of your treachery, the battles will resume. And you will watch all of it. If we have to take things right here into your library, it will be easy for us."
"Shimizu," she hissed, softly, but with unmistakable venom, "you really have to involve other people into this, don't you?"
"You brought all of this, Miyazawa. You are to blame. You alone."
Having delivered his message he put his cap back on and walked away. "Wait," Yukine said, regaining her composure, "perhaps you would want some coffee?"
He smirked. "From you? Hmph. Not wanting to risk being poisoned, who knows?"
She set her lips in a thin, flat line and shifted her gaze for a moment on the other people. Did they hear? But no one gave any indication of awareness, totally absorbed. She was relieved. No, rather, she was not. She will never be, not while this issue hung rotting in the air.
She tried to put back her smile, but, failing, she decided to immediately proceed to the toilet where nobody would see her.
"Who are you again?" asked Tomoya at the door.
"Meh…" uttered Sunohara in exasperation. "Aren't you giving me a warm welcome for once?"
"I'm sorry, but a person like you does not elicit lasting memories. The children of this generation, or their children's children, will probably never be apprised of your existence."
"Did I even say I care?" he yelled. Calming down, "Anyway, is Nagisa-chan OK?"
"She's resting. I don't let her do heavy house duties for extended lengths of time, as usual, but that's to ensure she would stay in normal condition. Come in."
As soon as he has settled, Sunohara went straight to the point. "I want to make up with your Mimi-chan. I saw how she played at the game, and I must say she was awesome for her age. I want to be on her good side."
"Well, what do you plan to do?"
"I heard that Tomoyo-san toured her. Humph. Having a car myself, would I let the chance pass by to endear myself to Mimi-chan?"
"It will take more than a car or even two years' driving around to win over Mizuumi for a guy like you."
"Did I say that I care?" he flared. "All I want is to make her happy so she can associate me with pleasant memories, so when the day comes, she will say, 'There was this really cool guy who taught me everything about the world.' What do you think now, Okazaki?"
"Mei-chan would be a great companion for Mizuumi."
Youhei nearly fell over. "I understand," he finally said. "She taught at Mimi-chan's grade level back home. But she's quite busy now while I have about two days' leave and basically I got nothing to do. Come on now, perhaps you could spare me your child for once."
Tomoya stood up and called for his daughter at the door to her room. "Mizuumi, Uncle Youhei's here. He wants to talk to you."
Very gingerly, Mizuumi slid out the door, as a five-year-old meeting a stranger would. Facing him, the first thing she said was, "I don't want any chocolate."
"No, no," he smiled, chuckling uneasily. "Uncle wants to get you on a trip. That dandy, huh?"
The little girl ventured a tentative smile. "Where to, Uncle?"
"Oh, anywhere. Any place you like to go."
"Will you take me to Tokyo?"
Youhei was rendered speechless. For a while he pondered on how to break it to the girl. "Well, now… That's a bit far." Cough. "Is it OK with you if we had a whole day's drive and three days' stay plus another day's drive back?"
Mizuumi, astounded, looked back to her father. "Daddy, is he going to kidnap me?"
"Well… it depends on his mood; certainly you don't want to rub him the wrong way."
"Did I say I was going kidnap her!" Sunohara yelled.
"See?" said Tomoya matter-of-factly over the outburst. "He feels like kidnapping you right now."
"What kind of rubbish do you feed your own child?" demanded Sunohara.
Mizuumi went over to Youhei with a resolved air and embraced the man. "If you'll kidnap me, I want Shio-chan to be with me."
Tomoya was disconcerted over how his daughter believed him so quickly. Was he that convincing? And an innocent mind.
"Eh?" Sunohara was dumbstruck for a moment. But then a glint shone in his eye and he wrapped himself around the girl. "Sure, little Mimi-chan. We'll get your Onee-chan right away." It dawned on him that the freshman would be able to carry out a very important favor for him.
"What?" blurted Ushio. She never played the role of pairings specialist before. "But I'm not at Doctor Ichinose's anymore. It's been about a month, I think."
"Well, maybe you know somebody who's close to her?" insisted Sunohara.
"Um… Do you remember Nichi? The one made the home run when we won? He's at Doctor Ichinose's office now. I could talk to him…" She wasn't very sure.
"Please do!" said Youhei grabbing her shoulders. "I'll do anything you want, just name it!"
Oh goodness… Is he that desperate? Well in this case…
"I'll take you on a trip with Mimi-chan to Tokyo, all expense paid!"
Didn't he say he'll do anything Ushio wants? "No, that's not what I mean," fumbled the girl.
"Don't you want to relax every once in a while?"
"But, Uncle, Tokyo's just too far from here. I mean, school's not over and we would have to stay there for days if we are to stay there at all. And I know we'll have to once we get there. What will happen to my studies?"
"Doctor Ichinose will allow you. She's powerful with the school board, right?"
Now that's just asking too much. "Ojisan, the reason I got stuck with her in the first place is because she was mad at me. How could you even expect me to impose you on her?"
"I'm not asking you to impose me, just, well, introduce me, mention me, whatever…"
She pursed her lips as she weighed her response. "OK. If you want to take me on a trip, I want Tomoe to be with me."
Thud, thought Sunohara, more load to bear. Do I even have enough gas for all of you? "O-OK…" Sigh. "Perhaps I could get enough hotel accommodation for four, hehehe…" This was getting difficult for him. But if it was for Kotomi… "Just make sure you'll improve my chances with her, alright?"
"Oh, and one more thing. What I really want, Uncle… is that, well, I heard Miss Sunohara is your sister, am I right? Could you please tell her to stop bugging me? Actually she'll clam up if I do, but the class will be mad at me, and I just want her to do the initiative."
"Righty-o, Ushio!" he said thumbs up in fairly good English. "Fight-o! U.F.O.!" she recalled. Urrggh. What a distressful rhyme. They're really kin, aren't they?
Tomoya shifted his eyes worriedly as he counted out the capsules that Ryou sent him. They were getting fewer and fewer. She had explained to him over the phone that Dr. Kirishima was finding it more difficult to obtain the drugs in Hikarizaka and additional supplies may have to be purchased from a distance, Kobe, perhaps, at a considerable cost. Lately, too, he chanced upon the landlord prowling around the apartment. He still has some debt left over. He let his head sink into gnarled hands. This was getting more complicated by the minute. And Nagisa was of course in no shape to work; even if she was, the current scale of things would still be difficult to surmount. There was just too much, he felt, for one man to bear.
In the room, Nagisa was peacefully asleep.
He ate dinner with only his daughters and Mizuumi excitedly chattered about school as she was wont to do, and she also gushed about the forthcoming trip with Uncle Youhei. He was a little relieved. At least it would take things off of the girls' minds. Later that night he tucked them into bed himself.
Returning to his own room, he was surprised to find Nagisa already up and about, looking over the family album. "Look at this, Tomoya-kun," Nagisa pointed happily, "Ushio looked funny in her grade two uniform. I remember she said she hated it."
Wanting to humor his wife, he just sat down beside her and smiled, listening.
"And look at this picture with her and Mimi-chan. She was trying to block the view so the camera would take her picture instead of the baby's." She giggled. "She really has a thing for cameras."
"I do remember she asked me to buy one a year ago."
"Perhaps we should, Tomoya-kun. Her birthday's coming in the winter."
He found an opening to which he could perhaps seamlessly insert his concerns. "I don't really know if we could, Nagisa. You know yourself how far along your health is going."
"Tomoya, I'm perfectly fine. You don't need to buy me all those medicines anymore. What matters is that we make Shio-chan smile."
"We still have the rent."
"Haven't Otou-san and Oka-san paid for it already?"
"Don't you remember? Sanae-san said it was only a month's worth. The landlord will definitely return here at the end of the month."
Nagisa's face fell just a bit. They can't rely on her parents all the time. "But still," she said, her face brightening, "I should be able to get back to Ernesto Host next month at this rate. If things go along as they do now, I might even say I'll be back in shape in two weeks."
If, thought Tomoya bitterly. He didn't want to add to her stress, so he just let it pass and cuddled his wife in his arms. At the same time, he was secretly mulling over fielding a move of his own.
Well… Sunohara did take them, Mizuumi, Ushio, and Tomoe, on a trip, but it was to the Hikarizaka shopping district. He just realized he really didn't have enough gas to last a voyage to Tokyo.
"How dare you go without me!" ranted a furious Minako over the phone. "I have done the most to teach Mimi-chan and now you leave me out! Gahhh!"
Youhei was nearly driven insane from the noise. The girl's voice over the loudspeaker was powerful enough to rival a speaking voice, and they were in the car. "Your friend sure got talent. She should be in a horror house."
"Don't worry, girl," reassured Ushio, "We'll get you a princess crepe when we get back."
"That doesn't explain anything!" retorted the voice over the line.
"Wow! Princess crepe!" rejoiced Mizuumi jumping up and down in the front seat beside Sunohara. She tugged at his elbow frantically. "You will get all of us a princess crepe each, or two each! Right, Ojisan?"
He might as well have driven all the way to Tokyo. "Mimi-chan, I'm driving! We'll get hit."
However, they did arrive safely at the district and Mizuumi ran on excitedly while Tomoe and Ushio chatted lightheartedly behind a hassled Sunohara. To his mind, as this place was in the same town, he could just leave the two high schoolers on their own, they could even go home on their own, and focus on the real deal Mizuumi. Then, perhaps, he could buy a princess crepe for real.
"Uncle," interrupted Ushio, "Do you know if any new arcades sprang up around here?"
"How would I? You're the ones who live here."
"But surely you do! Otherwise, why take us here?"
"Look, honey, if you want you could go around shopping and you just call me if you need me to drive you home."
"Uncle!" exclaimed Ushio. "Drive us home? So soon? We have just arrived here." She hugged him, throwing him into further distress. "You can't just leave us here! You're like a father to us in this trip. We have to stay with you!"
"We won't relate. I want to look over motorcycles and I must take Mimi-chan to kidstuff, and you girls want dresses and all."
"Dresses are boring!" Ushio declared. "If you like motorcycles, Uncle, I might as well try them."
"Yes," seconded Tomoe. "Wouldn't it be nice to try something new for a change? Besides, I saw Doctor Ichinose drive on a big model once, so I think it shouldn't be awkward for girls to drive even just a small one."
That name. It put a stifled grin on his face. It also reminded him to get on the good side of these girls. "Really? Hahahaha! OK! To the motorcycles we go!" He marched gamely forward while the girls snickered behind his back at his funny behavior.
The day passed by and afternoon came. Sunohara was relieved that the girls carried the things they bought themselves… 'cause he was busy carrying Mizuumi's. The little girl was finishing off the tip of her crepe and licking the leftover icing off of her fingers.
"Oh!" remembered Youhei. "We forgot to take our lunch. Hahahaha! Where do you want me treat you?"
"Anywhere will be fine," smiled Ushio sunnily.
"Good! I'll get you a burger each!"
"Anywhere the pasta's great, Uncle," corrected Ushio, still smiling sunnily. "I think I know a great pizza parlor down the road. We and Minako once got there and we all had a fabulous time. Right, Moe?"
"Yeah!" cried Tomoe excitedly. "And we could appease Minako by getting her a box straight from that restaurant! You're so brilliant, Shio-chan!"
A box?! I'll have to get my credit card now… "By the way, we can rest over there while we recover our energy," he said indicating a fountain. "It's refreshing to be near the water."
"You said it, Uncle!" agreed Ushio. The two girls ran on ahead with their bags and pleasantly settled on the cool marble ledge, while Sunohara lumbered along with his load. Mizuumi, however, halted in her tracks staring into some distance further ahead. He went over to her and said, "You OK, Mimi-chan?"
"Eh? Okazaki?" He lay down his bags and watched in that direction as Mizuumi ran on ahead. To the girls, "Look after this, will you? I'll get Mimi-chan."
It was a bit difficult to weave through the many passers-by and trying to follow the little girl's back, especially as she turned into a blind corner that led to a narrow stairway. He went up to a glass door, and went in, surprised to find that it was an employment agency. No, rather, it was a large office space that housed on separate counters, among others, an employment agency, a social security branch, an internet provider's billing outlet… and a branch of Hikarizaka Electric, where Tomoya was employed. He seem to be in a serious discussion with the officer as Mizuumi at his side listened curiously. He went over to them.
"Well the only project we have for you left is the rebuilding effort at Iwaki." The earthquake-hit city. It was very far, farther than Tokyo, even. It appears Hikarizaka Electric has been one of those contracted to re-install electric lines. "You would be staying there for about two months. Anyway, the pay is very good; the usual rate several times over. You could bag five months' worth of wages at the end of the project. If it extends, you could get more."
"I understand," said Tomoya resolutely. All the while Mizuumi was staring at her father with wide eyes.
"Daddy, will you get a lot of money?"
"Hai, Mizuumi," he replied gently.
"Will you take me there. Daddy?"
"Sure," he said ruffling her daughter's hair dotingly under which a bright expression shone on the girl's face. "When I get back I will take you there."
Oh boy, Okazaki, you sure are good at lying to people, even to your child.
He approached them and somewhat surprised Tomoya. "Oh, Sunohara, how were you doing? I thought you guys went to Tokyo."
"Um, Okazaki, this… Have you told Nagisa yet?"
Tomoya declined to reply. He only subtly averted his gaze, while Mizuumi looked back and forth curiously at the two men.