Somebody New to Meet
These past days of late swirled around Ushio like a rushing torrent. The events all seemed so far-removed as to be almost unreal. It didn't seem so long ago since she last sat back comfortably sipping Yukine's fresh brew. It was only now that she remembered to visit the place again even though another school week has commenced.
Fortunately for Mei, though she could not start teaching in her new school just yet, the place wanted her so badly the old Science teacher there managed to send his students to an afterschool tutorial with her, their parents paying, even outsourcing much of the paperwork to her. Thus, the lady has unofficially started her school duties with compensation, but such an arrangement could not last.
"I'm counting on you guys," she told Ushio, "I got to get cleared before the year ends."
For her part, she decided to put her first return visit to the library to good use.
"Good morning, Ushio," smiled Yukine at her as usual.
"Ohayou, Yukine-san. How were you last week? Did the bad guys hurt you?"
"Oh no, no," she said. "I'm quite fine."
"I'm sure some of those gangsters are too scared to touch you," Ushio said, remembering the time she saw her at the bar.
"Come on, Ushio," she said giggling uneasily, "I'm not that strong." Changing the subject, "Sit down while I make you some tea."
"Sorry, Yukine-san. I got some real heavy-duty stuff to do right now."
"Oh? Like what?"
"The principal said I (disdaining to say "we") should do a tour book about our town. Perhaps you have an old one that I can copy."
"Well now... I think I have several publications on attractions in our city, and a few local histories, but I haven't found a single work that covers all of Hikarizaka. Besides, I won't recommend any student to lift something clean out of someone else's work."
"Well, in that case, I better start right away." She put her things down on the couch leaving only a notebook and pen for herself, but Yukine gently restrained her.
"No, dear, leave it all to me."
Ushio felt somewhat awkward about the extra service. "Um, Yukine-san, aren't you spoiling me or anything?"
The lady only giggled warmly. "You are really like your mother sometimes. You don't have to be modest with me, dear, I know you'll have tons of work outside."
Well, she's right. The girl may well have to source more information from walking around town. "But," insisted Ushio, "The college people went to the shelves themselves."
"There were too many for me to handle. Don't worry, dear, just sit down and pour yourself some coffee while you wait."
The ambience of the library was still as overpowering as ever. Soft music played from somewhere that reminded her of something as relaxing as a tea party. In a reference room? Yukine never ceases to amaze Ushio.
In about ten minutes she was back with a pile of some twelve books and publications. "Whoa," blurted Ushio, "Must I look over all that?"
"Well, I'll let you take out what you choose to work on for the moment and the rest I'll keep here under my desk until you return. And I made a suggested sequence of which books you could study first based on the content layout of travel guides." She chose a slim hardbound. "I suggest this for your first pick."
She's awesome. "Thanks a bunch, Yukine-san!"
As she started to browse it, Yukine gently took it from her saying, "You can see that later, Ushio. Why don't you eat for now before you go to school? I know you'll have a big day ahead of you."
While she was eating, Ushio mulled over what writing style would be best for her book. Gathering appropriate content and laying them out as certainly different from presenting them. If it was a dry research paper, she could just let the facts speak for themselves, but a tourist guide is decidedly different. She asked the librarian about how to write effectively to tourists.
"Why I think you could ask somebody who works at the airport. For all I know, airport people all over Japan have been trained extensively in guiding foreigners back when we hosted the World Baseball Classic. And you may want to ask the help of a professor to guide you in standard Japanese and English grammar."
That's amazing! Ushio just happened know two people fit for the job...
Immediately at lunch break Ushio went to the pay phone and called for Uncle Youhei. Fortunately he was quite often at home by this time.
"Meh, why should I even help you? Have you got Kotomi-chan for me already?"
She was dismayed by such barter attitude. But it was a golden opportunity. If two mutually hostile people could be paired for a project... "OK! I'll have you and Kotomi-san work together on a special assignment. I'm gonna make a tour guide. You'll fix the writing style so it would appeal to tourists and Kotomi-san will pick words for standard grammar."
"Seriously?" went an excited voice at the other end. "I'm all fired up!" She could just imagine him doing cartwheels as he said that.
As she went up the hallway to the board room Ushio grew worried. Would she really be able to get her into this? She has just witnessed and agreed to what the principal has decided, and now it was the same who will help bail her out?
As she stood before the big oaken door she became even more nervous. She thought of another exchange which might get her to consider: she will bring Mizuumi everyday if she will agree to... work with Uncle Youhei? It didn't sound so right in itself. Nonetheless, she brought herself to knock.
To her surprise, it was a middle-aged man who answered her. Doctor Ichinose's aide. "Well, miss, I believe you were a bit late."
"Huh? Isn't she around?"
He gestured a "no." "Docotor Ichinose rushed back to the United States over the weekend. It seems their research there has faced an urgent issue and it was crucial that she be there right away." He smiled genially. "Anyway she should be back here in Japan after about a month and to Hikarizaka about two months. Is there an important message that you have to relay to her? I can fax her."
Ushio was speechless. After a while, "Well, thank you, kind sir." And the door closed on her.
It was so fast... Why didn't she even tell?
Tomoya was finally able to send a week's supply of the complete recommended dosage for Nagisa. Nagisa started to regularly take the capsules again, and everytime she did, Dr. Kirishima came and checked her heart rate through EKG. She would make small faces every after checkup but she would keep telling Nagisa to take the dosage anyway.
Upon entering the room after school, Ushio was distressed to find the machines beside her mother's bed. "Doctor," she said worriedly, "will Mama be OK?"
She only shrugged. "It depends. In any case, keep her in bed and keep her occupied." She motioned her assistant to wheel the machine away. "Oh yes, tell your Doctor Ichimaki her bills are racking up."
"No, Doctor," said Nagisa trying to get up. "I will be out of here by tomorrow. I have the capsules now, anyway."
"You shall not!" reprimanded Dr. Kirishima. "Since you're already in my clinic I'm already responsible for you so if anything funny happens after this, I'll still get all the money and you will get all the blame for picking an 'incompetent' physician. Yeesh."
"Sorry, Doctor," said Ushio. Despite her constant grumbling, they could never bring themselves to truly loathe her, being quite attentive and serious in her examinations, unlike some other doctors.
"And tell your friend Ryou I'll have her pay part of the expenses if your mother extends her stay here. And your grandparents, too."
With that she left, and the girl immediately went over to her mother. "Mama," she sobbed clasping the woman's right hand to her breast. "Please stop moving. You need to rest."
"No, Ushio dear, I'm fine. I don't want everybody to be burdened." She sighed. "Well, maybe it would take a few more days, after all, but I will be back home soon enough."
The girl knelt by the bedside and laid herself out on Nagisa's lap while the mother tenderly hummed her child a lullaby. After a while, sunset came, and with it arrived Kyou with Mizuumi, and a large plastic bag.
"My," said Kyou upon seeing the girl laid out like that. "What's happened to Shio-chan? Don't tell me she's sick, too?"
Ushio got up and rubbed her eyes with her palm. "Konnbanwa, Kyou-sensei," she said groggily.
The teacher let her charge go over to kiss her mother. She then went to Ushio and sat down beside her. "Come on, Shio-chan," said Kyou rubbing her back gently. "brighten up. You got all our support here. Everybody's with you."
Ushio only frowned. "No, Kyou-sensei. Kotomi-san has just left this weekend."
"For Kyoto again?"
Nagisa was visibly taken aback, as if struck by a dart. Each new development seem to drive themselves like arrows into her. Kyou fared no better.
"Wha-Why? Didn't she say she'll drop by every so often?"
"There was an emergency with her work abroad. It could take two months."
Nagisa set her lips in a stiff line as she tried to absorb the news. Mizuumi look worriedly at her mother. Kyou noticed them and suddenly broke out in laughter to dispel the melancholy. "Well, I guess that leaves me for comforter status! Ahah! Say, I ordered you some excellent gyuudon on the way here," she gushed picking her load. "It's the best! I have found this stand right by the bus stop just last month and, M-m! You got to go there yourself and taste their offerings while hot. You'll never forget it!"
She was able to turn the tide in favor of lightheartedness and everybody feasted on her meal. After the feast and vivid chatter, Mizuumi was so full she gradually, then quickly fell asleep right there on Nagisa's lap and Nagisa herself set about to humming a lullaby. Before long she got heavy-lidded herself and dozed off, much to Ushio's satisfaction. She pulled the blanket over them both while Kyou put away the dishes and packaging. The girl settled down and drank in the peaceful scene on the bed.
The girl felt a hand tap lightly on her shoulder.
"Shio-chan," Kyou said quietly. "Come with me to the garden."
It was getting misty again in the dead of the night. Kyou had to provide raincoats for them both to keep out the dew, but she absolutely did not want the least chance of anybody overhearing. Ushio, afraid that some revelation about her mother's condition is about to unfold, that Kyou-sensei would tell her again to be "strong", but this time she decided to put her off guard from the start.
"Kyou-sensei," began Ushio, "I am honestly being scared with every passing minute sometimes. I can't help but think Mama might be getting weaker."
Kyou only smiled bitterly. "Tch. Come on now, Shio-chan, shouldn't you be rooting for your mother even in the hardest of times?"
"Well, I really have no idea about what's happening to your mother, or even about what will happen tomorrow. Who does? I can see Dr. Kirishima herself is puzzled about your mother's sickness. In any case, even if something really bad happens, you should stay there and not run away. If you don't, it is like deserting your best friend in her time of direst need. That, I think, is also showing strength."
"Sensei, you're not saying it will really happen, now?" she said apprehensively.
"Anything can happen." She adjusted her coat as well as Ushio's. "Please take care of Mimi-chan."
Ushio was much alarmed at this last sentence. "Now you're saying something's really going to happen."
Kyou laughed softly. "No, you silly girl. It's only that Mimi won't have me to look after her from here on."
Ushio's eyes widened. "You're leaving, too?"
She tried to put up a laugh. "Ahaha. It won't be long. My fiance has just arrived in Yokohama and we are to meet up there soon. After that, I'll be back in a month, and then..."
Kyou carefully weighed her words before she spoke up again. She decided to phrase it as a question. "Tell me, Shio-chan, if you had a foreign boyfriend and he wanted to take you away with him, is it fine with you?"
She turned to her with an even more startled expression. "Eh? Uh, why ask me?"
Kyou chuckled softly. "Oh yes, silly me. Anyway, please tell your mother that I will be away for some time. After I leave, that is. I don't want to break it directly to her. Maybe, if she asks you?"
The girl understood. "Hai. Thanks for being gentle on her."
When they returned inside, Ushio gently roused her sister and lay down her mother, so Kyou-sensei could take them to the Furukawas on her motorcycle.
Before her grandparents could awake, Ushio was already dressed for school. She had gotten used to the routine of self-help by now, though at first Sanae helped her prepare her bento. She carefully opened the bakery door and made sure it was locked again before she finally left. She then turned for Yukine's library.
Before her was Uncle Youhei's car. The man himself leaned against the hood. For a while she was baffled at why Sunohara would want to fetch her at so early an hour, but then she suddenly remembered that she cut a deal with him, and he's expecting payback. She paled as she also remembered that there's no way she could carry it through now.
"Oh... Hi, Uncle! Hahahaha..."
"Oi, Shio-chan, you must bring me right now to Kotomi-chan so we could start our assignment together. Remember?"
"Of course! But, Uncle, you didn't tell me you're coming today." So she could have time to cook up an alibi. What can she tell him?
"Gah!" he uttered dramatically. "You can't ever delay a man in love from showing his passion," he recited with gusto as he grabbed her by the collar. "He cannot rest until he gets the woman of his heart! O, Ushio, take me to her! Where does she dwell?"
"In the library," she croaked.
"To the library!" he flourished as he pulled the girl into his car. Of course! The library was always the abode of his fair maiden, even back in high school. He stepped on the gas so soon it made the girl cling for dear life on the cushion of her seat. Well, she fed him something for now. What's next?
They arrived fairly quickly at the municipal library. Sunohara pulled her out and made her lead the way with the air, almost, of a robber egging on a hostage at gunpoint. "Where is she?"
They marched upstairs. When they had arrived, Ushio started to speak up nervously. "Uh, Ojisan, Kotomi-san will be away for a while, so she told you to work with her... assistant while she's gone."
"Are you telling me the truth, Shio-chan?" he demanded.
"I am!" She's really on a trip, after all.
"Ohayou gozaimasu," said a voice sweetly and cheerfully. Youhei was startled by the loveliness of the sound. "Kotomi's assistant" went out of the desk to greet them. "Ushio, who is he?"
She now went behind Sunohara and pushed him to her. "He's the airport person I brought to help us out."
"Oh how wonderful," smiled Yukine. It was so bright and beautiful Youhei could not speak. He couldn't help but let himself be led by the hand—Oh my days, how soft and smooth—to the couch beside which was a teapot that sent up a sumptuous aroma of freshly-brewed coffee that nourished his senses. And there was that tea-party music. He was immediately overpowered.
"Please help yourself, sir," said Yukine gently.
"Uh, hai," was all Youhei could say. He took a cup, and sipped. Oh, glorious! How wonderful this brew is! Before long he was downing another one, two... "Hah!" he exclaimed, very pleased. "This is perfect! Ahahahah!"
The lady offered Youhei Ushio's rough draft. "Kind sir, please help Ushio write well about her project. Nobody could do it better than you, I just know it in my heart."
"Sure!" he said, very much in a good mood. He set out at once to work on Ushio's draft. He spent a full half hour at the job, putting in comments, inserting appropriate phrases, rewriting whole sentences, editing everything, as Ushio looked on in amazement. Yukine took Ushio by the shoulders and led her to another seat where her usual feast of sandwiches was spread for her. "Here, Ushio dear, eat before you get to school with him."
Soon enough, Sunohara finished. He stood up and proudly handed over the draft to Yukine. "Here! I have everything smoothed out!"
"Thank you, kind sir!" beamed Yukine accepting the paper. "By the way, you look familiar to me. Perhaps, you know Tomoya-san?"
"Ahahahah, yes. I'm Sunohara-san, his best friend."
"Sunohara? Hmmm, yes, I think I have known you before." Shrugging, "Anyway, please come back sometime so you could work on Ushio's project again. Can you?"
"Why of course! Ahahahahah!"
Going out, Sunohara remarked to Ushio, "Kotomi-chan sure got taste in picking her people."
"Of course, Uncle! Kotomi-san especially chose her to meet with you 'cause she has an excellent sense of what pleases you. That's how much Kotomi-san loves you."
"Hahaha..." said Youhei, though not as enthusiastic as he would have been.
Now that problems with the text were already taken care of, Ushio could now check on the photographs and see if Tenshi was being sloppy on the job. Needless to say, it was a very unpleasant chore for her.
She entered the classroom of 1-C before the homeroom teacher could arrive. Upon coming in, she was assailed by the quizzical looks of Tenshi's classmates. There were some whispering even among the boys. She almost immediately regretted going to him—isn't he the one who should be going to her?—but she had to make absolutely sure he wasn't cooking up a plot to mess up and then blame her for the fiasco. She politely asked the class representative for a word with Tenshi. The class rep, in turn, told Tenshi that he will be excused from Homeroom for the day. He took his stuff with him.
They found a vacant classroom on the first floor where they were to discuss their project. Ushio went in ahead of him and sat down while he kept standing at the door. "Well, what are you stinking there for?" said Ushio. "We won't finish anything if you're so self-important."
"Coming," he yawned in her face. He dropped down himself on a chair opposite her, and banged his things on the desk in front of her.
"Watch it!" snapped Ushio.
"Just so you know," he said putting his leg on another chair, "I'm only doing this for Miss Sunohara."
"Well I have more of a goodwill toward her than you ever could. And I'm also thinking of your poor uncle. Goodness, I shudder to think what he would do to you for messing up your family. Now tell me where your photographs are before you ruin everybody."
He motioned the lesser pocket with his chin. Ushio took out a small booklet in which there were about one hundred pictures of different sites at various angles. Not being very knowledgeable in photography, Ushio's biased mind immediately dismissed most of the pictures as amateurish. "What on earth have you done here?" she grumbled examining one photograph. With another, "Are you a kid? This scene looks way off!" And another, "Bah! Hikarizaka station looks so weird in this light!"
"Well, then, put them all back! I don't need you yakking about my masterpieces."
She didn't comply. She kept fingering each one, grimacing and shaking her head. "Boy, boy, boy. What garbage this is. You know, I don't think I would mind if I shouldered all this and saved your butt. Only remember to be grateful to me and stop bothering me or my friends."
He spat. "You don't even know how a professional camera works."
"Indeed?" She ransacked his bag in search for the camera and Tenshi hastily fidgeted in his awkward position so he could stand and stop her, but Ushio had already found his camera. She held it up with an "Oooh!" much to Tenshi's annoyance, who grabbed it from her straightaway.
"Hey! I'm just looking over your camera. Are you miserly enough to keep even a dumb contraption to yourself?"
"Look, Okazaki, you don't try to pick a fight with me. I don't care if I get in trouble here 'cause Mom will just have to transfer me back to our place, but you? You got nowhere to go. I can make your entire high school life a nightmare."
"Humph," was all Ushio could manage. She felt cheated by Tenshi's proclaimed edge, but she's not backing down. "So, simply borrowing a camera is already picking a fight with you?"
"I alone have the right to lend my property to whomever I please. And you're not included."
Right, huh? Yeah 'Right'... "I can always buy my own camera."
"If you knew just what to buy, that is. My camera is not like those you find in the booths, the kind I know the likes of you would pick."
"Won't you just take this and mark out the places to put your dumb pictures in?" said Ushio nudging him with the rough draft.
He grudgingly snatched it from her and started to pencil in the spots where a frame should be introduced. "Just don't ruin the text with childish scrawling or I'll have to rewrite everything again," reminded Ushio.
Around a minute later, Tenshi felt the urge to go to the toilet. He tossed the paper back to Ushio and said, "You look this over while I'm gone. Don't touch any of my things or I'll slam you."
"Hey, where are you...?" But he has already left.
About ten minutes has passed but he hasn't returned. She was already getting worried that the first period might already be upon them, but then she again noticed the camera sitting there on the chair in front of her. What's so special about that thing, anyway? She certainly wanted her father to buy her a cam, but this one looked completely different from the ordinary pocket digital cams she had in mind. It's so bulky. Is a "special" camera supposed to be bulky? What kind of exotic parts have they added to the weight of that thing?
She took it. It had a loose strap for wearing on the neck; she wondered how it was like to actually wear a big camera. She donned it. Oof. It really is heavy, on the neck as well as the hands. She inspected it over and over and counted the buttons. There were so many. Should she actually press any? She tried one... and the zoom of the lens startled her. A few lights on the device were on, indicating that it is in use. She checked the back and saw the screen; it was just like that of an ordinary pocket cam, except that there were unusual shapes and figures appearing everywhere on the field of view; she didn't want to bother with that.
She checked the front of the camera again and tinkered with some more buttons, when an abrupt blinding flash went off and elicited a surprised scream and made her drop the thing. Fortunately, it was hanging from her neck so it didn't fall to the floor, but the unusual burst of light, something she was definitely not used to, rattled her. Now, she was nervous. What if that Tenshi returns to find her messing with his plaything? She immediately pressed the first button she remembered, turning the thing off, and doffed the camera, returning it to the armchair.
Just then, she remembered to look at her watch... it's time for the first class! Hurriedly she scrambled to gather her things and rushed to the doorway, where she met Tenshi coming back. "Gotta go now," she said. You finish marking those photos so I could have them put directly when the layout's done. I'll be waiting at lunch. Don't be late!" And she scampered away.
Tenshi didn't show up for their appointment. He had never cared for a girl he hated, and he won't do so now. Instead, he checked his things to see if Ushio had maliciously ruined or defaced any of his stuff, none so far, but he was especially worried about the camera. Maybe he shouldn't have told her how important it was to him? Understandably enough, his archnemesis would target something she knows is dear to him. He examined every single function of the device, hoping the girl has not tampered with the settings or anything. He also checked if she deleted any pictures.
No image was erased. Instead one additional picture was saved.
What is this?
It's her. She took a picture.
Tenshi gazed at the image with, at first, disbelief, then, he started to feel tickled by the picture of someone who obviously tried to use the camera but was jolted by the complexity of the device. As he saw it, it spelled out to him a big D-U-M-B.
He let out a thunderous laugh.
What a cretin! Ha! That's what you get for being so clumsy.
I'm gonna print out a million million of these...
She looks so downright ridiculous.
Her nose looks a bit cute at that angle, though.