When Clouds Gather
Ushio was irked to no end by Tenshi not showing up yesterday. She should have expected as much from somebody like him.
She tried to borrow a camera, any camera, and make good her word to him that she could carry on on her own. Tomoe offered her one, but she wanted to prove to him that she did not use any "booth-type" models, so she passed. She went around looking if she could ask anybody for at least a small professional camera. And she will have to work fast, as the year was hurtling to a close with the first flakes of snow descending on Hikarizaka.
"Perhaps you got one, Sanae-san?" she said hopefully to her grandmother.
"I would not know for sure, dear. I think your grandfather might have had one back when he was on stage, but perhaps he left it in Kyushu. That was so long ago." And the model might have been outdated, anyway.
Finally, she thought of borrowing Tomoe's, and then have the resulting pictures shopped, but it presented it's own problems, namely who would have the skills for expert computer enhancements, and that the pictures might as well be considered tampered or unnatural.
She hurried through the gathering snow flurries back to school. She knew the clubs were quite active on weekends, but she also knew there was no photography club who could lend the proper equipment. There was, however, an art club that did exhibit raw photographic works on occasion.
"You don't have any?" said Ushio in dismay.
"Sorry," said the club member. "Our photographic exhibitors were also professionals we invited from outside. Though, I could give you a number..." She produced from her pocket a blank card and a pencil, and ruminated before carefully writing a number. I'm not sure if it's still active, but give it a shot; I heard he would be delighted to let just anybody interested borrow his equipment for a limited time. He could even give you a workshop.
She certainly didn't have the time for a training, and she didn't want to wager on testing a number, but she accepted the card, anyway. "Thanks."
Truth to tell, there was one other person she knew may likely own a professional camera, but lately she wanted to shy away from him. He often catches her himself, though. As soon as she hit the street, a car pulled up to her, beeping.
"Oi, Shio-chan!" called Uncle Youhei as he opened the window.
She was appalled. She halted, at a loss for an excuse to be off of him. "Uncle," she chuckled nervously. "It's a Sunday."
"Iya," corrected Sunohara. "I passed by there just now."
As she sat beside him in the car, she couldn't help but feel awkward, even petrified, not just about her uncle when he finds out, but the about the lie itself. Although her mother once said to her that her father tricked a lot of people back in high school (not mentioning Sunohara was one of them, however), she made it clear to her that she did not approve of such behavior and that she wanted her child to be truthful to everybody. It surely didn't help that she committed the offense at a time when she was bedridden.
There was nobody there except the older librarian, no one else, but it surprised her that the place would be open at all today. Perhaps Yukine-san had to do with it.
Arriving upstairs, they find the furniture moved about, including the desk of the librarian's station. Yukine was mopping the floor and she has just dipped it into the bucket when she saw them. "Oh, Sunohara-san, Ushio, welcome," she greeted happily. Then, an embarrassed smile. "I'm sorry if you had to find me like this. I thought I should do some cleaning when nobody's coming."
"Uncle," chided Ushio. "We're disturbing her."
"Eh? I didn't know she would be on cleaning duty today."
"You should have known 'cause it's Sunday, today."
"Anyway, isn't it good we're here? We could finish your paper sooner with more time in our hands. We could even stay here all the way until closing."
Well, he's got a point. She really was in a hurry now. But what about Yukine-san?
"It would be wonderful," smiled Yukine. "Please be seated while I prepare the table for you two."
"Seriously?" mumbled Ushio, astonished as she watched the lady put everything back in place. Before long, she had the furniture in place as they usually were, albeit without the desk. Moreover, on the table, crowding over the modest space, was a full banquet, or so it looked to Ushio. In the middle was a bowl of fruit, tropical fruit, and flanking it on either side were two bowls of salad, one fruit, one vegetable. One plate was heaped with rolls, and a smaller bowl with homemade pasta. And coffee. Loads of it.
"Um, Yukine-san," stammered Ushio, "we can't possibly eat all of this, can we?"
"Perhaps not, but it lends a refreshing ambience. The feeling also matters, you know."
As they sat down to partake of their host's feast, the girl, who couldn't quite get over the scene, asked, "Yukine-san, you said you weren't expecting people to come, but you got a meal for ten. How come?"
The lady only giggled. "I don't fully know myself, but somehow, I felt somebody important's coming. Or perhaps I wished so. Maybe it's because I did something out of the usual today, cleaning most of the the library, so I thought something delightfully unusual would also come. So I brought these along just in case."
"Your're amazing, Yukine-san," she thought aloud. Catching herself, "Eh? Ah, I mean...honestly, Yukine-san, you've always been doing all those nice things, and I never thought I could find someone as precious as you. You are a jewel I have found, believe me when I say it."
"Uh-huh. She's right," said Sunohara gamely with his mouth full, forgetting his manners in his good mood.
"Oh no, Ushio. I am here to serve people who come to our library, so it's only fair that I bring food or anything else people can use in case there are visitors." Warmly, "And you know how special you are to me."
The girl again left speechless. She didn't feel she deserved this, not after how she deceived her and Uncle Youhei.
"Well, now," said Sunohara. "special, eh? What relationship do you and Shio-chan have? Hmmm, you do look alike a lot. Perhaps you are cousins?"
"I should like to think of it that way," replied Yukine.
"No," protested Ushio. "I don't think we should be untrue to ourselves." With great reluctance, she finally sputtered out her confession. "Actually, Uncle Youhei, she's not, um, Kotomi-san's assistant. Kotomi san...actually left for America. Yukine-san is a genuine librarian here." Gulp.
"Ushio," gasped Yukine softly. "Why... why did you say such a thing?"
"I'm sorry, Yukine-san. I'm sorry, Uncle Youhei."
Here it comes...
To her surprise, he only shrugged, and snorted. "I would have thought as much. I really have this feeling that she's a little too expert to be a mere assistant." About Kotomi, "Well, it's just too bad."
Ushio was startled. Huh? Just like that?
"Ushio," chided Yukine gently with a little hurt in her voice. "Do you think you gain anything from being untrue, Ushio?"
"Perhaps," she said tenderly, clasping her hands, "you will feel relieved for a little while, and maybe you could make the other side feel happy for a moment, as well, but then it will be hard to live with yourself, knowing that you can't be a good friend. A good friend will be true to her loved ones, don't you think? And, if you can't be a good friend, who would be a good friend to you?"
This is getting really bothersome. And instead of Uncle Youhei, it was Yukine-san who's shaking her up. Losing a good friend in Yukine-san was the last thing she wanted. "I'm sorry, Yukine-san," she fumbled. "Seriously!" And then, she remembered something. "Wait a bit, didn't you go around telling people I'm your niece?"
"I did think of doing so, but I figured I'd only be deluding myself since it was simply something I myself wanted."
"Really?" said Sunohara, astonished. "You want Shio-chan to be your niece?"
"Well, don't you, Sunohara-san?"
He looked closely at the girl. Well, she does call him "Ojisan", and actually it felt good whenever she says that. Ushio looks so good with her long, beautiful brownish hair, her kindly face that reminded him of her mother, and her being fun-loving and a swell chum underneath all the mischief. Yes, who wouldn't want to be related to this girl? Wouldn't you, dear reader?
Tuesday. A late autumn gale brought early snow that morning, but such disturbances were still just temporary and the sun peeked out more often, melting whatever flakes have piled on the ground. What prevailed, however, was hoar frost clinging everywhere, and blistering chill at dawn and dusk. Dr. Kirishima was more worried as days passed. Mrs. Okazaki would be very susceptible to cold. If anything tips the scale even just a bit, it will be more difficult to get the capsules to compensate. She got the woman a thicker dress and a shawl, and made sure the heater was running as soon and as long as it was dark. "Ryou better start covering the costs with the heater," went her irritated words, but her concern lay heavily on Nagisa's health.
Thus, at sunset, she told her young aide to turn up the temperature. At that moment Sanae arrived with little Mimi, who spun around all over the room reveling in the warmth. "Wow! It feels so nice!" She squealed with delight and jumped on the bed.
"Mimi-chan," chided Sanae, "don't jump on your mother. She's not well enough yet."
Nagisa didn't seem to mind at all. She giggled pleasantly as she took her daughter in her arms and kissed her, tickling the little girl. She let Mimi snuggle up on her breast while Sanae sat by the bedside on took her daughter's hand. "Nagisa, I will bring you soup tomorrow. There's a whole casserole of it, but I want you to consume it all before it spoils. The more of it you eat, the better."
"You don't have to cook so much for me, Oka-san. I can eat a normal meal."
Yes, thought Sanae, but you look paler now. "Well then," she said more cheerfully, "at least have a side dish or so. I suppose it won't hurt. And Shio-chan and Mimi-chan can share it with you." She only wanted to convince herd aughter to accept, but she already planned to tacitly tell at least Ushio to leave the soup to the girl's mother.
"I love soup," went Mimi's muffled voice.
"Indeed, Mimi," said Nagisa. "I will get you a whole bowl, just for you."
A little while later, Ushio arrived. She was looking quite pleased. Her commentary, with Uncle Youhei's and a little of Yukine-san's help, was already done. What remains is to type everything, and put in the pictures from Tomoe's camera, or worse, from Tenshi. Even just raw amateur photos could suffice, perhaps, hoping the principal would not expect so much from underclassmen.
"Evening, Mom," she greeted putting down her bag. "I will take Mimi to another bed."
"No dear, it's fine. She'sleeping well now."
"But, Mama," she said worriedly, "you look paler now. It's you who should sleep."
"Ushio's right, Nagisa," seconded Sanae. "If you want, as soon as Mimi awakens a bit, I will nudge her off the bed and take her with us."
Oh well, perhaps they can't help it. "Arigatou, Oka-san," she said softly. Then, noticing something amiss, she said, "Isn't Kyou-sensei the one who brings Mimi here? Where is she?'
The moment of truth. Kyou-sensei had told the girl she can reveal her whereabouts as soon as her mother asks, but, seeing Nagisa like that, she could not bring the words to form in her mouth. It hung open, but not so much as a puff of breath came out. She does not want to tell her. Mama, please don't make me do this.
"Ushio?" said Sanae apprehensively, sensing the tension in the air. Somehow she understood that Ushio knows something that could make things worse. To her daughter, "N-Nagisa, I think I should let Ushio get some coffee."
Too late. Nagisa can see through it all. All she needed was Ushio's uneasy silence. "I understand," she said softly with downcast eyes. "I'm sorry to have bothered you, Shio-chan, Oka-san." She closed her eyes with some effort and stayed that way for about three minutes, trying mightily to sleep. That's also about as long as Ushio can take it. She stood up and walked slowly to the door, Sanae feeling sorry for her, but once there, she flund it open and broke into a run.
At about one in the morning, Dr. Kirishima received an urgent call from her aide, saying that the patient is in critical condition.
"I can't revive her! Her temperature's dropping fast!"
"It's only hypothermia!" she snapped. She put down the phone and got up, not even bothering to wear her doctor suit or even anything formal. She kept saying the same thing to herself as well. It's only hypothermia.
When she arrived there, she found the aide nearly hysteric and clutching her head in fright. "Doctor!" she uttered in severe distress. The heater was maxed up, but when that didn't work, she gathered, the aide lost all grasp on what to do next. Obviously this was the first time she handled a life-threatening situation. I should have gotten a more experienced assistant, was what the doctor thought, and if only Ryou was here. She dismissed it immediately. Maybe Ryou would be even more shaken seeing that this was somebody close to her.
"Well, go call someone who can talk back some sense into her!" she thundered, as if Nagisa was just stupid enough to faint on them. "Anyone! Except her immediate family. Go, go, go!" She wanted to bang something on the aide's head. Panic is a crime in the emergency room.
However, when she herself touched the patient's arm, the same fear gripped her. She never encountered someone lose heat this fast! She wasn't moving anymore, and her pulse was very faint. The aide must have discovered this only too late. Then again, with her treacherous condition, perhaps things went awry very quickly.
She got out and rushed all the blankets she could find in the other rooms and practically buried Nagisa's body. The doctor was already sweating profusely from the effort and the maxed thermostat, but her mind was too much harried to even notice.
But there was just no time to rush her to the hospital. And what if those hospital thugs tell her they're crowded again?
At last, the people she called for arrived. The Yoshinos. The whole family, including Megumi, who couldn't bear being left alone in the house while distress raged among her parents, and Aunt Fuko, who simply wanted a piece of the action, were all there.
Kouko immediately dropped to within Nagisa's earshot. "Nagisa!" she shouted. "Nagisa-san!" followed Megumi. The doctor did not mind the noise now. The louder the racket, the better.
"Nagisa," added Kouko in a trembling voice, "You have everybody waiting for you! Everybody needs you! We're all here!"
If Nagisa could hear, she would have just ignored those words and continued to descend into she didn't care where.
"...if you go now, what will become of Ushio? Mizuumi? Please! Answer! Think of Tomoya...
"Nagisa, please, come back! You are not a burden! We need you!"
"Nagisa!" She was now weeping.
Yusuke would have none of it. He doffed his coat and ordered Megumi to do the same. They spread the clothes as wide as they could on Nagisa. The doctor checked the temperature again. Nothing, There was no change. Her pulse was gone. What's happening here?
Oh yes, the blankets were only meant to slow heat loss, but if there is no body heat to slow, it was all useless. This was it for Kirishima. "Get anything! A radiator! An oven! An open fire! Anything! Get them right next to her!"
"Doctor!" gasped Kouko in fright. "No way! We can't do that!"
"Then watch her die!" she screamed at the top of her lungs. "Watch her slip away! Go home and curse yourselves for being helpless! Who knows how much I have done for her!" She clenched her fists white. Why did she have to care about this patient so much? Is it because there are too many ignorant people around her? Back in the hospital she could throw everything she's got on a dying patient, carry out measure after measure after measure, and very often she pulled it off somehow. But to see a person die and just cry over it, no, to watch a person and not be able to do anything about it, no, rather, to refuse to do anything, was the height of tragedy to her.
Just then, something moved under the blankets.
It tunneled through the sheets like an enormous mole, and stopped right over Nagisa's chest. In total astonishment they could hear labored grunting and heaving from the moving pile, and then, they could trace Nagisa's arms being pulled closer, her body squeezed gently but firmly, into a hug.
"Aunt Fuko!" exclaimed Megumi.
Everybody was in suspense.
The pile stopped moving.
After a long, agonizing silence, where everybody wanted badly to check on what happened, but nobody dared to move for fear of what they may find out, Kirishima finally brought herself to inch... closer... kneel down... and check her pulse.
Her arm was deathly cold.
A faint trickle... her pulse... her wavering pulse has returned.
Fuko was really moving, but she was now just heaving slightly, such that one could only notice if one got close enough.
Kirishima puffed out a loud and long-drawn sigh over her patient. She's out of danger for now. Nagisa will still have to be observed closely overnight, but somehow she felt that it would be all fine. A source of body heat was available, and right now, that was all that mattered to her.
Kouko broke down in her husband's arms weeping tears of utter relief, and so did Megumi around her father's back. Bubbly stars floated over Nagisa's bed, signifying that Fuko was in ecstacy and that there was nothing to worry about now.
Dr. Kirishima was finally able to put the life supports back on, and she stayed up all night with all the coffee she could manage, keeping watch especially on the EKG. The Yoshinos and Fuko-san slept on mats she laid out on the floor.
Later that day, Nagisa's condition has stabilized somewhat, but she was still unconscious. The Yoshinos refused to leave until they see Nagisa wake up, despite Dr. Kirishima's objections. She let them have their way. Arguing when she has to closely monitor every tiny detail was certainly the last thing she wanted to involve herself in.
Ushio arrived in the evening as usual. This time she got there before Mizuumi and Sanae (Dr. Kirishima phoned them in advance to come back later tonight after she has persuaded the Yoshinos to leave), but upon entering, and seeing her mother under life support again, she dropped her bag and rushed to the bedside. Kouko stayed her and explained to her everything that happened last night while she slept.
The girl could not stop crying after hearing it all. She then knelt down to sit with Aunt Fuko and embrace her tightly for saving her mother's life. She kissed and kissed the lady and could not stop. "Auntie... Thank you so much!... I love you..."
Tenshi walked out of the school gate looking at a printout of Ushio's "ridiculous" face. He held it proudly before him, like a trophy, evidence that the girl was stupid indeed. He laughed out as he went by, prompting other students to look at him, but he didn't care so long as he enjoyed himself. He meant to show this to Ushio so she could just sink through the earth in humiliation. You just wait...
Tenshi approached the clinic where Uncle Takafumi said Aunt Nagisa was confined. He only knew from his mother that Aunt Nagisa had a weak body, though he could not comprehend why she had to be sent to a doctor. He had waited for Ushio to come to him, hearing that she has finished the draft, so they could finalize the layout and have the final product made, but now he wanted to go to her just so he could see the look on her face.
The aide led him to the door, but he really didn't want to see Ushio just yet. He sat around for a bit, but then he got bored and went to the door to peek through the glass window.
Is that Ushio?
Through the glass he saw a vision of a lovely maiden cradling a child (?) in her breast. The maiden's face was as peaceful as the falling of the snow, and as pure as the powder-white drifts. Her hair fell straight down and covered her body like a waterfall, like lush growth in a garden. The maiden kissed the child... loved the child.
So that's what that girl looks like... when she loves?
It can't be her.
He opened the door and found everybody staring at him. Ushio looked up and gazed at him. Is it really her? The affectionate effort she just lavished on Fuko lent her face an unearthly expression of innocence and perpetual youth which brought out every fine detail in her appearance. This is not her. It can't be. Ushio Okazaki can't be this beautiful.
Ushio, as if waking from a dream, rubbed her face with her open palm and stood up. "Let's talk outside," she told him.
He saw Nagisa on the bed with all those life supports and a look of shock came to his eyes. It did not escape Ushio. Those were eyes of disbelief. It seemed he could not bring himself to accept that things like this could actually happen. Before he only heard of people being sent to the hospital, but to him it was something unreal, mere hearsay. Seeing this kind of suffering firsthand, it burned into him. That look showed Ushio that Tenshi Sakagami is also vulnerable.
She was embarrassed, looking back at her mother, and then told him again to go outside so they can talk.
"Oi," motioned Dr. Kirishima to him, "Make yourself useful. Change the sheets of our patient. The fresh beddings are in the storage room. Ask my aide how to get them."
"Uh, hai!" Tenshi said, promptly obeying the doctor's orders.
"Tenshi," said Ushio, "wait. The draft..."
"Okazaki," said Dr. Kirishima, "you sit over there and rest. Let the boys do the dirty work. That is, if he is half a gentleman."
She could hardly resist the doctor's authoritative voice. She complied, and all the while she could see Tenshi going to and fro fetching things for her mother as the doctor so ordered. He assisted in moving the woman's feet, in taking her temperature, in wiping her face with a clean sponge if it could be helped. All this kind of humbled Ushio, but she couldn't let anything between the two of them get in the way of her mother's recovery. Maybe it's time for a brief truce.
At about eight, Ushio sat beside an exhausted Tenshi who had slumped over the bed. Ushio shook him. She couldn't believe she could bring herself to actually touch him, but troubled times these were.
He got up. Upon seeing who it was, he frowned and looked away. He did care for her mother, but he still wouldn't talk with her.
"What? Are you still being a snob? Well, if you don't like my presence you could just get up and go home. I can manage without you, you know. If it wasn't for the doctor, you wouldn't be here beside my Mama at all."
"I know that," he said softly. It startled Ushio. The tone in his voice acknowledged Ushio's right to be alone with her mother. He remembered the time, long ago it seems, when he castigated the girl for simply being in the bathroom in his own house. And here he was, sitting right next to the girl's own mother. He wanted to stand now, but he couldn't keep himself from looking over the woman one last time. So this is Ushio's mother? He wondered how it was to lose a mother. To him, mother meant an overbearing woman who kept nagging him all day like rain that wouldn't stop. Mother was someone who was a constant menace. Would he have been happier if his mother just disappeared from his life? He certainly went by without a father; maybe a mother wouldn't be so different.
It clearly wasn't the case with Ushio.
He stood up. "Let's just talk at school tomorrow."
"Wait," interrupted Ushio. She wanted reassurance so badly, she was willing to get information from just about anyone who had checked on her mother. "Mama. Will she be OK?"
Tenshi declined to answer. Who was he to say for sure?
"Do we still have to deal with this? How long must we take it? How long do we have to fight on?
"It's not over yet. Right?"
She stared hard at him, demanding an answer. Maybe her mother's getting better, maybe she's still getting worse. She wanted to know.
He only smirked. "Nothing's over. But I don't care. And neither should you."