Looking Forward, and Back
That day the weather was cool and dry. The news announced that the weather would be partly sunny with periods of rain and snow, but that was true only at about seven to eight in the morning, without even the promised precipitation. After that, brooding sheets of overcast loomed and lingered the whole day while the wind blew, sometimes faint, sometimes in gusts, and most of the time it simply died down. What was constant was the bone-rending chill that clung to the skin like stubborn humidity.
On days such as this, Furukawa Bread would get more customers than the usual, but the bakery was temporarily closed. The neighbors and passers-by were concerned and apprehensive. If Furukawa Bread was closed in the middle of the day, it meant something serious was afoot.
Akio, the great Akio, who would brandish a large baseball bat, bully those who slighted Sanae's bread, and lord it over everybody who visited the bakery, was weeping. His tears drenched the sheets right next to his daughter, while his wife, trying to hold back her own tears, rubbed her husband's back in a vain effort to comfort him. Ushio and Mizuumi stood behind them in tense silence. Both their schools let them have up to a week off in view of the situation. Ushio did not want to miss any more school days; she reckoned she had more than enough days absent and lessons missed, and she wanted to at least go somewhere where she could take her mind off her troubles, with Tomoe and...
Why now, Minako?
Tomoe said to her yesterday that it was hard to contact her, what with her parents urging her to cut down on social chatter and focus on her studies at the new school. The girl sent an e-mail, however, saying that she missed the group badly, very badly, and that Arata was being looked after at home by a caregiver.
"Shio-chan," pleaded Mizuumi, "hug me. Please." A girl as young as her was quite uneasy in this tension.
Ushio put her arms around her sister but her mind was floating away. It didn't try to drift to someplace where it could be fun and warm, it was in a void. Any place away from this mess was enough.
There were many brief interludes when she wondered when Takafumi was coming. She really needed his shoulders now.
At about four the sky was already so dark, the clouds so heavy, that it might as well be dusk. Dr. Kirishima had the lights on, and she ordered her aide to shutter all windows in anticipation of rain or even hail, but there was nothing. Akio had been sitting there by the bedside for hours on end, staring vacantly, his mind in the same empty space where Ushio's had wandered. But now, a hard look came upon his eyes, his fist clenched, and he growled in a low, threatening voice,
"It is that brat's doing."
"Akio?" whispered Sanae in alarm.
"It is him. He left our Nagisa alone."
"Don't say such nonsense," gasped his wife.
"Sanae, if you were him, would you have done this?"
"Would we have done this? Sanae?"
They wouldn't have, seeing the results after they have left Nagisa alone back when she was a child, and also because of work.
"What kind of person would have left his wife and children just like that? Tch. Perhaps it would have been better if we just took the children away to begin with."
"Akio! Tomoya-kun is doing his best for his family. Why would he even consent to be away from them if it wasn't also for them?"
"For them? Is he even calling? Is he even sending a filthy letter?"
Ushio was hearing voices, but they were nothing to her.
"Maybe he got a woman somewhere," he added.
"Akio!" snapped Sanae in an unnaturally sharp voice. "Enough of this! If we ourselves can't trust a member of our own family, how could we hold on together for Nagisa?" She looked at her unconscious daughter. "I know she is waiting for Tomoya-kun. He will come back, Akio. He will come back for his family."
Akio closed his eyes and made a sarcastic face. "Part of our family, eh? Come back, you say? Well then..." He stood up. "... I will make him a part of this family right now. I will make him come back."
"Akio, where are you going?"
He went straight out the door, across the lobby, out to the street, his wife trailing him hurriedly. Dr. Kirishima and her aide only looked after them without doing anything. It could only be a couple's love quarrel, anyway.
The "quarrel" must have lasted the whole afternoon and into the evening. They did not return at seven, or even at eight. Dr. Kirishima had by then long dismissed Ushio and her sister so they could go home and leave the patient to their care.
At Furukawa Bread, the two children and their grandmother sat without a word over their untouched meal. Sanae wanted to tell them to eat and recover their strength, but she couldn't, as her own appetite was much disturbed.
Akio left them a note saying that he is going after Tomoya to Iwaki, and that they should not attempt to follow him.
The task of finishing and submitting the tour guide fell on Tenshi. With help from Takafumi, who was skilled in page layout, he managed to produce a simple hardbound copy with his and Ushio's name on the cover. It struck him as funny and strange, putting their names together there. It would have been nigh unthinkable before. Well, at least now they could absolve Miss Sunohara.
He thought to pass by 1-B and see Miss Okazaki to inform her of the completion of the project... oh yes, she's looking after her mother again.
Back at home, he lay in bed shortly before dinner. All around his room, posted everywhere on the walls and even on the ceiling, were pictures, large and small, photographs, posters and even banners showing Ushio's self-taken image. He had reveled in the collection, laughing at the pictures and disturbing Takafumi for many a night, but tonight he was quiet. He was even perturbed. Surely this doesn't look like he was a fan of Miss Okazaki, could it? Why did he post so many? Wasn't this the behavior of an admirer?
And the pictures. They stamped themselves into his consciousness, having been looked over again and again so often. Whenever he closed his eyes, he could always see them. If there was such a thing as an eyeworm, this would be it.
Well, at least they made him smile.
Ushio Okazaki making him smile?
"Tenshi," called Takafumi.
He got up and went outside, locking the door behind him so Uncle won't see the pictures. He was waiting downstairs. "Tenshi, I've just been to your Aunt Nagisa to bring food. It looks like I brought most of everything we have. I'll cook dinner while you go and buy something else we could eat."
"Well... whatever you like. You pick. I can pretty much get by with anything. Only," he added as handed him the money, "get a liter of ice cream at the convenience store, 'cause we have a guest tomorrow."
"OK," he agreed as he turned to leave. "Oh yeah, did you see Okazaki there?"
"Ushio? Well, no. Sanae's there and she left her in charge of the bakery."
He rubbed his hands as he walked through the evening cold. Small piles of snow lay on the sidewalks. He tried to go over the items he could pick; he wasn't one for food and he pretty much just chomped down on whatever is fashionable, except with a workout menu, although, of course, it had long since passed away with the exercise. Perhaps he'll just get hotdogs at the convenience store along with the ice cream.
Or he could just try Furukawa Bread. Somehow, he felt he wanted to go there for some reason.
Not a bad idea.
He soon found himself walking alongside the park. He remembers this place. This was where his Mom robbed him of a fight. He smiled to himself as he must have looked stupid holding that knife. He wondered if there were any gangsters left after last month's crackdown.
On the other side was the bakery.
This was ridiculous, he thought. It was a shorter trip to the convenience store. Why did he decide to go all the way here? He wasn't even sure if they got ice cream. Was it nostalgia? Perhaps he only wanted to see Okazaki? What for? She couldn't even show up for the submission. She must have forgotten about the whole thing, anyway. Or maybe not. She must be anxious to know what had happened, whether they were able to clear Miss Sunohara.
Then again, he doesn't really have to. The principal got it and that's all that matters.
What's the difference?
What's he even doing here? Since when did he have a particular liking for bread? He scanned the facade of the store and tried to see if there was something special about it that could offer him a plausible reason for choosing this place. A discount poster, perhaps? Because it looks cool to photograph? But there was nothing. It's just an ordinary bread store that says "Furukawa Bread." That was all. He could not bring himself to remember why he chose this place in the first place.
Just then, he thought he heard something. A piano score. What? A gentle, soothing tune. A refreshing cascade of piano keys playing chords. It was short, anyway. But there was no mistake. It signified to him just who was inside.
Okazki must still be anxious to know what happened to their project. Yeah, he surmised, that must be it. He must let her know.
He went in, and then he heard that tune again in his head, and this time, with it he beheld a sight at the counter.
It was her.
Her long hair covered her slender figure like a robe. And that face. It's quite different when she was alone; there was an inherent kindness in her expression that warmed his heart. It was as though she was as warm and friendly as a home to return to. This was not the tomboyish, short-haired girl he despised; so different, yet the face was clearly recognizable. It was totally disarming.
He stood there enthralled and did not speak until she saw him. "Oh, good evening," he said, bringing himself to walk into the shop. "I... I thought I could have some pastry... for a change."
"Oh," she replied, just a little surprised. She went out of the desk and got for him a blueberry loaf. "Try this." She placed it on his hands. It felt heavy. "Look around if you want something else," she added.
He did, but it was aimless, looking around for the sake of itself. He blindly took a few pieces here and there, and that was it. However, wanting to make a one-stop shop, he tried to find ice cream.
"Isn't it obvious what this place is?" asked Ushio in a soft voice, just a bit exasperated.
"Well, sorry, I just heard from Uncle Sanae-san's a great expert in all things food."
Takafumi? Is he the one asking for the ice cream? "Well," said Ushio, "actually we can make anything if it's something to eat. I'll get the ice cream over to your place tomorrow."
"OK. But, um, will Sanae-san be able to make it on time? I mean, is she still away. Looks like there's nobody here."
"Sanae-san's still with Mama. Mimi's asleep in the room."
"She's not coming tonight?"
"Midnight, probably." He felt somewhat sorry for her. Her mother's illness must have shaken her up so much she forgot to bicker with him like she used to do.
"Um, Okazaki, I'm...sorry for what happened to her."
"It's OK. I'm getting used to this, anyway, you know, living without her."
"Is it really possible?" he blurted. Wait, what did I just say?
"What do you mean?" she suddenly asked incredulously.
"Hah... Never mind. I was just playing."
"Playing? Don't mess with my family life, you hear?"
So she's still mad at me. "No, just forget, OK? I just messed up. Can't you understand?"
She set her lips in a stiff line. "Actually, when you have been away from her for so long, it's possible. But it's sad." She looked at him significantly. "Maybe you're used to Aunt Tomoyo being away."
"I don't bother to ask myself whether I miss her or not. Well, sometimes I think of her in bed, but it's useless. I know she's just out there with the station. Why bother?"
He turned to leave before the girl could ask any more prying questions. Ushio caught up with him at the door. "Wait. I promise to get the ice cream to you tomorrow. Tell your uncle to count on it. And, I think you got some of Grandma's bread. Well, you might not like the taste. You can refund it if you want to."
He threw her a disbelieving, mocking look with a half-sneering smile that irritated her for a moment, but she knew there wasn't any point arguing with him. He took out a rainbow bread and inspected it, walking out the store as he did.
My, thought Ushio, his smile. It's just like Takafumi's.
Sunohara visited Nagisa at the clinic the next day at lunch and bought Sanae a box of medication for her daughter. He also paid for about a week's worth of her confinement, but Dr. Kirishima would not accept payment just yet.
He left at about two and drove to the library. He found himself checking his appearance in the mirror. Just making sure I'm presentable, he thought to himself, so as not to be a bother to Miss Miyazawa. He brought with him some cake for them to eat.
As he went up to the second floor, he was startled to find a few elderly men talking to Yukine. Researchers. They seem to be in a serious conversation over the coffee, and for a while he distanced himself staying at the door. Fortunately, the group already stood to leave, bowing to Yukine, and she bowing to them. When he was sure they were gone, he approached her.
"Oh, Sunohara-san! Would you like some coffee?"
"No, no. I just thought I'd like to thank you for helping us out, me and Shio-chan. Here," he said presenting the cake, "a little token of our gratitude."
Yukine marvelled at his gift. "This looks very expensive, Sunohara-san. You shouldn't have gone through the trouble. A word of thanks would be enough."
"Meh. For that much kindness you've shown us, words are never enough."
"But I'm afraid I may not be able to eat it all."
"Now you'll be forced to. We can't just return this to the bakeshop. Could we?"
She blushed just a little bit, and finally smiled as she accepted the gift. "If you say so. Arigatou gozaimasu."
"Besides," he added, "You lent me 1000 yen and I have never been able to repay you."
"Oh? I don't remember."
"Of course you wouldn't, we were in high school. You were in the old reference room."
Yukine looked down thoughtfully for a moment. "Oh yes, I recall now. It was the first floor of the old building, right? Yes, you were Tomoya-san's best friend. And you were trying to take 300 yen from a boy so I lent you 1000 instead."
He was dumbfounded with embarrassment. "Actually, that's not quite the story."
She giggled. "Yes. Now I remember. The boy took 300 yen from you and you were harassing him to get it back so I got you 1000 instead."
"Heheheh..." Enough of this. He laughed it all off. "Let's open the cake!" he declared, ripping off the ribbons. (Hey, Sunohara, isn't that a gift?!)
As they sat down to share the food, they went into some reminiscing their old days. There weren't too many pleasant memories, or a lot of instances they'd rather forget, but it was high school. "Mei was quite worried about me back then," recalled Sunohara. "I hardly thought of her of being any good, but she was very supportive."
"Brother and sister should be supportive of each other," smiled Yukine.
"Say, do you not have a sister?"
She fell silent for a moment. "Well, I do have a brother. Maybe, you don't remember, but back then, you stood for him when you fought off a gang with Tomoya-san."
Sunohara looked at her in disbelief. How could she possibly know? Wait... "You mean to say you're the girl we fought for?" he exclaimed.
She only smiled gently. "I know more of you than you do me."
He stared blankly at her for a good long while, and then lapsed back into laughing his consternation away. It ended with him clutching his chest in surprise that bordered on fright. "Man, if you were a snake I would have been dead by now."
Yukine giggled. It always has an effect on him when she does that, but now, it made him decidedly more comfortable with her.
"Well, then," said Sunohara, "How was I back then? Was I a great fighter?" (This despite him knowing he got knocked out by food poisoning and him not knowing that she was away when he charged down the hill to save Tomoya.)
Her smile seemed to have faded a bit. "Fighting well is not something that impresses me a lot."
"But certainly I must have been a strong defender, don't you think? A man should know how to stand up."
"But, Sunohara-san, I already think you are quite a strong man. Going out of your way to help someone like you did Ushio-chan. I know you wouldn't have done it if you haven't a purpose and to me strong people always have a purpose."
That purpose... Youhei was now in doubt about that. He wondered if his strong feelings for Kotomi before could only be taken away by stronger feelings for this new creature. Did he really love her that much?
It wouldn't hurt to find out.
"Actually," he said calming down, "I was thinking, these past days, if I have ever met any person, well, any woman, who is like you."
She was also hushed. She knew he was getting serious. "I am sure there are plenty of women out there that are better than me in every way."
"No, Yukine-san, stop degrading yourself. I really... I have never known anyone who is as kind, as helpful, as... as... as good-looking... as you."
She stood up. "I will get some hot water downstairs."
He stopped him holding her arm. He wanted to know what she really felt about all this. "What do you say? I don't care if you think someone's better than you. Are you going to deny that you yourself are kind? That you know how to care for others so well? That you can make a man very happy? Will you say that you can never make a man happy?"
She choked her words out. "Sunohara, I know that someone who is better for you will come along." It was easy to say way back then, but now she just felt so uncomfortable. She didn't know if she could love any man other than Kouhei, but part of her wanted to give this person before her a chance.
"So... Miyazawa," went a voice from nowhere, "Still playing out your deception, are you?"
With a sudden fear coming upon her face, she turned this way and that in an effort to seek the speaker. Youhei did so as well. "Who is that?" he boomed.
Only sinister laughter replied. A moment later a man, no, two men, emerged from behind the shelves. They seem to have entered through the window. Yukine stared at them with a hard gaze, and Sunohara, though nervous, looked directly at them trying to keep a straight face.
"So this fellow fought in Kazuto's group."
"He is not a gang member," she said bravely. "Leave him alone."
One of them broke into a raspy laugh. "You would have to do better than that if you want to turn our head. First, you go off with Kouhei, and now him?"
"Kouhei?" Sunohara involuntraily echoed.
Hearing that, the second gang member sneered at him. "You want to know who Kouhei is?" He pointed a finger directly at Yukine. "Miyazawa's pet boy! He tried to tell us to lay down arms so they could have the upper hand, and this vile temptress of a traitor sided with him!"
"Kouhei was a man of peace!" shouted Yukine. "If Kazuto was alive, I know he would be proud of him!"
"She even calls upon her dead brother!" He spat. "Now you make clear on whose side you are!"
"Kouhei wanted to end all this fighting! He never wanted to see any more of us get hurt, or die! I loved him for what he stands for! He wanted everyone to have a chance to live quietly."
"You shut up, Miyazawa!"
"He only wanted all of us to leave a life of fighting and drinking! He wanted everyone to get along as a family! I know... Kazuto never was able to turn his own life around. He never made up with my parents. Yet Kouhei, he was able to do everything my brother wasn't able to do. I know, whatever Kazuto left unfinished, Kouhei should have ended, if only you didn't kill him!"
The two gangsters were dumbstruck. How did she know?
"You forced me to leave him just so I could show you I didn't take sides. I wanted to keep you all from fighting again, from all this vice. It was Kouhei's dream. It was my dream!"
Their secret was out. They will have to dispatch of her now. They each took out knives, but Sunohara's quick reflexes let him throw the heavy chairs at them and quickly lead her by the hand out while they lay on the floor. However, one of them was able to grip Youhei's leg, so he pushed Yukine on so she could seek help downstairs, while he was left to brawl with the men.
As soon as hurrying footsteps were heard from downstairs, the attackers slipped back into the shelves for their escape. They left Youhei badly beaten. Upon arriving upstairs and seeing the man's state, Yukine was shocked. A few police officers picked up the man and took him out on a stretcher, going right past the badly shaken lady.
Today, Ushio's steps have a spring in them. The bulky load of green tea ice cream she herself made (a trade she obviously learned from Sanae) felt as light as a bale of cotton. Her cheeks, long paled by the depression surrounding her mother's illness, were quite refreshed by the flush of red that only intensified as she found herself drifting closer and closer to the Sakagami residence. Finally, she will able to do something for Takafumi. She will be able to see and to hear firsthand what the man can say of her own work. To make something with your own hands and be rewarded for it by someone you highly admire. It was ecstacy.
She was so excited she closed the bakery looking forward to a few hours of talk with him.
Tenshi received her at the door. He took the load—it felt heavy to him—and brought it to the fridge. "Sit down for a while over there," he told her.
As she waited at the living room, Ushio imagined what praise Takafumi could have for her creation. He was a good-natured person, kind in both word and deed. She was sure he will compliment her. It would not be a case of polite words just to avoid hurting her feelings. This was her best. She always had confidence in Sanae-san's culinary expertise, albeit save for the bread.
At the same time, she was relieved that the tension between her and Tenshi has eased somewhat. Well, he's still annoying, but now he has sufficiently tamed to the point that Takafumi can completely overshadow him. If Aunt Tomoyo comes back, she could further get to her good side, having a fine start with her already, unless of course she insists on having her and Tenshi hang out together too much as she often suggested the last time. Her ties to Takafumi could only get stronger. This house will only hold happiness for her now.
He finally came in. "Oh, hello, Shio-chan," he greeted with his trademark drop-dead gorgeously cute smile. "I've heard you got us some ice cream."
"Well," she motioned shyly. "Try it. It's in the fridge."
"I sure will," he said, turning for the kitchen.
Tenshi returned with some french fries and homemade taiyaki. Unlike her, he didn't want to say it was he who made them. These so far were the most sophisticated cooking he could muster. "Here. Uncle told me to keep you busy for a while." Wanting to give his work at least a little credit, "The taiyaki works well these days. It's in season."
"Why thank you. But I think I want to save this for conversation later (with Takafumi, of course)."
"So you're not really hungry," he said with a little frown. He shrugged. "Do what you like." And he went back to his room. Ushio only giggled to herself. She found a whole new way to irk the boy.
Takafumi returned with, much to her delight, a plateful of her ice cream. "It's really good," he smiled.
Those three words. She was speechless for a moment. She could not believe this was really happening. The girl tried mightily to keep her cool, visibly stiffening her expression in a desperate attempt not to turn red. "I'm glad to hear that," she just said.
Shall I now say that I made it?
Maybe, I could also ask a few questions later.
Um, if I could make wonderful ice cream, do you think I can cook well much of anything else?
Do you think I can keep house excellently, like Mama?
Um, do you think I can make everybody smile with my cooking?
Do you think I can make a man happy?
Do you think I look good?
"Kanako will love this, for sure," said Takafumi.
"Kanako!" he called.
Out of the kitchen appeared a really tall and slender young woman, not much apart from Takafumi in age. She had a neat ponytail tying her chestnut-brown hair. When the lady saw her, she eyed Ushio with a wary look that the girl could not mistake. Could the woman be aware of her feelings for him?
"This is Ushio. She's the daughter of a good friend of mine and Tomoyo." To the girl, "She's my girlfriend."
"Uh," fumbled Ushio standing up and bowing, "Konnichiwa, hajimemashite. I'm Okazaki Ushio..." It was a half-hearted parroted line.
The woman looked at her in silence and bowed only very slightly. To Takafumi, cheerfully, "Oh, what's that?" She took the plate from him and took a spoonful of the ice cream. "This is very good!" she said. "I didn't know you make good ice cream, dear."
"No, honey, Ushio brought it here for us."
"I want you to bring me more of this when I come back."
"Of course, dear," smiled Takafumi. That beautiful, almost childlike drop-dead smile.
Ushio spent the rest of her stay with the couple. Mostly, they talked amongst themselves and from the chatter her uncaring ears caught a number of details. Kanako was actually Takafumi's ex-girlfriend who just recently returned into a relationship with him, Kanako was an architect who has worked with a project in Tokyo and even Singapore, Kanako suggested that they should go on a trip to Italy, Kanako wanted to get a house so they could have their own place...
The lady was way above her in everything.
In the meantime, the french fries and taiyaki grew cold.
When it was time for her to leave, they bowed to each other, she and the couple, bidding each other customary farewell greetings, though of course it was a stiff and highly artificial exercise for her.
Takafumi remembered something. "Oh yes!" He turned to get something in his pocket and got out a keychain dove. "Shio-chan, this is for you—"
She was gone in a blink.
He gazed after the absent girl with some hurt. "Too bad," he sighed feeling sorry about the lost chance. "I'll give this to Sanae-san for her when I see her mother again at the clinic."
He turned and saw Tenshi going out with his camera. It seems his passion for photography did not pass with the end of the project and he wanted to keep taking pictures for his own scrapbook. "Tenshi," he said, "are you going out? Could you please find Shio-chan and give this to her?"
"Uncle, I'm a little busy now. Maybe I'll just pass by Furukawa Bread tomorrow."
His uncle looked downcast. "Tenshi... I really hope you could give this to her right away. It was a surprise gift just for her. I have wanted for so long to show her how important she is to me. She has been a very good friend since day one and I can't just let her pass by. I want her to remember that she is very special. Well, I just hope you would."
He took the dove and dashed off in search of her. He hoped to find her soon so he could take his pictures right away. Nah. He'll just photograph his entire way through while looking for her. He's not letting a mere girl get in the way of his day.
The sunshine was already growing weak when he had his fill of photographs. He looked them over proudly one by one, holding each at arm's length and gazing at them like they were made of solid gold. He put them all in the pocket of his jacket... oh, the keychain's still there. Now he remembered the favor his uncle asked of him. Being out here so long, Uncle would be very upset indeed if he were to return without any results.
He went to Furukawa Bread but the place was still closed.
It took him about an hour of more frantic running and squinting into the distance. The sun was getting lower now. He must find her at all costs before it gets dark.
Before he could take another step, he must rest for a bit and he found just the right place. The park pond. How could he have forgotten this place? It was his darling back when he was at the project, fifteen pictures in all. There was a fountain here that gushed every now and then. He should love to capture that moment when it does.
After stretching for a bit on one of the stone ledges, he got up and aimed his lens at trees on the other side. The water was in full view, and it reflected the fading sunlight in a multitude of sparkles. At the right shot, the park would be drenched in a dreamy haze of soft glow while the pond would look like gold. It would be a waking dream.
He adjusted his angle. This is just sweet. The place was usually crowded but now there was just nobody. There was even no wind, just a brilliant afternoon sunshine. The silenced afforded him every opportunity for close focus. Easy does it...
A distant noise disturbed him.
It was but a soft sound, but the silence was such that the most trivial stirrings echoed clear across. He turned to see where it was coming from, and discovered several yards away that somebody was crying.
Ushio's face lay prostrate on her bent knees while she hugged herself ever so tightly. Her long, disheveled hair hung straight down in defeat, cloaking her and hiding her from the world. Her hoarse, hard sobbing and coughing racked her whole. Everything had come to nothing. Everything was useless. In the end, she was nothing to him.
Tenshi approached her. She instantly hushed, muffling her crying but still choked in massive hiccups. She knew he was there. He also knew that. He sat down a few feet apart from her, waiting for her to calm down. He did not bother to ask her why she is here. He knew.
The sky finally lapsed into twilight. The pond stopped sparkling and lay still in a bleak gray hue. Tenshi has lost his chance. But he didn't mind now.
He glanced at her to see if she has stirred. She was still there. A few sobs bubbled, but she was already silent. She had taken a hard beating. Her faint outline loomed starkly in the half-darkness. She has become a shadow, strands and locks of hair running wild everywhere like untamed undergrowth. It was Ushio, and yet it wasn't her. He wondered. That time when they confronted each other outside the bathroom, was she about to cry back then? He certainly felt guilty that time, she must have. Perhaps at least once she also looked like this. Because of him.
For sure, he brought her mother not a little trouble, but he never saw her cry. She never did. Only bites back, only nags, only wearing him out. And he wanted to hurt her in return as much as he could. But did she also look like this? Is this what it was like to hurt somebody?
"You know," he began, staring at the pond, "Kanako's got a very bad mouth. You think Uncle's lucky? He's only too kind."
"She already broke up with him twice, but she knew there's nobody else in the world who'd take in somebody like her. If there was, perhaps, she would have been gone long ago."
"I'm sorry about Uncle," he whispered. "He's just too kind. To a fault. He won't let her go."
"Well, don't waste your time trying to impress someone who's already in love. It's useless. Not all happiness comes from Uncle. Go out and find more.
"You know, there are plenty of cool things in the world, if you only know where to look."
After a while, having run out of words, he cautiously glanced at her. She has looked up. Her eyes now show over her knees, and they sparkled in the evening light. He sighed audibly in relief. Maybe she's alright now? Man, if she had been here since morning and shedding tears all day, she should have done by now. Perhaps he can now finish his chore for Uncle. "Lookie here," he said dangling the dove keychain in front of her. "Like it? It would be great for bag. One hundred percent aluminum. It came from..." Uncle? Great way to market this thing, duh. "Well, just take it. Do what you like with it. Flush it down the toilet if you want. Just take it. OK?" He left the gift at her feet and stood to go.
"Is it from him?"
"Well, never mind whoever it came from."
"Do you think I will accept that?" she snapped.
Suddenly he felt mad at her. He just thought she would be alright now! He was so tired of all these waterworks. It bothered him. It bothered him to see her cry like that. She is certainly not a girl in that state, just a hunk of wasted junk. It unnerved him to see her break down into that. It was not the Ushio he bickered with. It was just... something inhuman. If she does that again, he might go nuts. He snatched up the keychain and shook it insistently in front of her. "Just take it now! Take it! Just get it for life's sake! Here!"
"You think I can bear to touch anything from him from now on?" she thundered at him.
"You're wrong, Ushio! It's from me! Look! Who's the one giving it to you now? It could only be from me! It only makes sense!"
"You know what you look like when you bawl? You look awful! I'm serious here! You look like some animal thrown out of a shack. You will not admit you look like an animal now, would you? You'll never do that! I know you!"
She was still staring hard at him, but eventually, her gaze softened as it started to regard him more closely. He could feel those eyes scanning every inch of his face, every corner of his camera, as if she was seeing him for the first time. Slowly, she reached out her hand and took the keychain. And then she crouched back to her old position, face in her knees.
He can't go while she's doing this. She might break down again.
Night fell. The distant lights lit up and cast a phosphorescent glow on them. Suddenly the fountain burst forth like a watery dandelion breaking into countless sprays. It even looked like a dandelion in that white light.
"Tenshi?" came the soft voice. It was almost inaudible, muffled by the splashing of the fountain.
"If you really know me, answer me now. Do I really look good?"
"If you think I look any good, please, take a picture of me right now."
She stood up. He took his camera and cautiously turned it on, shielding it with his body, his back turned to the fountain so it won't get wet.
"Are you ready now?"
He took a picture of her facing the lights from across the pond. He showed the results to her on the screen taking care to protect the camera from the fountain sprays blown about by a strengthening night wind. Yes, it was a good shot. "Thank you," said Ushio smiling at him.
She then sat down again.
"Aren't you going home now?" he asked softly. He sat down beside her. "Come on, it's dark already."
"I can't," she said starting to well up again. "I have nothing to go home to," she sobbed. "It just makes me crazy staying in the shop all alone, thinking of Mama all day. When will she wake up? I'll be driven mad if I stay another second there. Please! Let me rest here!"
"You can't," he chided her taking her into his arms. "You'll get wet out here. Stay with me."
She did. She snuggled into him seeking shelter in his embrace. He has his back turned to the fountain, shielding her from the spray. He is not letting her get wet.
At about eight they were still there, Ushio in Tenshi's arms, safe in his hug, while he was already quite soaked up.
"You know, Ushio, I think we should try something new tomorrow."
"Like let's go on a short date after school?"