Nichi and Ushio found the 'bike' chained to a fence outside the Arts building. There were no passers-by and the area was tucked well away from the walkways and entrances/exits so it was the perfect place for a crime.
"What?" stammered Ushio, upon seeing the large motorcycle. "I thought it was a scooter. Didn't you just say 'bike'?"
"Well...uh...it's a motorbike. Isn't that the name people call that thing?"
"Are you sure you can get into the system of something this big?"
"And now you start out insulting my expertise. Go stand over there and be my lookout."
"Hey! Since when have I become your errand girl?"
"Just shut up, OK, if you want me to pull this off. Now go. Shoo!"
Ushio wanted very badly to see exactly how he's going to do it so instead of watching for any intruders she tried to make out everything from a distance. She could see him wield a large—indeed seemingly rare—screwdriver, fix a few cables, and finger what appeared to be a palmtop device. A phone? Now she was dying to see what was really going on. She sneaked up on him just as he had finished programming and he started to detach the cables when
"What model of phone is that?" asked Ushio.
Nichi made such a yell that he actually covered his own mouth and eyed around nervously. He then gritted his teeth at Ushio. "Watch it! This is a bigtime operation and if we're found out we could be suspended or worse."
"You always do something bigtime."
"This is different! This bike here belongs to a special visitor. An alumna of the school. And she's from America! I heard she is based in some topshot university in Tokyo and the school board's just falling in love with her."
"Why must you always make a jerk out of important people?" she sighed in exasperation. "What have they done to you anyway?"
"Look. If I press the horn here..." He did so, and a piercing scream followed by a dramatic flourish rang, frightening the beat out of Ushio's heart. "See? This is from the 'suspense' keyboard. I copied it on my phone. Now if she tries to maneuver on the road or into parking the warning sounds will do the same thing. Isn't this fabulous?"
"Yeah, yeah..." she shrugged. "I just hope she does not try this on the highway or I'll have you pay for the hospital bills if she drives off the lane in shock."
He paled in fright. He grabbed her by the collar. "The hell you do!" he shouted. "Remember, if ever I get caught in this you will also be involved. So if you know what's good for you, you keep the nose out of my business, OK?"
"Ho ho! Well, well! Who was it who poked his butt at me in the first place?"
"You always wanted it yourself!"
"I wouldn't have given in if nobody enticed me!"
"Hey!" shouted a third voice from afar. "So you were the ones shouting over here!" It was a teacher. He walked over to the bike but before he could get there a frightened Nichi covered his head with his uniform and bounded across the lot, leaving a shocked Ushio rooted to her place and caught by the arm. "So you're trying to steal the doctor's motorcycle, of all people! Young lady, do you realize what grave crime you have committed today?"
"I-I am not stealing the bike, sir!"
"You're a true criminal," he spat out. "Caught in the act and still not budging!"
"Well, search me, sir! I don't even have any tools. I don't even know how to drive."
Just then the teacher saw on the ground something. It made him gnash his teeth. "So you don't have any tools, eh?" he hissed.
Ushio followed his stare. Oh mother! And he even had the courtesy to drop this?
The principal inspected the screwdriver and showed it around to some teachers and utility that gathered about the prosecuted girl in the office. The utility man took the thing, and with a single glance he satisfied himself that it was something built especially for motorcycle screws. "Damning evidence," he smirked.
"It's not mine!" pleaded Ushio. "Sir, you saw the other guy who ran away, right? It's his! He's Hirano Shinichiro from 2-A! Ask him!"
"And you have the nerve to embroil a section-A student in your misdeed! How dare..."
"Miss Okazaki," said the principal, narrowing his eyes, "you don't happen to know who exactly owns the motorcycle, do you?"
"How could I know, sir? And I never steal anybody else's property. Please, give me a chance to acquit myself."
"I'm afraid that's out of the question now. If that was from outside the school, I could only have you suspended for a month, but..." cough... "the offended party is an honorary member of the school board itself. She has extensive connections not only all over the country—and I say Japan, young lady, Japan—but even among leading institutions in the United States!"
Suspended... for a month... ONLY? Suddenly her head seemed to spin and acid seemed to seep into her throat from her tightening chest. She shut her eyes and could not bring herself to understand anything that was said next.
"This is a matter of choosing between keeping you here and running the risk of ruining the school's reputation, nationally, and internationally! I should say you will not blame us for anything that follows, and I believe we don't even have to call in your parents. They should realize beforehand what it is like to run into their betters.
"You not only badly carried yourself, you even chose badly the people on whom to pick. You were simply too unbelievably insolent.
"I deeply regret that a freshman like you should end her academic career so early."
As all of them stood to escort the distraught girl out of the office, a lady appeared in the doorway, though Ushio could see only her feet and her skirt as she could not bear to look up. All of the school staff and especially the administration fumbled as they bowed to her. "Good afternoon, Madam!"
"Please forgive us," said the principal to the floor. "We have the culprit here and we promise to dispose of her quickly. Accept our apologies!"
"Accept our apologies!" the rest echoed.
"I had my assistant check the motorcycle and he said it was only tampered. The warning devices were not working properly. However, that was some expert hack. It may take some amount to restore or replace those parts."
"The school will pay for it in full!" stammered the principal. "You can count on us, Madam! You will have your motorcycle good as new first thing tomorrow!"
"I don't like the idea of the school itself paying for something done by an individual. I also don't believe a good school as this have to suffer a bad image for a single student. It may turn out that you are giving a mere girl too much importance. You don't have to go through the trouble just for this... child."
"It is still our responsibility to make sure you have a pleasant stay with us. And what if the other schools hear of this?"
"Then don't leak it! Hand over the girl to me and forget the entire affair. I intend to punish her personally."
Ushio gulped. It looks like she just got into a far worse bind. Who knows if the good doctor wants to dissect her?
"Young lady," said the doctor, "bring your parents to the board at nine AM on the dot tomorrow so we can arrange for your penalties. Is that clear?"
At eight-thirty in the morning the next day, Tomoya and Ushio were already waiting on a bench outside the board's office. Neither wanted to look at the other. One was holding back his anger and despair, and the other was hot with shame. How could it have possibly come to this? lamented Tomoya. I think I have raised her well enough. I tried my best. Could it true that the misdeeds a man did to his father will be returned to him by his own children? He groaned from the possibility, knowing the kind of relationship he had with his own father, Naoyuki.
Ushio for her part could not bring herself to lift her eyes from the floor. She tried to distract herself by counting the ants, seeing if she could mirror herself in the shiny floor, but the guilt just gnawed at her. In any case, they did not have to wait for long before an assistant ushered them inside.
The board room, surprisingly enough, was empty. She had half-expected the table to be lined with all sorts of officials, with the dreaded lady at the head, passing a verdict on her. Whatever it is, though, she tried to comfort herself thinking it won't mean her being expelled as the principal was told to forget the entire matter yesterday. Still, she might be blacklisted, prevented by the school from applying in a university anywhere in the whole of "Japan, young lady, Japan", thus assigning her for the rest of her life to a workingman's job just like Tomoya's or Nagisa's instead of her father's dream of her being a professional, and if that should happen, how could she possibly relate to him afterwards?
Wasn't it her father himself who told her how rotten his high school life was? And she was repeating the same mistake! She was pretty sure those very thoughts were running in his mind right now.
Her litany was interrupted by the assistant telling them to enter a room at a corner of the hall.
Upon coming in, father and daughter were startled by a wall-sized window that presented a panoramic view of the city. Right there, her back to them, stood the woman. Tomoya was intrigued. That hairstyle...she looks like...
When she turned her face to them, a shock came over Tomoya. Ushio reflected the fright on her father's face. Papa...what does this mean? Does she hate you or something? Don't tell me my fault is that great!
He immediately went before the table and fell on his knees. "Kotomi, spare my daughter, please!"
Startled, the woman rushed to him and brought him to his feet. "Stop that nonsense, Tomoya-kun!" She straightened his jacket and beat the dust out of his pants. "Where is Nagisa-chan?"
"She... she will follow. Kotomi. Kotomi, forgive me. I have been a bad father. I could not rear my own child well. I'm sorry she had to cause you all this trouble."
"If it was your fault, you have suffered enough. It is not you I must deal with, it's the girl I want."
"Please, Kotomi, have pity on Ushio! She is too young. She does not completely discern right from wrong."
"Then I will help you teach her. Goodness knows how hard-headed teenagers could be these days. They are just too much for their own parents to handle by themselves."
"Kotomi! I beg you. I promise, I myself will stop her studies if ever she makes any more foolishness. I swear it to you!"
"I am not someone to swear to, and I do not like swearing!" she reprimanded him. "Is that how far apart we are now?" she finished with a bit of hurt in her voice.
Tomoya fell silent. He remembered how he once helped her out of her loneliness and her past. Whatever she is today, no matter how high, she must also tip a hat to him, and to everybody else who meant much to them both. It was not something to hold against her prestige, it only shows how close they are. And that is how Kotomi wanted it to stay.
"Kotomi, I am deeply sorry my own daughter had to be a pain to you. But... for the sake of our friendship, at least, please, let her go just this once. Even just this once."
She gestured a 'no'. "That is not how a friend should return favors. I'm sorry, too, Tomoya-kun. She must learn."
"Then tell me!" shouted Ushio, not wanting to take any more of this. "Do what you want with me. Enslave me! Forget that you and papa had ever been friends. Just tell me what I must do to pay for what I did."
"Ushio—!" rebuked Tomoya.
Kotomi gave her an amused stare. For a while nobody spoke, until the silence was already too much for Ushio to bear.
"Come on, tell me already! Please!"
After another moment of silence, the girl was on the verge of sobbing. Kotomi started to giggle, until it turned into a low taunting laugh. Father and daughter were dumbstruck as she went over to the girl.
"You know, Tomoya, your child has a little more spirit than you. And certainly a lot more than her mother. When I heard that she was an Okazaki I just had to make sure. Now I have double confirmation that you are her father. Such a prankster she is, too.
"Still, Ushio, I advise you not to follow what your Dad did in high school, but to remember how he helped others. So now, I want you to do the same.
"I am dismissing my aide for a month out of the two in which I am staying in Japan so I can divert his pay into repairing the motorcycle. I think you should know by now who I have in mind to replace him."
"You can count on me, Madam Ko—er, what should I call you?"
"Ichinose will do. You spell Ichinose with one kana and two kanji. I prefer to be called Doctor."
"You got it, Dr. Ichinose!" she bowed. "I promise to do my utmost in your service."
"Wait. This means that I am employing you full-time. I know the school will let you. However, I'm not even giving you free lunch for your labor. And from now on you will take the trouble yourself to follow up what your classmates learned all the while you're staying with me. I'll let you out only on tests. You may have to solicit your classmates' help for explaining missed lessons. If you can persuade them."
"I understand. I accept all of your terms, Dr. Ichinose."
"Tomoya-kun, perhaps I am not being hard on your child at all, am I?"
"No, Kotomi," he sighed in relief. "She deserves it." To the girl, "Ushio, I hope you have learned your lesson now."
"Still," added Kotomi, "I don't think it right that I should seal my decision without Nagisa-chan here. Perhaps I should wait for her to hear what she has to say?"
"Not at all," said Tomoya. "I am sure she will agree with your judgment. In fact she said she was worried we might have spoiled her as she was our only child for seven years."
"Well then," she replied, going to the table and producing a form. "Sign this. Both of you, father and daughter. The other space is for the mother. It is a waiver that the student is willingly offering her time for extra service to the school. Bring this to Nagisa-chan."
As they went out, the air became much lighter. Tomoya and Kotomi chatted about old times while Ushio basked in the fair weather. The wind blew briskly and raised her hair while huge white clouds floated idly above. Now she didn't have to worry about ruining her father's dreams.
Just then, she thought the wind suddenly died down. She also noticed the clouds hung still in the wispy morning air.
Only cherry blossoms were allowed to fall.
From a mile out she already knew who would emerge from the line of trees along the road across the parking lot from where they were. In fact, the two adults also halted in their tracks. Perhaps, they, too, were hearing what she was hearing right now.
A shadow appeared in the shade up ahead right in front of Ushio. Before she knew it, a form broke the surface and there right before her eyes approached Nagisa Okazaki, her mother. She held with one hand Mizuumi Okazaki. One of either was already enough to break her, yet the two together made her want to sink through the earth, especially after what she did.
Yet even the ground did not dare move.
Before she knew it she was staring right at her! Her mother! Coming here to see her wayward child!
What finally did her in was the weariness in her mother's eyes.
It was enough to tell her that she must have stayed behind to catch her breath after hearing what dishonor her offspring brought unto the family. It also reminded her of that Saturday when she asked her a favor, and she declined. About the girl right next to her.
Now she couldn't stop the tears from coming. She buried her face in her hands.
"Mama," she choked. "Mama..."
Mizuumi broke away from Nagisa's hold and embraced Ushio. "Shio-chan, why are you crying?"
She lifted her face out of her hands and stared through wet eyes at her sister. She knelt down and took her in her arms. "Mimi. I'm going to fetch you now everyday, OK?" She wiped the tears off her face. "Is that a deal?"
Mizuumi smiled so brightly it could have blinded Ushio. "Really? Thank you, Shio-chan!" she said as she wrapped around her neck. Ushio stood and carried her. She looked over the girl's shoulders and saw that a sense of relief has returned to her mother's expression.
Tomoya went over and patted her daughter's head tenderly. Finally, she is learning to be more responsible.
"Nagisa-chan," said Kotomi, "it is a pleasure to see you again."
"Mine, too, Kotomi-san. I'm sorry about Ushio."
"It's over now, Nagisa, don't rebuke the child anymore. By the way, if I should be honest, you don't look as well as I remember or is it because I have been away too long? My, you should take a vacation."
"I can't enjoy a vacation if it is away from my three babies."
"Then perhaps this weekend, all four of you."
"You're too kind, Kotomi-san. What about you? Would you like to come over to our place tonight, or perhaps sometime?"
"I don't know. I travel whenever I'm not at Hikarizaka High. These two months I must spend visiting universities all over the country, but..." she hesitated awhile, looking at Ushio. "...I have someone to help me."
Nagisa smiled. "I'm sure my Ushio is very capable, Kotomi. She can redeem herself to you in no time." She took Kotomi's hands. "If it's alright with you I would like to see her at school one time and maybe we can also talk even just some..." Just then she started to pale again, and then fainted, languishing into the arms of an aghast Kotomi.
"Nagisa! Nagisa-chan! Wake up!"
Tomoya immediately took Nagisa and ordered Ushio, "Get a taxi, quick!"
Kotomi offered to take Nagisa to a hospital at once but Tomoya said she wanted to stay with her family at home. Nevertheless, the professor sent for a doctor to the Okazakis to check up on her friend.
"There's nothing much to worry for now," said the doctor. "But she must avoid travel as much as possible. She should also abstain from any extended work even at home. Plenty of short breaks in between if she must."
Tomoya took the doctor's number and accepted a month's supply of medication paid for by Kotomi. The dosage looked a bit complicated, but Nagisa said she could remember details well. He took note of the prescribed drugs. Palliatives. All palliatives. They still couldn't explain what exactly is afflicting Nagisa, he thought bitterly.
Ushio wanted to keep vigil over her mother for the night, but Tomoya reminded her that she had to be at Dr. Ichinose's office at exactly seven in the morning and with that he made her go to bed.
It was only the first day of "work", yet Ushio was already complaining about why she ever "gave in" in the first place. To be sure, a professor's aide's workload suddenly thrust upon a high school freshman is certainly not something to pledge oneself into just like that. To Ushio it was a lesson on how serious giving and keeping one's own word is.
Lunchtime arrived and the girl had to go all the way down to the cafeteria as Nagisa was of course not well enough to make her bento. She slugged out all her pocket money on a feast and afterwards she felt so full she decided to stay behind awhile under a tree after eating and savor the daytime breeze.
By about two she was back at Dr. Ichinose's office.
The professor herself was standing at the table, arms crossed. Three heaps of unfinished papers lay on Ushio's desk. "You could have finished all these in one-and-a-half hours."
Ushio was dumbstruck. "W-What time is it?"
Kotomi only facepalmed with one hand and pointed at a rather large digital wall clock with the other. "I suppose you have graduated from kindergarten. You can read numbers, right?"
Ushio immediately turned red and rushed to the desk. "Sorry, madam!" She was in such a hurry that she toppled one stack spilling papers all over the floor.
"And now you just had to add fifteen minutes simply to gather and re-organize all that. Very efficient."
As Ushio finished stacking the papers and carried the heap, Kotomi put a booklet on top. "You will sort out my itinerary, won't you? I must meet with the board now, and I want all that finished an hour from now, after we adjourn. Don't let your work pile up on you." As she opened the door she let out a very audible sigh and muttered, "Really now, my old aide was worlds better." And she closed the door on her.
"What can you expect of a high school girl?" she mumbled back. And she said the papers can be finished in one and a half, not one hour as she last said. Not that she could really finish in either time.
Nichi, you... Just wait till I get my fist down your gangling throat!
After school is out, Ushio's travails still won't let go of her.
To compound her misery, examination week was coming up and she must catch up on her school work real fast. Minako and Tomoe were too busy themselves and of course nobody aside from them would want to lose time for self-study tutoring someone who might trump their own performance in the end.
As such, the girl had a load of textbooks slung over her shoulders in addition to her heavy bag, itself stuffed to the brim with other books. (The zipper broke when she first tried to yank it all down and she had to fix it.) But that's not the end of it. She promised to fetch Mizuumi at Kyou-sensei's school everyday after school. Maybe I could make Mimi carry some of these.
To make it even worse, these times, before sunset, were their special times together, her, Minako and Tomoe, as well as Megumi. The loneliness was a much heavier burden on her. Well, at least she'll have a chance of finding Megumi at that grade school.
"Konnbanwa, Ushio-chan," smiled Kyou. "My, I never thought you could be so studious for a freshman," she added, noticing her books. "Are you from Section A or something?"
The girl made a face. Section A people are rotten. "I really need someone to help me with these. Is Megumi around?"
"Oh. She already left, but if you take the loop you can pass by their house and Kouko-san might let her out to assist you."
And add another mile to my aching arms? No thanks! "It's OK, I don't think I should bother her now. Where's Mizuumi?"
As if on cue, she felt somebody cling to her back. Yup, it's her alright. "Let's go home, Shio-chan."
"Wait, Mimi, I haven't even recovered from walking all the way from Hikarizaka with these." To Kyou, "Kyou-sensei, I think I heard you were dating someone already." She hummed knowingly. "If I know... You shouldn't be keeping secrets like that. Who's the un—er—lucky guy?"
Her ex-teacher laughed. "Look at the envious girl," she taunted. "Should I perhaps break it to someone like you? That... I am engaged... To a foreigner... Oops! I think I said something I shouldn't! Not to someone out of luck in the boy department. Were you offended, Ushio?"
"A foreigner, huh?" she smirked. "American?"
"Ah!" she exclaimed. She then ranted as she imagined, "The Europeans must be curious if Japanese women can actually transform like they do on TV. That would make an exciting marriage."
I love fish!
"What was that again?" growled Kyou with her terminator eyes on.
"Shio-chan," said Mizuumi, hearing something that sounded fancy. "I think I also want to be engaged to a foreigner. Must be fun."
"Mimi," Ushio sighed, "just get your things ready. We're leaving soon."
"By the way, Ushio," Kyou said, being levelheaded again. "I heard you're Kotomi's assistant now. You really went overboard with that prank, I must say. Still, sometime I'll go over there and talk to her. Maybe she can lighten your penalty."
"I should hope so," she sighed. "But first, I think you must visit Mama first. She's much worse now."
"I was about to say that myself. Don't worry, Shio-chan," she finished with a thumbs-up, "you can count on me!"
For the first time in her life, perhaps, Ushio actually stayed out late in order to finish her homework while Mimi slept quietly. At least she's a good sleeper. And a week's worth of them. After that she reviewed three subjects in a row until she couldn't take it anymore. She slumped on the desk herself and it must have been half an hour when someone set down beside her a glass of juice and some pancakes. And dangoes, of course.
"Ushio," nudged Nagisa, "wake up. You should eat before you go to bed."
Get up she did, and the first one she saw was Tomoya, who was actually looking very pleased at her. "At last, Ushio," he said, "you are learning to be responsible at your age."
She slumped back, not very impressed with her father's praise. "No fun..." she drawled.
Nagisa let out a soft chuckle, while Tomoya held his wife's hand. "Nagisa, she'll be fine."
"Ushio," said her mother, "if you get hungry, I'll leave your refreshments here. If you need somebody, we'll be waiting in the room.
"Good night, baby" she finished, with a kiss.