How to Grow Up
Ushio did not get any pocket money that day as Nagisa, whose condition had improved somewhat, was now able to cook. Her mother promised to send someone to bring her the bento.
At lunchtime, Kotomi was already starting to consume the first of three packages she ordered delivered to the office. Her diet reflected her cosmopolitan outlook. The first was traditional Japanese ramen and rice with tonkatsu, the second were Mediterranean pita bread, and the last was the same American fastfood fare of burgers, pizza, and fries. For somebody who used to make lunch herself, she had settled to ordering food on the fly with her being busy and all.
And someone like her just had to eat three meals in one sitting? How did she keep her figure? Man, if only... If only I could get even that one burger! If only...!
The intercom at Ushio's desk rang. She was about to answer it when Kotomi stopped her. "Don't. I'm sure it's for you."
At last! Lunch!
Upon going outside the boardroom, she found Megumi. "Hello, Ushio-san," she greeted. "I heard you're already in cram school at fifteen."
"And you are already a troll at eleven." She sighed. "What even brings you here?"
Megumi giggled. "Why, of course I must accompany Mizuumi lest she gets lost going around in this school."
And on cue, a bluish-haired girl appeared behind Megumi, carrying the bento from their mother. She went in front and offered the box with both hands.
"Shio-chan, this is a special gift from deep in my heart. I hope you enjoy my food. My love goes out to you."
"How touching!" squeed Megumi hugging the little girl.
Ushio was getting mushy again, much to her dismay, but then...maybe it's OK if only Megumi sees.
"Well, thank you, Mimi," she smiled warmly, ready to cry, taking the bento. "You're a real loving sister."
Hmmm... It felt somewhat light. Perhaps Mama could not cook so much yet?
"Thanks a bunch, dear Mimi. I'm just famished."
She then opened the lunchbox, only to see half of the rice and all of the fish eaten, leaving her only the salad and the four slices of cured ham, which, by the way, were only three now.
"Mimi," she cried, aghast, "What on earth happened here?"
"Oh," said Mizuumi, "I thought Mama's food was great so I borrowed some from you. You won't mind, Shio-chan, will you?"
Borrow? You mean you even intend to return it to me? Uaagh.
So it was that Ushio trod the depressed path back to her desk, where she slumped over her bento and was about to cry. Kotomi, still finishing the pita bread, stopped in her tracks and eyed the girl quizzically.
There was still a bowl of unfinished ramen, and she decided to consume the noodles, then slurp the remaining soup in the softest but most long-drawn possible manner. Living for so long in America, it was actually uncharacteristic of her to eat with any noise, but she knew it would provoke hungry native Japanese like Ushio. Indeed she saw the girl get a magazine and cover her head as if to keep the sound out.
Kotomi chuckled. She went over to her with the entire fastfood package plus the last pita bread, and set it down before the girl, who was surprised to find the professor's food on her table. "Wait. I-I thought you're not giving me—"
"I'm making an exception for today. After all, I won't be here tomorrow and I'll be back only next week, although on what day I'm not sure. It's yours. But only because you look so pathetic."
She kept laughing to herself as she made her way to the comfort room.
The next day final preparations were made for the examination, reviews galore, and Ushio was able the attend classes because of Dr. Ichinose's trip, so there were hardly any books to take home. Still, going home with Mizuumi became a letdown. Her friends' absence just bore down on her, and Mizuumi, sweet as she was, was barely a substitute for high school horseplay. She missed her chums, and it ached.
She decided to take the loop to the Yoshinos, if only to grab a few minutes' chat with Megumi.
"Where are we going, Shio-chan?" asked Mizuumi.
"Only to Megumi's, don't worry. We'll be with papa and mama right after."
Ringing the door bell, the lapse of time waiting for a reply seemed like ages to her, so pining was she for company. At last, someone opened the door and rushed to the gate, who turned out to be
"Tomoe!" exclaimed Ushio.
The two could not get enough of each other, hugging like crazy. Ushio was already in tears.
"Why, what's the matter?" asked Tomoe with concern.
"No, it's nothing," she fumbled, wiping her own face. "Just wasn't used to being without the group."
Just then the rest of the group, Minako and Megumi, appeared and joined their pals. "Hey, crybaby, cut that out. You look so monstrous with that face," said Minako.
"Not as half as wicked as yours," smiled Ushio.
"Say, is that your sister?" Minako sat down to talk to her. "Hello, little one. You look much cuter than your Onee-chan."
The youngster giggled. "Papa says the same thing."
Oh brother, thought Ushio. And I thought you would be on my side.
"Really, if only Ushio here would have her long hair back you two would be the cutest pair ever! Short hair just doesn't fit her at her age."
"Umm!" agreed Mizuumi. "Shio-chan is the most cutest beautiful hime whenever she has long hair."
"Really, now," mumbled Ushio, "can't you just let me re-invent myself?"
"Re-invent?" taunted Minako. "When you just failed your last Science test? Great inventor, huh?"
"Just you wait till I take that exam. Nobody will laugh at me anymore, 'cause I studied hard. Real hard. Really... Really hard..." At that point she was on the verge of breaking down again, but her two schoolmates immediately took hold of her and group-hugged.
"There, there, girl," said Tomoe. "We're here. We'll always be together, right?"
"No. You were never there. And I don't know if we'll ever be. Mama just told me to babysit Mimi everyday after school. How can we even see each other? And you're busy now..." She started to cry, but they wiped her tears right in her eyes before she could.
"Don't say that, you," said Minako. "It's great to have a little sister. I just wish I had one 'cause we're all boys at home and they just get rowdy it drives me nuts. And Yoshino-san agreed that we could hold a group study, all of us, here at Megumi's so we can also tutor her some. We'll all get busy together!"
"It won't work. Mama said I must teach her to be strong. I must be on hand fulltime. How on earth will I do it? I don't know any other kids her age. And I can't just pretend to be her age and socialize with her. I just hate that! I'm not going back. But...I don't want to let Mama down."
Minako thought for a while, her brow furrowing, while Tomoe made some reflection of her own. Then, an idea dawned on her. She laughed and slapped Ushio's back. "Now, I get it! You know, Ushio, you were just being too hard on yourself.
"You don't have to feed her kidstuff all the time. Maybe it won't hurt to give her something advanced."
"What do you mean?"
"From now on, Mimi's part of our group. Right, Tomoe? Megumi? We'll take her on our shopping and she'll see what's it like to be in high school. What d'ya say, little one?"
The excitement on Mizuumi's face was evident. "We'll go shopping?"
"Yup! Sign up, sis!"
"That's a wonderful, idea, Minako," said Tomoe.
"All right!" clamoured Megumi. "I'll phone Uncle Tomoya so she can stay with us tonight. Tomoe and Minako can tutor the both of us and we'll sing together. Mizuumi will learn the latest hits off the chart! Without any language, of course."
Speaking of singing, just then Ushio thought she heard another tune in her head. It was bubbly, belonging to a grade schooler, except the one around was anything but. In age, at least. But she doesn't look it.
"Oba-san!" said Megumi. It was her Aunt Fuko.
The lady (or girl) stared straight at Mizuumi and for a while their eyes locked. Oh no, thought Ushio, I've seen this before. Don't do it to Mimi, please! Not her!
Fuko clung to Mimi with squint eyes and in no time she was transported to the starfish realm.
"Eek!" said Minako, "what's happening to her?"
"I-It's nothing!" said Megumi. Auntie's just like that. It's probably related to her being hospitalized way back. It's harmless, though she could stay like this for about two or three hours."
"In that case," she said, "Let's go." She gently eased Mizuumi out of the dazed lady's grasp, and they all went inside, leaving her daydreaming at the fall of night.
It was already past eight, but everybody was still very much up and about. For one, the subjects were admittedly enough hard and took some time explaining, but Kouko made drinks and Yusuke pitched in often to explain some physics related to his job. He was a big help. The two grade schoolers took turns beings helped on their assignments by Tomoe, who was quite bright and fixed them up in no time so after a while they were doing basically nothing, messing around the sala, watching or playing games on TV.
The high schoolers were so absorbed in their study that they weren't able to keep track of the youngsters. Well, Megumi's fine, sleeping on the couch after a hard night's play, after all, it's their house, but Mizuumi...
Ushio excused herself to get to the comfort room.
After she finished relieving herself, she happened to pass by the balcony, where
Oh my, what's Mimi doing with Fuko Onee-san?
She sneaked up on them behind the wall. It seems they were doing some sort of photoshot.
"This way, Mimi-chan," said Fuko, posing as she lay on the folding arm chair. "Fuko's so gorgeous, isn't she? Now you try it."
Not having any chair, Mizuumi tried as best she could to copy Aunt Fuko's sexy pose, but ended up looking like she's doing a badly-done stretch exercise.
"Fuko's impressed! Fuko says you're beautiful and lovely!"
If this keeps up, Mimi might catch a cold! Goodness knows what could happen with that body of hers.
"Hey, Onee-san," she said, emerging from the wall, "It's late now. I think we should let her rest."
She suddenly found herself flung onto the seat. Next thing she knew, she was laid out by Fuko on the chair, trying to make her do the same pose. "Onee-san! Cut it out!"
"See, Mimi? Onee-chan's a good model. Onee-chan's cute to begin with, so I believe you will be inspired to be like her."
"Onee-san, what is this all about?"
"I'm trying to teach Mizuumi-chan to grow up."
"Grow up? How can you make her grow up? She's not even ten."
"Fuko heard you girls say you want her to grow up. So Fuko is teaching her because Fuko is mature enough."
It must be Minako saying something about giving Mimi something "advance", and about "shopping". What she really meant was exposing the girl to the outside world, not trying hard acting like showbiz. Nonetheless, she appreciated her Onee-san's intention. "You know, Fuko Onee-san, I believe I got a better idea. Come with me."
"No. Fuko has the best ideas because she is the most mature lady in the neighbourhood. Fuko will make Mizuumi-chan a lady, too."
"Before she can be a lady, she must be a girl first, don't you think?"
Fuko paused to consider what Ushio said, sucking on her finger, and then, she must have understood. "Uh-huh. A girl comes before a lady, right? But isn't Mizuumi-chan a girl already?"
"I don't think you can call someone a girl if you don't have any girly interests. Like... Like making bead necklaces. Or bracelets! That's it! Teach Mimi to make star decors!"
"Star... decors...?" As she mulled over the idea, she remembered the star shape, and the creature it resembled, her favorite life-form, and it promptly fired her up. "Ah! You're right, Shio-chan! We'll make starfish decors! Starfish! Starfish!" And she relapsed into her starfish dreaming.
Ushio smiled. Aunt Fuko may not be very useful oftentimes, but she was a sincere and friendly person nonetheless, reasonably nice to talk to whenever she's in the mood (as she remembered from her younger days) and she hated to see her go into trouble. Perhaps, pouring her attention on some project will while away her time, and who knows, those decors just might fit Mimi. Making Fuko useful and perhaps liked for her contributions, brightened her up.
Examination week came around, and, owing to the intensive study of last week, Ushio did somewhat better at the tests. At least her scores got higher, not the almost-dead passing marks, and there were no failures. It was achievement enough for her teachers to note in class, earning her some applause from her classmates.
With the remaining free time left before Dr. Ichinose returns, and since the three chums, Ushio, Tomoe, and Minako have roughly the same test times, they were able to eat together at lunch break. And yes, after school, they would go on a short trip to the clothes store with Mimi.
When they did arrive at Kyou-sensei's school, they found the teacher and their pal Megumi standing proudly around an elated Mizuumi, who was adorned with beautiful little star-shaped tidbits: a starry necklace, a bracelet on one arm, and tiny earrings.
"Her classmates were so amazed by her beads," the teacher beamed. "Everybody wanted to have them, but there were but a few to give away. She was an instant hit."
At last, Mimi's learning to open up. Thanks a bunch, Aunt Fuko.
The Okazaki couple, of course, did not miss the change in their youngest child. The girl now actually babbled about her day at school, much to the delight of Nagisa. Tomoya couldn't have enough of asking her little girl questions about school, from which he only got positive answers. She even stayed up later than usual, showing off her beads and the hair band Tomoe got for her at the store. The couple was too satisfied anyway to be bothered by their coming home a little later than usual.
"But isn't it a burden to Kiyomasa-chan?" asked Tomoya.
"Uh, no," Ushio stammered. "She volunteered. And I think I'll get her something in return one of these days."
Still, the looks of her parents told the girl, "Good job, Ushio."
Warmed, and utterly thankful for everything that happened that day, Ushio finished her supper with gusto and went to bed early, dreaming happiness.
It was an entirely different matter the next day.
When the three visited her at lunch, Mizuumi was crying as Megumi held on to her, trying to comfort her. Kyou herself looked worried. How could her fortune turn around so quickly? But the reason was plain for everyone to see.
Minako was already about to laugh but Ushio barged an elbow into her tummy before it could break out.
"Onee-san must have gotten overboard this time," she sighed. Mizuumi's uniform was studded with large, colourful, and thus visible starfish badges. Her notebooks were patched all over with starfish stickers, and there were even tinier ones on her cheeks. Her classmates took to calling her "stargirl".
"Certainly," mused Ushio, "Mimi can't rely on stars all the time. We must find other interests for her."
"We're already shopping, right?" said Tomoe. "Maybe we just haven't been to the really large stores yet."
"No. We should branch out more. I think we should find other people who can teach her something else."
"My," said Kyou, "you're really putting yourselves out for her. She might end up knowing more than her classmates."
"Sensei, perhaps you know other people, like, from when you were in high school with papa? He mentioned some names that I couldn't remember."
"Well," she ruminated, "I have a handful, but they've moved out. Wait, I think I can call one to come over. Well, we're not exactly close, to be sure, but she does call me sometimes to check up on Hikarizaka High. Let's just hope she's not too busy."
"That's wonderful, Kyou-sensei! I'll be waiting for it." She then remembered something. "But you haven't visited Mama yet!"
"Oh, that." She laughed. "I always tend to forget. How could I? I'm such a bad friend. Don't worry, honey, we'll get to it as soon as I'm free."
With the return of Dr. Ichinose, Ushio's workload appeared to have tripled. It was as if her work had nursed a lingering hatred toward her for being out so long and was now paying her back. But she would have none of it. She was inspired by her determination to help Mizuumi that she looked forward to it everyday, giving her unusual energy. Kotomi, intellectual that she was, did not miss out on the change in her assistant, though it did not guarantee she would know everything accurately. Or does she?
"Is somebody dating you now?"
Out of the blue? What is this? "Um, uh, why would I have any?"
"You look so up today. It's not ordinary that a freshman like you should keep to that kind of work for so long without remuneration. I was worried that perhaps you were looking for a date at your age and have found it."
She laughed nervously. "Come on, Doctor Ichinose. Just because I'm in high school..."
"It's because you're in high school. Ushio, everybody passes through that stage, and you are no exception. Feelings can get out of hand very quickly. I just hope, when that time comes, you will have your better judgment on hand to support you."
But of course, Madam! Papa and Mama say the same thing. Wait, why are we even talking like this? She decided to startle the doctor with her own unrelated question to change the topic. "Um, doctor, when is your birthday?"
"What?" she blurted. It happened that the day was already not too far away, and coming. "What do you care about my birthday?"
"Huh? Uh..." she muttered, caught off guard by her own words. "Uh, I'd like to give you a present." Oh my, what have I gotten myself into?
"Do you have any idea what I prefer to be given on my natal day?"
Visions of sports cars, gold watches, and—satellites, perhaps?—danced in Ushio's mind. Her mother once mentioned having made a hand-drawn dango gift certificate herself for a friend because her violin was still under repair and could not be given on the day itself. Maybe if I made a really large check for a grand piano plated with gold paper? she wondered, hoping somehow the doctor would overlook the fakery.
"Before you ask any personal questions like that, you might want to consider knowing the person himself or herself first. Am I right, Ushio?"
Nervous laugh. "Of course, doctor. Ehehe."
"Though, if you're really interested, your father can give you a hint," she followed up, remembering how he spearheaded the same event of way back.
"Papa has a clue? Hmmm... Maybe you want Papa for your birthday?"
"What!" She found herself reacting somewhat hotter than she'd admit. "Why... why of course I would want to have a friend to be present on my special day. Don't you?"
"Well, maybe Papa can introduce you to some lovelife? You don't look like you have any, even after college."
"Ushio, you will excuse me?" she fumbled as she went to the comfort room. A little later she could hear flushing, but somehow she could tell the doctor was faking it.
What's so wrong with talking love, Doctor Ichinose? You started it, after all.
That Saturday, Nagisa was at their apartment and she was apparently recovering from her spells of weakness, moving about the house with the chores and all, but Tomoya and Ushio was on hand to help her with a number of tasks, while Mizuumi concentrated on her watercolours for the junior art exhibit.
The sky was overcast, but a high wind blew and there were no rumblings of threatening rain so Nagisa spread the wet blanket across the line with Ushio's help. Ushio loved the fresh, cool weather and her mother was glad to see her revel in it.
"Ushio, I think we have done enough work for today. "Let's settle down so I can make you lunch."
"Nuh-uh," she smiled. "Papa already set the table. You go on first to your throne, Your Highness," she said with a bow.
Her mother only smiled. She reached out to touch a strand of hair. "You got a split end, dear." She pulled it off, with only a tiny yelp from the girl, before letting it blow away in the wind.
However, the comment made the girl a bit downcast.
"Ma, are you saying my hair's not good? What guy will like me if I had split ends?"
"I was only saying what I see, Ushio. It must be because your hair's cut. I think it's better if you kept your hair long. Anyway, don't worry, admirers come without your asking it."
"I should like to do her hair, then," added a voice from behind.
Mother and child turned to see another mother and child pair, also of about the same ages as they. The woman had long, silvery hair, flowing like a banner in the moderate gale and with her is a similarly looking son.
Nagisa gave a bright, warm expression to greet them. "Oh, goodness! How wonderful of you to come. It's been a long time, Tomoyo."