The table was steaming with the kitchen delights Tomoya and Ushio prepared. The father was not a good cook, but his daughter's feminine touch softened the over-sharp flavours somewhat. The pair tends to cook a lot more than Nagisa, and it seemed that their being at the helm was in unwitting anticipation of the visitors that day.
"We're sorry to have come over at lunch. We planned to drop by late in the morning, but the plane was right on schedule, and there was that accident at the junction going here," explained Tomoyo.
"It's OK," smiled Nagisa. "You come here only once in a thousand years. I believe you should stay with us for some days."
"Oh no," she chuckled. "You're too kind, Nagisa. But I will be lingering in this city alright. Kyou phoned me and asked if I could come and I thought, hmmm, pretty excuse taking a vacation. The station's wearing me down already and Tenshi here wants some fresh air, too."
"Indeed?" said Nagisa. Turning to Ushio, "You must have asked your sensei to call her. What a good idea, dear."
"Uh, um," she stammered, "it's nothing." She was made more than a tad uncomfortable by the presence of another male, and one her age, in her own home.
"Kyou said your Mizuumi needed some coaching from me. Well," she said looking endearingly at the girl, "I'll always have that soft spot for kids. Especially the cute ones." She giggled. "Maybe I should have been in Kyou's job, instead."
"That's wonderful to hear," gushed Nagisa. "I'm sure my little girl will learn a lot from you."
"Tomoya," said Tomoyo, "You don't mind if I carry Mizuumi around some? Like to the bookstores or banks or such?"
"Why should I worry?" he said. "I know she will be safe with you even if you take her to the grubbiest alley."
Tomoyo laughed from the reference. He still remembers her as ruler of the streets.
"Still," she said, "I'll be needing Ushio from time to time as I know Mizuumi will be most comfortable with her very own sister." She stared lovingly at the little girl. "Right, baby?"
"Umm! Shio-chan's the best!"
"Uh... well... sure..." said Ushio.
"Ushio," said Tomoya, "are you feeling well? Maybe you should go to your room for a while."
"I think so, papa," she replied. She apologized to Tomoyo. "I'm sorry to be out of your service for now, Madam. Maybe I can chat with you sometime before you return to Kyoto."
She waved a hand. "Oh no, it's alright. After all, it's Mizuumi I came here for first of all. And Tenshi will keep you company if you want to talk to someone your age."
Wha—Hey, I'm trying to steer clear of him, OK?
"Mom," mumbled Tenshi, "I came here to see my friends."
"Friends?" frowned Tomoyo. "Tenshi, people you meet online can't be real friends when you haven't even met them. And what if they only mean you harm? Don't tell me things like these don't happen."
"Mom, you're making a nitwit of me. Of course I'm careful about my buddies. I even checked their photos and all."
"They will only show you what they want to show you. If I were you, I'd look for some flesh-and-blood person whose family your mother knows well." She motioned to Ushio... "Like—" ...but was stopped when she saw that everybody else were just staring at them, at which she realized she and her son have had the floor for the last few minutes.
"Oh...I-I'm sorry." Nervous laugh. "Tenshi has a strong opinion, you know. It could do him well if he took up law."
This was the last straw for him. He wanted to be a photographer.
He stood up and bowed to the Okazakis. "Mr. Okazaki, Mrs. Okazaki, Mizuumi, I'm very sorry. Please excuse me for a while." When he got Tomoya's permission he filed out to the balcony where he took out his phone to contact his chatmates.
Hey there! You did not acknowledge my existence! You snob!
"So is he cute?" asked Tomoe as the two of them awaited their turn in line to the buffet.
"Not a bit," frowned Ushio. "He's got that split chin there. Looked so odd. And I definitely won't fall for someone who feels like a superstar."
"Oh, Ushio, you shouldn't judge somebody like that especially when you only just met. I don't suppose you've even talked—"
"Still, just because somebody mistreated you one time doesn't mean he's such a bad character, don't you think? Give him a chance, Shio-chan."
"Wait a sec," she said as she purchased a float and her favorite anpan to go with her rolls. "It's you who are interested in him and now you're asking me to give him a chance."
"N-No, I mean, as a friend. A friend. Don't you think it's exciting to know someone new?"
"And why are you even excited? You haven't even seen him, like I did. I thought you said you shouldn't judge somebody so easily. You're doing the same, only in reverse."
"Say," she said as she bought her ice cream in a bowl, what with her pack lunch back at the table, "I hardly thought of that. Guess the both of us should poke around a little more. That still means you must give him a chance."
"I don't know, Moe," she said plaintively as they turned to go to their seats.
They had to finish everything in a hurry so Ushio would be back at Dr. Ichinose's on time.
Kyou finally found time to visit Nagisa at the apartment. She did not want to bother her old friend with the cooking so she brought home, along with Ushio and Mizuumi, a packed chicken meal everybody could share.
"You look a bit thinner than when I last saw you," said Kyou in a concerned voice. "Are you even eating well?"
"No, no, I'm fine. You know I have poor health all along."
"But you sure look different now... Nagisa, I'm really scared for you. I can't forget those times when you were giving birth." I should say you've gotten far worse ever since you had children. "Honey, maybe it's about time you got a ligation."
She smiled weakly. "No need. Tomoya and I do not plan on having any more children. My Ushio and Mizuumi are quite enough comfort for me."
Kyou sighed in relief. At the corner of her eye, however, she spotted Ushio looking downcast, staring into her meal. Oh, dear, I'm sorry. I shouldn't be worrying you now, should I?
To dispel the gloom she laughed out loud and changed the subject. "But Mizuumi's looking lovelier with each passing day. She's way cuter than her tomboy Onee-chan here."
Ushio snapped up. "What? I'm no tomboy!" She stuffed more chicken into her mouth and washed it all down with the pineapple drink. "At least I don't throw dictionaries and stuff!"
She laughed even louder. At least she's out of her melancholy now.
"By the way, Mizuumi's educational trip is coming up," she informed Nagisa. "It's not really very far. Half of it is a mountain hike to see the different kinds of trees and flowers and the rest of the day will be a picnic. I can arrange for Tomoyo to take Mizuumi out of the other half so she can give her a tour of her own."
"Please do," said Nagisa. "I want my daughter to know her parents' friends more."
"If that's what you like, after the trip Tomoyo can take her home. If it's alright with you, you can let Mimi sleep there as well. And lastly, you could let Ushio stay overnight with her too so she can keep her company."
Ushio was in the middle of chewing a nugget, but she suddenly choked.
"Ushio dear, are you alright?" asked Nagisa assisting her child.
She drank some more and coughed the remaining bit down. "Kyou-sensei," she spoke up, "you don't mean to say I'm sleeping there, too?"
"Why of course, sleepyhead!"
"So that means I will also..."
"Yup! Because the next day's a school day."
She looked broken. "Big NO! I'm not going sleep, bathe, and dress in the same house with that creepy son of Tomoyo-san's!"
"Don't worry, he isn't the only man in the house. Takafumi's there..."
"WHAT! Mama, you're not going to let me go there, are you? If I was a mother I will never let my teenage daughter sleep in another house with two total men strangers. Don't you, Mama?"
"But I thought you wanted guys to see you so they can admire your hair."
Just then Tomoya arrived from his overtime shift. Mizuumi ran to her father and he carried her. Tomoya and Kyou greeted each other.
"Papa," begged Ushio standing, not minding any introductions, "Kyou-sensei's making me sleep at Tomoyo-san's! This is outrageous! Papa, you won't let me, right? Please!"
"Who's at Tomoyo's house?" he asked Kyou.
"Oh, the usual. The same people."
He pondered for a while. His puzzled and serious look, seemingly trying to recall names he could not, sent a sigh of relief through Ushio.
"Oh, I remember. Takafumi and Tomo." He smiled at his daughter. "They're nice people, Ushio. I won't mind letting you sleep at their house. Tit for tat, really. Did you know they actually lived here once in the past? Uncle Takafumi's even put up a computer."
Ushio sank back to her seat. All is lost now.
"What's the matter, Shio-chan?" teased Kyou. "You're not disdaining people whom your own father trusts, are you?"
"Shio-chan, you will sleep with me at auntie's, right? Shio-chan..."
"Ushio," said Nagisa, holding her hand, "please do it for your own sister. Don't you love her, dear?"
"Shio-chan..." begged Mizuumi.
The ultimate bread-and-jam combination was, as usual, too much for her. But she still tried to eke out at least a faint glimmer of hope. Her father. He's the head of the family. He didn't really order her to go, only allowed. He might reconsider.
"Ushio," spoke Tomoya seriously. "Do not let your family down. All of us trust you."
Speaking of down, the girl, in despair, lay face down on the table, moaning, as Kyou laughed at her display of self-styled martyrdom.
Mizuumi was having the time of her life. Tomoyo spent those golden hours driving the little girl to the nearest interesting places.
"Tomoyo-san," chirped Mizuumi to Tomoyo, who was at the wheel, "are we going to the museum again?"
"Nah-ah. But I got loads of other places for you. We will go the planets and stars."
She instantly brightened up. "Really, Tomoyo-san?" She reached out to hug the lady.
"H-Hey, easy now," she chuckled. "I might not see the road, you know."
They toured the train station, a planetarium (where she was scared but later fascinated by the ride to the planets and stars), a small gallery for Japanese art, and even a radio station. Everywhere, the staff let them in freely, as Sakagami Tomoyo was already a nationally-known figure among professionals, co-hosting a radio health show, among other things.
As they were leaving the station, they were assailed by a handful of employees.
"She's the weather girl, right?" asked one.
As soon as the word spread round some more people came to see them, including the guards.
"Sakagami-san, can I have your autograph?"
"Sakagami, I always watch your segment. You're so hot!"
"Is she your daughter, Sakagami-san?" sombebody said regarding Mizuumi.
"Oh no," she said, laughing amusingly at her fans. "She's Mimi, my best friend's kid. But, hey, you may want to get her autograph as well!"
"Hello, little Mimi," cooed a lady staff. "How old are you?"
"Umm," said Mizuumi, showing seven fingers of her hand.
"And little Mimi already comfortable with strangers!" she gushed. "Can you write your name here?"
Everybody got both of their autographs, and a little girl's kiss to boot.
Nobody could illustrate the expression on Ushio's face as she set out to the Sakagami residence that evening with a bag of about three changes of clothes with two uniforms and toiletries and stuff.
Nagisa tied a little ribbon on her daughter's hair as she pouted. She then proceeded to kiss her daughter on both cheeks, much to the high schooler's consternation. "Ma, I'm not Mimi! Cut that out!"
"Ushio, your hair looks better that way," commented Tomoya. "A ribbon on that short hair reminds me of your kindergarten days."
Of all things! Ugh!
"Of course," seconded Nagisa. "This was the same ribbon you wore when you turned eleven. Isn't it cute? And it has a dango in the middle."
"Ma, I like dangoes, but not on my hair!"
"Shall I tie you a bigger ribbon, perhaps?" smirked Tomoya.
This ended all argument so Ushio dutifully bade farewell with a short kiss to her parents, but she could not keep her resentment down. I'll persuade Mizuumi to go home early with me and I'll just tell Ma and Pa she wanted it. After she got into the taxi she pulled the ribbon out and tied it around her arm instead, with the little dango décor tinkling along.
She arrived at the Sakagamis' much earlier than she had hoped to. The lights are out. With nobody inside, she got a neat excuse not to come in. For a while she wondered if perhaps there was a nearby place—anywhere—that she can hang out on, an arcade, a store, a park, just to delay her arriving at the detested place. But there don't seem to be anywhere.
She walked for some time until she found a convenience store. It was better than out in the open. There were seats for customers dining in on ordered snacks so she got an extra-large float just for the excuse to stay. She wanted to hold on for at least an hour, but the dessert was consumed rather quickly and she then wondered what else to buy just to extend her time.
A customer sat down next to her with armloads of fresh produce he got from the grocer earlier that afternoon. He laid down his load just under the table and started to eat the cup noodles he got.
After a while, the girl grew restless. With her limited pocket money meant to last until the end of next day, she can't just stay there indefinitely. She stood up. But as soon as she did, she tripped a bag of produce, spilling oranges and stuff all over the floor. The man got up and picked everything one by one. Ushio, embarrassed, was about to lend a hand but was restrained politely. "It's OK." In no time, all were back in the bag and then he proceeded to quickly finish his meal and gather all four bags in his arms before going out.
Suddenly, the girl had an idea. Now she could buy more time.
"Sir!" she called out to him. He looked back at her in surprise. "I-I'm sorry. It must be tough on you to carry all that and yet I almost ruined it, without even helping you."
"Don't worry about me," he smiled. "I live not too far from here, anyway. I'll just fetch a cab if it's too much."
"No. If you live nearby, and you can find someone to carry these for you, you can save money by just walking home."
He laughed softly. What a cute voice he got. "Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, I'm older than you and you're a girl."
"Forget about the old chivalry stuff. We're in the modern age now, aren't we? Men and women are supposed to treat each other as equals. Remember the feminist movement of the sixties?" For a change, I'm finding some use for those long-winded lectures in class. "So please, mister, allow me to do the favor."
He laughed louder now. "I didn't know you have a thing for women's rights. Well, then, I'll let you have two and I'll carry two. Is that equal enough for you?"
She returned his laughter. "You're the most equal person I ever knew," she flattered him.
As they walked down the street in the evening cool, they found time for a chat. "You mean someone's coming over to your place?" asked Ushio.
"Yes. We intend to have a welcome party."
"Wow, that's great!" she said. "I really feel like sitting to a nice dinner party right now," she joked. "Of course," she added, lest she turn out to be rude, "at my place."
"So where are you staying?"
"Oh, I don't really live there. I'm just looking after my kid sister. She's the real deal there. I really just want to stay home."
"The owner of the house must be looking for you, then. It's already dark, you know."
She laughed nervously. "No problem! They won't mind me. As I said, I'm not the real deal there, so there's no need for me to hurry back."
As they turned down the lane, a familiar sight caught Ushio's eyes. Hey, that's… Aunt Tomoyo's house! Gotta hide behind the man so nobody inside spots me…
Hey, mister, where are you going?
"We're here," smiled the man. "I guess you can go back now. Thanks for the help." He saw a change coming over the girl. "Umm, what's wrong?"
"You…you live there?" she fumbled, paling.
"Yes," he said, mystified. "Is anything the matter?"
"Ah… well… "
"Maybe we're too far away now, eh? Lost your way home? I think I can help you a bit as I know the ropes of this neighborhood. Our guest might not be arriving yet, anyway."
Well, how do I explain this…?
"Takafumi," called a voice. The two turned to see a silvery-haired woman carrying bags of goodies and holding a little girl. The girl ran to Ushio and clung to her. "Shio-chan, I knew you'd come for me!"
But she did not mind her, as her eyes were fixed, unbelieving, at the woman.
"Ushio," said Tomoyo with concern, "are you alright? Takafumi, have you taken care of her? Why is she like this?"
"I was just in from the grocer. She said she was visiting someone and she must have forgotten the way back to their place when she helped me carry these. It was her idea."
"Bro, that girl's place is with us! That's our guest."
Takafumi's mouth hung. "What!" He immediately dropped his bags and lifted hers out of her hold. "I'm so sorry! I could make a hundred women carry my bags, but not one guest! Please come in. You didn't even tell me!"
"What's that racket?" called another voice. Tenshi just arrived wearing a headset from which music blared so loudly the others could actually tell what song was playing.
"Tenshi!" said Tomoyo. "You're wearing those earbombs of yours again? I say you'll have a hearing aid before you reach forty."
"Here we are again, mom," he grumbled.
"Instead of messing around with that, why don't you help prepare the table? Our visitor must be hungry now."
He gave Ushio a sideways look. The girl, in turn, gaped at him. And we just had to actually see each other again? Now the tension was too much for her. She ran over to Tomoyo and whispered, much to her embarrassment,
"Auntie, I'm sorry to ask this so soon, but can I get to the comfort room?"
Akio had just come in from a hard day's play with the neighborhood kids. He was in his bragging best, and he swung the bat around arrogantly as he entered Furukawa Bread.
"Akio!" reprimanded Sanae. "You might break something. Calm down, will you?"
"What can you say, Sanae? At this age, I'm still the greatest baseball player in Hikarizaka." Loud belching laugh. "No one can stand up to the mighty Furukawa, the Babe Ruth of the baking world, Ahahaha!"
"Can't you just hush now? Nagisa is asleep."
"Eh? My daughter is here?"
"The children are at Tomoyo-san's so Tomoya-kun thought to escort Nagisa here so she can rest with us while they're away."
"Tomoyo's here? Humph! I should like to have a match with her."
"Akio, Tomoyo-san's busy with Mizuumi. She can't fool around with you now."
"Babysitting? What a disgrace for a dashing young woman like her. Anyway, can I have some dinner now? I'm just famished."
Sanae heard a moan from the room. "Nagisa," she said, hurrying back into the room.
Akio was frustrated. He decided to look around and see if anything edible could be had on the shelves. He saw some nondescript pudding near the counter. He went to it and read the label. "Bean bread?" he said. Well, it didn't sound fancy, or looked fancy even. Maybe Sanae's baking has finally come to its senses.
He picked up one and inspected it. He could not see any beans. Filling? He tentatively smelled and licked it, and tasted nothing unusual, just the ordinary pudding flavor. Well, it's certainly better than any she came up with lately, he thought.
As he was about to bite it, something burrowed out of the bread. A bean. A dog-faced bean! Is this mutated from the leftover radioactivity in the rainbow bread?
The bean started to talk.
"Uh…," he mumbled, "good evening."
"Did you know…?
"…that a chameleon, when frightened, becomes white?
"And did you know? That a hippo's sweat is pink? And the inside of a kangaroo's pouch is smelly?"
He went pale, as if about to puke, and unconsciously put the bread back on the shelf. Where have I seen this before? An educational ad? Is Sanae putting her teaching into her bread now?
Author's notes: If you were somewhat confused by the ending of this chapter, it involves a certain merchandise franchise in Japan. It features TV shorts that substitute for commercials. Familiar? If you want to know what it is exactly, that can be your homework! ;D
Till next time!