Encounter at Furukawa Bread
Dinner with the Sakagamis was a lighthearted affair…for Mizuumi. Tomoyo and Takafumi took turns talking to the girl about her adventures, and Mimi responded with far more excited words than she could fill with one sentence. The lady was so happy her task of broadening the child's horizons worked pretty well.
Ushio, in the meantime, was eating in a very uneasy silence, despite the fact that Tenshi completely ignored her as usual. His very presence was a nuisance. What she didn't realize at the moment was that she was also irked by Takafumi not talking to her as he did earlier, focused on her little sister. For a second she thought of breaking her ice, but she didn't want tip off Tomoyo's attention on her discomfort.
Mizuumi did it for her.
"Shio-chan, you know the planets, right? It's Mercury, Venus, Earth…"
"Huh? Oh yes!" she laughed, trying to appear her best. Oh man, what am I doing laughing out of place? "Um, there must be ten of them now, right?"
"Really, Shio-chan?" she said wide-eyed. "Wow! What's the tenth planet? Tell me!"
"Uh, well, I forgot!"
"Shio-chan, tell me!" she pouted.
Wanting to put the entire matter to rest, she counted off on her fingers. "Mars, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, and…and…Pluto is not a planet anymore…"
"What?" gasped Mimi. "But Pluto was there! Auntie showed it to me! You're lying!"
"Mimi, we're not arguing in other people's houses, are we?"
Tomoyo just laughed this off. "Takafumi, will you enlighten our guests some?"
He smiled. That smile just sent a sudden chill through Ushio. "Beyond Neptune's orbit lie the Kuiper belt, and other places, with five individual objects, Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake and Eris, which are recognized to be large enough to have been rounded by their own gravity, and are thus termed dwarf planets. And you forgot to mention Saturn."
Wow, he's so cool with the info. "Well, that was neat," was all she could say.
"Ushio," Tomoyo said, I had the spare-room arranged for you and Mizuumi. You'll like it there. It has a big window that faces the breeze. Or if you like you could just close it and turn on the airconditioning or the heater. And there's a cable TV, too."
"You're so kind, Tomoyo-san. But Mimi sleeps early and I thought I could just go with her, too."
She smiled warmly. "You are two loving siblings, right Takafumi? Anyway, Ushio, if you want help with anything you can call Tenshi. His room is right next to yours."
"Huh...? No thanks… We can take care of ourselves. We don't want to be anymore a burden."
"Burden?" she chuckled. "This is only one night you're staying here and you think we'll be inconvenienced? I should be privileged, actually, having the children of Tomoya and Nagisa right here with me. And don't mind Tenshi, it's been a long time since he had served any visitors."
"Yeah, the usual bellboy…" he muttered.
"Tenshi, I don't want you having that attitude of yours in front of our guests. And since when have you spoken up whenever we have visitors?"
So I'm getting special treatment, huh? Fine.
Ushio stood up. "I'm full now, Tomoyo-san. I think I should put Mimi in bed. Must have been a hard day on her."
"You're right. But come down when you feel like, OK? I'll just have a word with my boy. He isn't really like this, you know."
She did not venture any further comment as she took her little sister's hands and accompanied her upstairs.
At three-thirty in the morning, Mizuumi was still in a deep sleep, but Ushio was already up, having slept much earlier than usual. And she meant to get up at this hour. She took all of her toiletries and undergarments, and marched to the bathroom. She is not letting herself being seen by that Tenshi-guy going in and out of the bath.
As she passed by his room, she satisfied herself that the lights were out. You're a dreadful sleeper. She tiptoed noiselessly downstairs and found the bathroom, fingering as few lights as possible. Those she did turn on, she switched off as soon as another one was lit, leaving no telltale traces. Finally, she reached the bath, and as soon as she turned on the lights inside she rushed to finish off those outside.
She had to take care not to spend too much time inside. What made her bath exceptionally long was the facial ritual Tomoe recommended so she can "keep looking fresh for 24 hours." Skipping that. She's also showering instead of dipping in the tub.
As she bathed she couldn't help but remember what she and Minako had talked about that day when she told her about one of her brothers.
"I can't let that happen, girl!" she protested, almost sobbing. "Arata's not a dog. I can't let Pa and Ma take him to the facility."
"But you yourself said he's hyperactive and breaks things."
"I don't care if he brings the house down," she retorted. She started to cry. "I can't forget how he looks whenever he sees the syringe. All that 'medication' the doctor got, and my folks just fell for that! How could they unless they see him as no more than an animal? I just know there will be more needles at the hospital. I just can't let him go through all that." And she broke down.
Funny how she complained about her siblings being rough-and-tumble just the other day. She could hear the girl rebuking her for grumbling about Mizuumi when 'I got a far greater weight to bear.'
But she just dismissed it. A burden is still a burden. Or so she thought.
When she had finished, it's not even four-thirty. It's still delightfully dark. Take that, bigshot! You think you'd get the luxury of seeing a girl from the bathroom firsthand? She proceeded to grope for the nearest switch to resume the painstaking routine. Her deft fingers found it, and she lit up.
"Ahhh—!" cried a voice in shock. Ushio herself let out a gasp of utter surprise. They stared at each other in the face, both getting red from embarrassment.
"W-What are you doing there!" stammered Tenshi, holding his own towel and grooming kit. It was the first time he spoke to her.
"You're sneaking on me, aren't you?" she blurted.
"Sneaking! You're actually saying I'm a stalker? You—"
"It's your word! How else would anyone think of you creeping in the dark like that!"
"Well, excuse me? Who was crawling down here in the first place? And you think you look good enough to be stalked on, with that hair of yours?"
She gritted her teeth. "And you think you're such a pretty boy to judge someone else's looks? Take a look in the mirror and your split chin, pal!"
"You know what you just did? Do you?" He spat. "I just thought I could escape being seen fresh out of the bathroom by a weird girl, so I came down at this hour to take my bath…and now it had to be you in there?" He flung his towel aside in an arrogant flourish. "You ruined my whole day first thing in the morning! I'd never been so humiliated at any time in my life, let alone in my own house!"
Ushio clenched her fist. That was saying a lot. It was something she almost never did. She closed her eyes, her lips set in a stiff line. Her nostrils raced from the hot, rushing breath she forced through them.
Tenshi was disconcerted by the change, but he tried to hold his ground. Who is she, anyway? Just because you're the daughter of Mom's friend. You think I'll kowtow to you simply because you curried Mom's favor? To tell you, miss, you're one of the things that set me apart from her. But for some reason he still could not dismiss his agitation. Well? What are you standing there for? Speak up!
When she did, there was venom in her low voice.
"I never wanted to be here. Take your house with you."
She tried to stay herself as she trod slowly past him, but broke into a run upstairs. He for his part did not bother to even look at her. He was trying to sort himself out. Not only was he humiliated in his own abode, but there was something else he never thought he would feel in his own residence.
Feeling guilty in his own turf.
He tried to explain it away to himself as something else entirely. After all, he had offended quite a handful of people before, not to mention his own mother. But it was clear to him that there were different shades of offense. Though it was easy enough to annoy a stranger, it was virtually unheard of to hurt one.
Tomoyo and Mizuumi were befuddled that Ushio did not join them for breakfast. Tenshi was not there, either. That was understandable enough as he was on a break and could get up as late as he wants to. When the girl did show up, however, she was all dressed up for school and hunkered down directly to the table, eating silently, adding to their puzzlement.
"Ushio," asked Tomoyo, "did you stay up late last night? Your eyes look red."
"Uh… yes. I took a bath early so I won't cause any commotion."
"You didn't have to do that, dear. Everybody here welcomes activity in the house. And since you're our guest, you are free to cause commotion like everyone else. Feel at home."
She smiled bitterly at this reverse echo of her son's words. "Mizuumi," she said, "hurry up so we could get back at Kyou-sensei's. It's almost six."
"No need, dear," said Tomoyo. "I will drive the both of you to your schools, and I will pick you up as well going home. If Tenshi doesn't show up soon, we'll go on our own. Takafumi will pack up your other things shortly."
Ushio tried to hide her smirk. If that Tenshi isn't coming, she hoped she would never see him ever again after that.
Akio stood out at the front of Furukawa Bread, feeling the heat of the day as he wiped his brow. Talk about climate change. It was never this hot back in my day. It was already lunchtime but he somehow wasn't able to work up his appetite. Must be that nightmare-bean pudding. He was half-afraid Sanae had put in the same on all the food. Nah, he thought, trying to reassure himself. Sanae's bad only with the bread.
"Akio," said Sanae. "Would you mind buying some vitamins for Nagisa? She's better now, but I want to make sure."
"Is he getting around now?"
"Yes. She looks perfectly normal today. But I don't want to let her home just yet with Tomoya and the children away."
He sighed. "Sometimes, Sanae, I just wonder why he doesn't just quit that job of his and take over this place. Goodness knows this bakery needs two expert bakers rather than just one."
"What? Aren't we two already?" The hurt crept into her eyes. "Are you saying…?"
"What? Heck, no! I mean you need an assistant. Right?"
"Why should I need a helper? Don't I bake good enough bread myself?"
"Otou-san, Oka-san," interrupted Nagisa. Her complexion has a healthy pinkish tint. "Come inside. It's hot."
"Of course, Nagisa dear," said Akio. "Shouldn't you be resting in the sala? We'll get lunch shortly."
"I've already made lunch, Otou-san. Come on, let's eat."
"Nagisa," said Sanae, holding her by the shoulders, "I'll call Shio- and Mimi-chan to come here after school so they can help you home."
"Oh, Mama," she laughed. "I can take good care of myself. You just watch me. As soon as the day cools down, Papa and I will have a baseball match. Isn't that fine, Otou-san?"
He grinned. "Heheh. Never said a better word. Step right up. I just hope you have improved your pitching."
Just then a Hikarizaka student ran up to the bakery. He stopped there, panting and sweating profusely. When he came to, he grabbed Akio by his apron and pleaded.
"Akio-san, save me! They're coming after me."
He gaped at him. "W-Wait a minute. We're not close, are we? How did you know me?"
"Ushio-chan said she also lives at Furukawa Bread," he gasped. He paused to recover his breath. "You're her grampa, right? Please!"
The two women were appalled and perplexed. This was no time, however, to ask questions, so they took him into the house. Akio stayed outside to see who exactly was pursuing the lad. Soon enough, a group of three appeared on the road. Gangsters. They were in civilian clothes, but he could not mistake the signature tattoos, not to mention one of them had a black motorcyclist jacket donned.
They found him. "Say, did you see a Hikarizaka boy come this way?"
"Hey," he retorted, "why are you involving me in your petty fights? Go on and let me mind my own business!"
They sneered at him, but the jacketed leader nudged them on. They didn't want additional trouble to distract them from the pursuit. They ran down the road and disappeared at the far end of the park.
He went inside and found the boy being wiped and rubbed by Sanae and Nagisa to ease his tension. Akio was aghast to find the ladies of the house lavishing such attention on a male other than him in his own house. He took the student by the collar and said, "Hey, pal, if you know what's good for you, get out this place on the dot. You'll have me in a brawl before I know it!"
"No! Please! Just this once. I never thought they would find out. My place is way too far and my folks are not home. This is the only place I can count on."
"If you keep yakking at me like that, I will hand you over myself to that gang. And what did they find out? Are you making me an accomplice to your crime? Bug off. Now!"
"Otou-san, it's not right for us to turn him out like that when he's in danger. Let him rest, and then he will explain everything to us."
He spat. "You be thankful my beloved daughter is here or I'd have thrown you bodily out of here." He dropped him.
The student dusted himself and bowed low to Nagisa. "I'm eternally grateful to you Ma'am. So you're Ushio's mother. I'm Hirano Shinichiro. I'm so glad to meet you." She saw Sanae. "And you must be Ushio's aunt. Konnichiwa, Oba-san."
"Hey, don't call my wife Oba-san! Can't you see her looks? You should call her Sanae-chan!"
"Eh?" He was stunned. She's Ushio's grandmother? He must say, Akio's right. He might have well mistaken the woman for Ushio's big sister. "My apologies, Madam Sanae-chan!"
"What?" flared Akio. "How dare you address her with a –chan? Are you best friends? Do you even have a relationship!"
"You said it yourself!" he shot back. Then he grasped his head in despair. "I don't care! Just hide me! I promise I'll be out of here by four."
"No need Shinichiro-kun," reassured Nagisa. "My Ushio will arrive here after school, and you can stay here for dinner. After that maybe the two of you can elaborate on what's happening."
He was speechless. What with the last time he involved her in his doings, she must have been disciplined already. He knew he left her to the irate teacher's mercy. How could she possibly treat him as soon as they meet? He was sure to himself the girl will beat him up before even the gang does. And Nagisa-san. How else would a mother possibly react when she finds out what he did to her very own child?
He remembered in biology class how a mother of every species violently defends its brood. Even a dog or cat is sure to bite anyone who comes near its litter. An eagle will tear away at anything that threatens its nest. A grizzly bear mauls down anything that hurts its cub. And Ushio's Mom? He could just imagine her strangling the life out of him. Not to mention the girl has a father to boot.
And when the woman's own parents see how upset he made her… It looks like Nichi-bashers will be having a field day today.
Ushio washed her face silly several times in the washroom to erase all evidence of her crying this morning. She was determined she won't cry just for some guy. Besides, she does not want anyone else to notice, not her friends, who were good at ferreting out things from her, and especially Dr. Ichinose, who was obviously better at it, and might be in the mood again to do so.
"You're so fortunate, Ushio," said Tomoe as they walked down the hallway on her way to Dr. Ichinose. "You got a columnist for an acquaintance." She sighed dreamily. "If only I could be in your place. She just might recommend me for a job at a publishing house."
"You still want to be a writer? Don't you know not many get well-paid for that?"
"You may be right, but at least I want to land a career close to my heart's desire. Plus, there's a better chance my works will get known nationally." She squealed. "Oh, isn't that delightful?"
"You got a point somehow. More power on your dream, then." Hmmm. It's odd that only the two of us should be talking about after high school. "By the way, have you seen Minako today, Tomoe?"
She looked stricken. "No. Haven't you heard?"
"She's at the hospital to take care of his brother." She looked downcast for a while.
"Why, Moe? Anything wrong?"
She paused further to consider her words. "Actually she's got a rough time there. She said she won't come to school while he's not returned home."
Ushio's face fell. "How long do you think she's staying there?"
Tomoe looked out the window to the juniors holding a calisthenics class on the grounds below. It was her way of saying, "I have no idea."
As soon as the sun started to set, while the women of the house were at rest, Nichi silently filed out to the front door, not even minding to bid farewell. As he pushed the door open
"Where do you think you're going?" said Akio menacingly.
He was shocked. "Ah, thank you for the meal. It was great." Nervous laugh.
"My Nagisa said you're staying for dinner, so you're staying for dinner!" he said grabbing his neck by the arm. He took a rainbow bread from the shelf. "Eat this for starters! Feel the rainbow!"
They struggled for a while and were only interrupted by a threesome that entered the bakery. "Oh," said Akio. "Customers. Welcome. We were just having wrestling practice."
The three gangsters stared menacingly at them. Nichi actually paled in fright and Akio stiffened just a bit as he remembered who the "customers" were.
"You lied to us," one hissed.
"I did not," Akio replied with a smirk. "I only told you I have no business with gangsters like you, haven't I?
He spat. "You just poked your toe into our territory with your harboring that Nichi!"
He shoved the boy in front. "He's yours!"
"You think you'll pull yourself off of us just by tossing him back?" he shouted. "You will also pay!"
"Well then," he said flinging Nichi aside, "I challenge you to a man-to-man fight. A manly duel! What do you say?"
The lead gangster turned to his fellows and they laughed this off. "Old man sure thinks he can pull a good joke at his age, much less a good punch!" They kept laughing with those threatening hyena-like cackles until the lead man got floored with a good whack from Akio's fist.
"Phew! Youngsters sure don't know how to respect their betters these days."
He got up, gnashing teeth, and snarling. He launched a punch of his own, but was stopped short by Akio's open hand.
"Heh! No different from catching a pitch. Can't you do better than that?"
They ended up wrestling each other past the door and out to the street. The other gangsters went out and cheered their ringleader on. The two boxed for a full half-hour. The noise disturbed the women, and Sanae and Nagisa appeared at the doorway. They were appalled by what they saw. "Otou-san!" cried Nagisa. "Akio!" screamed Sanae.
Finally Akio lodged a fist deep into the lead man's belly, making him double over coughing. Akio, himself panting heavily and patched with a handful of bruises, was now at the end of his tether. The gangster's right in a sense. He might have retained his striking force despite the years, but not his stamina. His vision started to blur as the other gangsters bristled with alarm.
"He's got Kenichi!"
The two others took hold of Akio's arms as the women watched on in horror. The lead slowly got up, still up to the fight.
"You… old…" he growled. He cracked his knuckles as he prepared to deliver his hardest blow. "Eat this!" he yelled as he charged.
The guy couldn't believe it. He was landing on his face before Akio after receiving a powerful blow at the back. The others, in shock, gaped and whined at the same time.
"Tomoya-kun!" cried Nagisa.
"You cheat!" threatened one of Akio's holders. "Backstabber!"
"I'm no more treacherous than you holding down an old man. Fight me!"
They responded in kind. Tomoya, however, was more than able to hold his ground against two. Seeing that his pals were at the losing end, he set out to take hold of Nagisa. Sanae took a tray from inside and whacked him, but he just shook it off and shoved the woman back inside, and she landed just in front of a much frightened Nichi. In the meantime, the lead tried to pull Nagisa into his grasp as the lady struggled.
Just then, he was knocked to the ground by a girl ramming herself at full force against him.
"Ushio-chan!" said Nagisa.
"You will not hurt my Mama!" she hissed.
"Ushio!" managed Tomoya as one gangster's arm coiled around his neck while the other held on to his legs, himself struggling to break the stranglehold with both arms. "Run away…"
"Papa!" she cried in shock. In the intervening moment when she was afraid for her father, the lead got up and grasped her. "Papa!"
"Ushio…" he said, about to pass out.
Through all this, Nichi sat paralyzed by fear, but now, when he saw how many people were hurt by his misdeeds, a resolve sprung up in him. He doffed his uniform and went out to attack the man who got Ushio, hitting him in the face and allowing her to break free.
"Nichi!" she said astounded. "Didn't know you can stand up for once."
"I gathered your folks will all have a beatfest on me once they get wind of how I got you into a bind, so I thought I might as well start getting used to it."
The man got up. Now he's really furious. He got a knife out of his pocket.
"Ushio," gasped Nagisa. She was starting to faint. Ushio was completely disoriented. In front was a guy with a knife, behind him Akki lay prostate on the ground, and behind her, her mother was passing out, not to say anything of her beleaguered father. What should she do first?
It was solved for her quickly. The lead found himself smashed, for the last time, by an incoming Tenshi, letting go of the knife. The boy took it and pointed it himself at the guy.
Realizing defeat, he finally covered his face in his hands and moaned in a gesture of surrender.
But the fight itself is not over. The gangster at Tomoya's legs let go and rushed at Tenshi wielding a chain…
…only to be kicked ten yards into thin air by a beautiful silvery-haired woman who fights with stylistic grace. She swept her gorgeous long mane to the back of her head as everybody gazed in wonder. After a while, she saw her son and was shocked to find him holding a deadly weapon. "Tenshi!"
"Mom!" cried Tenshi in dismay. "You just robbed me of a fight!"
"Tenshi, put it down! Now!"
He grudgingly complied, throwing the knife straight to the ground where it stuck.
The one guy remaining, frightened, let go of Tomoya and fled the scene. The man coughed mightily to right his breathing.
"Ushio," breathed Nagisa, taking her daughter into her arms and kissing her. "You're safe," she sobbed.
"Tenshi!" hissed Tomoyo, taking his son's arm and pulling him. "You'll get killed or jailed!" she nagged. "Are you out of your mind?"
"I know the real reason you're saying this," he muttered under his breath.
"What did you just say?" She tightened her grip and threatened to twist his arm. "Are we going to fight over it again?"
"Mama?" said a little voice behind them. Mizuumi was crying, not completely understanding what exactly happened but seeing everybody upset. She ran to where Nagisa and Ushio was and dived into her embrace. Nagisa couldn't have enough of hugging her two darlings.
Tomoya helped Akio up, and afterwards they both apprehended the two beaten gangsters. Now that the danger is past, they could now turn their attention to the boy who now gazed apprehensively at everybody else, knowing his time has come.