Tea in the Upper Library
Nichi felt for his pulse under the table as everybody sat around staring at him. He wanted to at least appear calm but his trembling hand showed otherwise. Besides, he was sweating, and in defiance of his trying to keep a straight face a particularly large bead rolled down his forehead to the bridge of his nose. He wiped it off with his handkerchief but in doing so showed the shaking of his hand to everyone.
"Now, Nichi," said Ushio, "you were talking about a beatfest." She smiled in a half-sneer. "Why would you think you'll get a beating, dear old buddy, when the gang's already lost? Maybe we should be the doing the favor, perhaps?"
"N-No," he fumbled. "Of course not. I was worrying about my folks."
"Oh? Well, either way, I guess your parents will end up knowing of your pranks, so you will get beaten anyway. So what are you worried about now?"
"Hey, I'm not worried, OK? How can you even prove that it's me? Nobody will accept your testimony now."
The beaten lead man spoke up. "We will witness to that! I'll get the whole gang before the school and the police and we'll even sign, all of us! Nobody will then blame us for everything that's happened in Hikarizaka."
"Then again," mused Tomoyo, "we must face it. Nobody there will listen readily to you boys. It's a Section A versus a group of delinquents. Especially when you got no proof of his doings."
"Y-Yeah," seconded Nichi, finding new hope. "Nobody here can blame me without any evidence. Not Ushio, not them, nor anyone."
"Why you!" he flared. "Isn't the fact itself evidence? Just because we're gangsters!"
"I'm afraid it works that way," said Tomoyo. "Still, the corollary is that the school will believe something said by a reputed source. Like me. Being a radio personality and a columnist, I can throw weight in Nichi's favor… or against."
"You're not going to testify against me, are you?" Nichi shot back nervously.
"I just might," she said eyeing him menacingly, "seeing that you put the daughter of my good friend in trouble."
He paled. "No! You can't! Even if you're nationally-known, you could be tarnished for testifying falsely without proof!"
"Correct. But you know yourself whether I'll be testifying falsely or not, right, Hirano Shinichiro?"
Her saying his name in full unnerved him. Those may be the exact words that will appear on the school misbehavior records.
"As for evidence, we journalists have our way of finding out."
"For instance," added Ushio, "you may want to start with the motorcycle screwdriver. It's in Dr. Ichinose's custody. Even if we can't immediately prove it's yours, simply re-opening the question puts you at risk. Bye bye university if it pans out on the wrong side for you."
He gulped. The shaking of his hands was now strong enough to be plain to everyone. "OK, you win!" he shouted grasping his head in despair. "Beat me up now if you want." He whimpered pitiably. "Now I just wish I let the gang have me than getting here in the first place."
"But it's too late now, buddy," teased Ushio in a sarcastically low voice. "All of us here can choose to beat you, and testify against you. Even Aunt Tomoyo alone can do both, right, Auntie?"
Tomoyo, on cue, reaches an open and outstretched palms-down hand towards Nichi. The student's eyes widened as the hand came closer... closer... closer... to his
No! Please! Not what you did to that gangster!
No! Don't strangle me! Mommy...
Tomoyo's fingers lightly touched down. He did not trust this. What if it was a prelude to some killer move? He felt the fingers lift off. This is it. He knew it was coming...
He heard the air swoosh as the hand rushed straight back
and pushed him lightly, tilting his head back.
"No!" he finished in tears with a pathetic supplication pose. "I promise I'll be good from now on! I'll never play pranks on anyone. I swear!"
"I'm not someone to swear to, silly. It's not my ideal to beat up children at that age. Though you must be responsible for what you did. It is not I you should answer to. I leave the decision on how to dispose of you to the one you caused the most trouble."
Nichi turned nervously to Ushio. He understood. It really had to redound to her. What could she be planning to do to him, then?
Everybody were looking at the two of them. All of them have those not-so-pleased looks. That was understandable, but they kept silent, obviously giving the floor to the girl.
"Nichi, dear old chap, I wonder what would happen to you considering that the owner of the motorcycle you nixed was not just someone the school board's in love with, as you said, but actually... er... how do I put it? A member of the school board itself?"
"Hah! You're lying!" he bluffed through his moist eyes. It couldn't be true, right? But who knows? Maybe she is exaggerating, after all. If what she said was right, however, he wouldn't even want to imagine that. He would be beyond hope, likely.
Wait, did she just mention a Dr. Ichinose a while ago?
Now he finally grasped the full import of what he did. He should have known from the start that a Tokyo-based visitor from America was really someone else entirely. As he realized, he dropped on his knees and shouted. "OK, I give up! I'm done for!" And he started to sob again.
Ushio yanked him to his feet. "That is not the right gesture in facing your problems. Look me in the eye." He did. " 'Cause I got something to tell you. We're having a deal."
"You know, Dr. Ichinose laid a punishment on me that you were supposed to take. I believe it's only fair if I passed on the favor to you, don't you think?"
"Tell me what you want, anything!"
"Well then, come with me tomorrow at nine A.M. on the dot."
Doctor Ichinose was somewhat dumbstruck upon seeing a section-A student volunteering to work for her. It's not as if he's seeking more favors for his advancement, maybe?
As if reading her thoughts, Ushio said, "It is pure goodwill on his part that brought him here.
"He feels like he wants to spend his life on something far greater than himself alone, that he will live for a noble cause, beyond that what he can gain from material concerns!"
"Yes," replied Kotomi, unimpressed, "but why me?"
"Er... Well? You say it, Nichi!"
"Uh, because, Madam, you are the...living symbol of Hikarizaka High School's tradition of excellence. It is my utmost honor to be in the service of the finest alumna of this venerable institution."
Funny that teenagers these days should look up to a professional achiever. Oh well, he's an A student... "Well then, Ushio," she said uncertainly, "I'm glad you brought him here. Uh, did he...volunteer to you?"
"Yes," said the girl, trying to keep a straight face. "I told you it's his pure goodwill."
"Don't lie to me, Ushio. Frankly, I don't think someone in this world would volunteer out of the blue on his own out of 'pure goodwill'."
"Come on, Doctor. You're too cold about people. Just because you don't have a lovelife."
"Well maybe the both of you do! What else could explain that he volunteered to you instead of giving me a letter? Every A-student should know that things start with formal correspondence."
They blushed from embarrassment. "We don't have any such thing in our minds!" they chorused. "How could you say that?"
Nichi, not taking it anymore, again fell on his fours and begged, "Please, Madam, accept my offer! I promise you I'll do my best. If you want a letter, I'll make one right here if you want."
Kotomi placed a palm on her forehead. It's that goofy gesture again. Do these people have a severe case of osteoporosis in their shins or something?
"Stand up, young man! Sign this waiver instead with parental consent. But don't expect me to give you any credits. I didn't call for this."
"Hmmm," mused Ushio as they walked out of the building after meeting with Dr. Ichinose, still with a hint of teasing in her voice, "I got less than a month left before I finish my term with the professor and you pledged to serve for two months. So we will be spending some quality time for at least two weeks. I wonder what errands I'll have you do in the meantime."
"Don't be so hard on me, 'K? You got your deal now."
"But I will be the one supervising you…" she smirked. "Right? You should follow my every word. If I told you to jump off the roof…"
"…Or I could just get the screwdriver."
"You won't, either! I'll find that thing in her office before you could thumb it at my nose."
"But it's not there anymore. And I won't tell you where I put it. Or should I?" She made a taunting drawl. "Well, maaaaybe it's in the giiiiirl's looooocker rooooooom…"
"You sly fox…" he snarled. But she's got the wheel and he could not respond any further.
shouted Ushio as she dived to push him aside. A soccer ball hurtling at blinding speed whooshed past them
and hit a window with such force it cracked severely.
When they got up, they were surprised to see a player looming menacingly in their path. The girl immediately recognized him.
"Hey," she said, "you're one of the star players in the soccer team! Or so I thought. Maybe you don't know what a soccer field looks like anymore!"
"You watch out for that boyfriend of yours, miss," he sneered. "We'll make sure he'll be in the hospital before the year's out."
Ushio's eyes widened and Nichi gritted his teeth. A gangster. She could hardly believe they have planted allies inside the campus itself. So he's one of them, huh? I never thought high school would be this bad.
The guy walked right up to them, and to Nichi in particular. He wanted to see the student step aside in fright, but he stood his ground, trying to prop up his nerve. When the boy didn't budge, he knocked him off with a powerful shove of his burly chest. He went on to retrieve his ball, went back through them, and continued back to the field.
They could only stare after him stunned as he went on ahead of them.
"Wait!" she called out after him. "He's not my boyfriend!"
At breakfast before school, Tomoya and Nagisa were quite busy entertaining Mizuumi's excited chatter about Tomoyo. She sat between her parents and might have gotten dizzy turning her head this way and that replying to every happy comment from either side. In contrast, Ushio sat across them staring into her meal, lost in serious thought.
"Auntie said no crowd ever got that big around her and it's because of me! She said I was the cutest thing she brought with her in her whole life."
"Who could be cuter than our little Mimi?" cooed Tomoya rubbing her head endearingly.
"Mimi-chan," said Nagisa. "I will make some cookies for your Aunt Tomoyo so be sure you bring it to her when she drops by school, OK?"
"Umm!" she agreed. "And oh yes, teacher asked me to make a speech today about my trip with auntie. I really don't know how to make one, Mama." She turned to Ushio. "Do you, Shio-chan?"
She did not seem to hear her.
"Ushio," said Tomoya, "are you not feeling well again? It seems you're getting sick a lot lately."
She lamely gestured a "no", much to the puzzlement of everybody else. "Shio dear," said Nagisa, "are you still having problems with Nichi?"
Suddenly she grasped her head and cried, "Oh, why do I have to care about him so much!"
They were dumbfounded. Mizuumi could only say, "Shio-chan?"
"Ushio," chided Tomoya, "where are your manners? You're in front of a meal."
"Sorry," she whimpered.
"I thought you already disposed of him. Isn't he working for Kotomi-san yet?"
"No, you don't understand, papa. It's not over. It's not over for him."
"You mean the gang's still after him?"
"Papa, I can't just let someone I know get into trouble without doing something. Anything. But I don't want to be entangled in a gang fight. What must I do? Tell me, please."
"Ushio," he said exasperated, "really it's not your fault if anything happens to him. He had been doing those pranks all along." Right then he felt Nagisa's hand reach over and touch his arm.
"Tomoya-kun," she smiled, "our child has a good will."
He only gave her a mystified frown, not thinking it right that they should go into so much ado for a relative stranger. He closed his eyes and went into thought himself. Fortunately, he remembered a name, someone who could lend a hand in the exact same problem Ushio worried about.
He fingered in his pocket and produced a blank scratch pad on which he wrote the name. He handed it to his daughter and said, "Ask for her at the public library. She should be there full time."
Nagisa brightened up as she remembered who it was. "Tomoya, she's still here? I'm so glad."
He smiled even more warmly back at her and clasped her hand lovingly, much to Mizuumi's delight.
Hikarizaka's municipal library was one place Ushio has never been to, indeed, she never had a love of libraries or books. So it was understandable that her stomach should flutter just a bit as she pushed through the glass door, expecting and indeed finding towering columns of hard bounds. Between those and the girl stood a desk where a middle-aged lady sat.
She gave the woman the paper on which Tomoya had written the mysterious name, and the woman immediately pointed her out to the second floor of the building.
Upstairs, there were more of the same; if anything, the bookshelves lay much, much closer to each other.
Much of the floor was just dark. She could not see the far end of the aisles, nor the top of the shelves, for a black gloom spread there that not even the lights in the lobby could vanquish.
She felt hemmed in. It felt as if the towering shelves threatened to fall down on her in a instant, and if they did, she would be crushed beyond hope. She only barely realized she was already sweating from uneasiness despite the air-conditioning.
For a moment the shelves seemed to dance around her, closing in to engulf her.
Little Red Riding Hood tramped through the woods…
Her vision started to whirl. She put a hand over her mouth as she attempted to stay herself. She can't pass out now.
Little Red Riding Hood got lost in the woods…
And then, something got her attention.
Much to her surprise, she caught the aroma of brewing tea. Puzzled, she followed the odor till she stumbled upon a niche among the books, a librarian's station.
She was astounded to find that the place was so neat and well-furnished it looked just like home. And there was even a stove on which the tea was set. A stove? But however disconcerted she might have felt at seeing out-of-place objects in the library, it was more than offset by the ambience of comfort and cheer that suddenly made the encircling bookshelves feel more cozy than claustrophobic. In the end she felt compelled to sit down and stretch out, and, take a nap in someone's arms, perhaps?
"Is there something I can do for you today?"
Startled, the girl spun around, only to be even more amazed. A lady who looked a lot like her, almost a mirror image of her, stood there smiling. There was a sleepy look in her brown eyes, but her overall expression was warm and friendly. So this is me in a good mood? It was only upon closer inspection that one could finally make out any difference between their appearances. The shade of her flowing brown mane was a tad darker, or grayer.
"So you're a high schooler? I'm so glad. I don't get visitors every day and most of them are older folk. Youth today don't seem to mind good books anymore."
"Not all, madam," she could only mumble. "Er… what can I call you, ma'am?"
She smiled even more warmly. "I'm Miyazawa-san. Or you can just call me Yukine."
Yukine perused the letter Tomoya had his daughter bring to her. She found out that her "children" were getting into trouble again and were after a Hikarizaka student, going so far as to assault Furukawa Bread. A pained expression came over her as she closed her eyes and folded the letter. She stood up and put it away into a drawer.
When she returned to Ushio, her pleasantly bored look resumed, and she carried a steaming teapot. "Perhaps you should want some refreshment. You must be tired."
"Uh, no, really," said Ushio, somewhat surprised that she seemed to forget about the letter. "You don't have to bother."
But Yukine had already poured her a cup, and, truth be told, Ushio did want to lounge in this comfortable place and forget about Nichi for a while. The ambience was so overpowering that she simply let herself be seated on a spacious couch, and in no time, she lost herself in sipping cup after cup of the lady's signature brew as she looked on, very pleased.
"I see you have a liking for old-fashioned tea. Not many young people these days care about the original brew. I must say, though, that original tea is far superior to those iced-tea stuff you find in the stores. What do you think?"
Being a teenager who preferred iced tea herself, but wanting to please her gracious host, she only said, "I guess old-fashioned tea is great if it's you who made it, ma'am."
She could only discern a low giggle from Yukine. The woman is way too reserved. "You just tell me if you need more."
She left the girl there while she went to the shelves to check on the books. Ushio was very, very relaxed. Added to that was soft music playing somewhere: a music player or a phone, maybe? The rhythm of steam from the pot simmering on the stove was calming in itself. And there were stacks of rice packs and a small icebox that held vegetables and stuff under the desk, as well as loaves of bread and a toaster, a promise of a hearty full meal for her visitors.
The lady was only some distance away in between the shelves and the girl could still see her see her in the dim light.
"Yukine-san, isn't food prohibited in the library?"
"Oh no, not here," she replied cheerfully. "This is just an auxiliary section. This is where old references are kept. The only people who came here before did very tedious research that required them to dig for really old stuff. It's a gruelling task, you know. I thought I could ease their labor with a little something from me."
As the afternoon wore on, people began to seep out of the library and the librarians downstairs began to stash their things away. Upstairs, Yukine had just finished her inventory of new arrivals and would-be throwaways that she salvaged from homes and schools and even garage sales where no one else would have them. All this time Ushio snoozed away in the couch.
The girl was roused by a gentle squeezing of her hand and when she opened her eyes, she found Yukine smiling down at her. "The library's closing, dear."
She instantly got up. "Oh my! What happened? Did I… Oh no, I'm so sorry! I promise I'll never sleep here again."
Yukine smiled even more brightly as she gestured an earnest "no". "Come on, dear, don't say that. After all, I'm doing what I can to make our visitors feel at home here. And you're a special guest."
"W-What about Nichi?"
She only handed her a bag and a reply letter for Tomoya. "Take this home. I'm sure your parents will be delighted with my special coffee mix. And tell them I'll definitely drop by within the week."
It was with great reluctance that the girl left the fastness of the library halls. But out in the streets, she started to wonder whether the kindly woman she just met was real or perhaps she was making up a scene where a boring library actually became a homey wonderland, and convinced herself it was true. But she wasn't one so good in fooling oneself. And where did the bagful of coffee she was carrying come from?
Just then she saw her. Yukine-san! So she was real, after all. Ushio felt that today's mission was already accomplished and that she could go home now, but somehow she could not bring herself to part from the lady. She was way too interesting. She followed her from a distance, worrying that perhaps she'd be found out, but Yukine did not so much turn her head and just continued straight ahead.
The girl found herself in a rather unfamiliar sector of town. At one side was a bar.
And, to her astonishment, Yukine went right into it.