A Peculiar Pair
The gangster eyed Ushio menacingly as she struggled not to panic. The blade of the dagger shone evilly in the wavering afternoon light. Soon, she felt, the grim gleaming silver will be drenched with crimson, hers, if she doesn't do something. Fast.
But what else is there for her to do? She has no weapons, not even a stone, granting that she even had any fighting skill to begin with. She can't try to run either, for the burly man can easily outbound her if she tries to evade. It looked as if she would end up like that history lecture:
"Leonidas and his 300 men made a last stand…fighting with their swords, if they had them, if not, with their hands and teeth…"
Outbiting him might be a good idea, but she never tried it before, felt it was too gross, or was too worked up to decide.
The man swung the blade tearing through thin air. The whoosh of the dagger slicing again and again finally broke her calm even further and she covered her ears, trying to think. The gangster laughed insultingly and grabbed her arm. She could not resist lest he might get mad enough to stick the blade into her. But she was already shaking. This only made the man bolder. He tightened his grip on her.
The pain of it finally jolted her back to her angry senses.
The gangster winced from the force of the open hand of her free arm striking his cheek. As she had feared, he returned in great anger, shouting crazily and finally raising the knife… high in the air! He hammered it down
but another hand stopped it.
Ushio turned to see a handsome, silver-haired boy gripping her captor's wrist. The gangster tried to move his hand down but the boy was strong enough to halt it, and for a while they struggled as with an arm wrestling match. The boy saw his chance. With his other arm he shot a fist into his exposed belly. Such was the power of that punch that the gangster instantly doubled over and released the knife. The boy got it and pointed it at the fellow himself.
"You're a coward to pick on the ladies. You're not a man at all!"
The guy managed to recover and launch a punch of his own into him, but his fist got to the man's face first. In a moment he lay on the concrete, knocked cold.
Through all this Ushio gazed in wonder at the dashing young man who saved her. Her heart fluttered when he turned to look at her. What cool, dark eyes! She felt even more flustered as he held her arm to reassure her.
"Are you alright, Ushio?"
"Tenshi, I…" was all she could say. But gratitude swelled from inside her and she couldn't help it. She stared at him and regarded his flowing silver mane, his manly expression, his split chin…
"Tenshi, you're my hero."
Tenshi was secretly pleased to see Ushio sprawling on the hood of the car parked some distance from his, obviously trying to get his attention. But he pretended to be busy fixing his car and he even had earphones on to cap his masquerade though it didn't actually play anything. Of course, his wearing only a sleeveless undershirt to show off his biceps and all wasn't for nothing.
The hood of her car was soaped over and he could see she was dishevelled from washing it, and for the extra work as well.
He decided to look and smile at her. At which point she slid off the hood and dropped to the ground.
He went over to her and saw that she lay smitten. He took her hands and brought her to her feet, waking her up.
As soon as she saw Tenshi she smiled so brightly at him it almost stunned him. The next thing he knew she was writing something on his chest with her finger. A number. "Call me sometime, perhaps?"
He felt so satisfied with himself as Ushio caressed his rock-hard arms and abs. His workout paid off. He always knew men went to the gym simply to impress girls, and ultimately, a girl.
"Tenshi!" called Tomoyo, yet again upset over her son. The sun was already high in the sky and taunting the household. "Aren't you getting up yet? It's almost one! I never thought you'd stay in bed this late!"
From the bedroom came only a pained moan.
"Tenshi, we might get to Hikarizaka High before three if you dress up now. I can't arrange for your transfer tomorrow. I must get to the station."
"Sis," interrupted Takafumi coming in from downstairs, "let him be. If you're too busy, I will accompany him in your place."
"Takafumi, you're spoiling him again. If that boy doesn't learn any responsibility he'll never get anywhere."
"This is the only time he got up this far along. Maybe he isn't feeling well. Or he had a nightmare."
She sighed. "Probably both. That's what he gets for staying up late with his tablet and those vampire movies." To her son, "I got some medication here. You get up now or the school will close on us."
This was what Tomoyo hated the most. While he's talking, there might still be a chance he could be argued into complying. But now, she'll have to resort to other means even if her journalist training made her feel guilty over it. But it was at least an interest of his. He wouldn't resist, she reckoned.
"OK, Tenshi," she finally said, "if you come with me right now, after the transfer, I'll take you to the gym. My treat."
"I don't want the gym anymore!" yelled Tenshi.
"Hah?" blurted Tomoyo and Takafumi. And since when has Sakagami Tenshi ever hated the gym? The last time they knew his abs and chest were developing well and he did not miss a beat showing it off back home. At last Tomoyo groaned in surrender as though suffering from a vicious gas pain and it sounded so dreadful Takafumi actually held her, thinking she would faint. "Sis, are you OK?"
"That… boy…" was all she could say. "He's so impossible."
Ushio didn't really want to come to school. Why did it have to be today? Dr. Ichinose suddenly, unexpectedly got back from Kyoto and simply said the lecture was re-scheduled, so now it was back to work for her. Why today?
"What?" complained Nichi. "You're going too far now, madam. Just because you caught me…" Dr. Ichinose was at an early morning board meeting.
"So what? It was really your fault. Imposing the whole day's work on you is just fair. Besides, I feel bad right now."
"You try saying that to Dr. Ichinose! You think you won't be expelled for tipping her off on your fake illness?"
She decided to risk it. For one, she reckoned, she looked convincingly sick. She was convinced herself. Gah, who wouldn't feel awful after such a bad dream? Naturally, it would lead to a bad rising from bed, and thus a bad start to the day. And, as they always say, your whole day depends on how you start it.
As she lay on the clinic bed, she tried to argue herself out of the nasty implications of that ominous vision last night.
He didn't save me! He just wanted a fight. He said it himself!
Well… Yes, I didn't get stabbed because of…ugh… him, but he didn't care a fig about me.
Sheesh, I must say he would even be delighted to see me in the hospital. That's the kind of person he is.
If only it was Takafumi who showed up there...
Later in the afternoon, the school nurse gave her some medicine and let her out sooner, not as convinced of her "ailment". Instead of going back to Doctor Ichinose, however, she visited Tomoe at her track and field class, slipping into a matching uniform so she could sneak in.
"Ushio," whispered an aghast Tomoe, "Mr. Takeo might see you."
"Nah," she reassured her. "I think he's too busy to notice."
"What if Dr. Ichinose finds you're gone?"
"Nichi will cover me." She smiled mischievously. "He's gotta, or he's good to go."
"Oh brother," sighed Tomoe. "You haven't changed."
A gray overcast provided welcome relief from the burning heat of the past days. Everybody were glad they were out in such refreshing weather.
"Any news about Minako?" asked Ushio.
"Umm… She's back, but, she's still somewhat grumpy the last time I saw her and I thought I should let her adjust some before I really talk to her."
She giggled. "Getting sensitive, huh? Come on, she deserves a good slap on the back herself. Don't let that cheeky girl fool you."
"I told you she had a hard time."
"Precisely. That's why we're cheering her up. Look here; if she's back, then her brother might have been released from the hospital, and if he'd been discharged, then that means he's OK, and if he's OK, then his sister's OK as well." Tomoe didn't seem to hear her long-winded argument. "Right?"
"Let her be. She'll come back on her own. Maybe sooner than we think. You know her." And then, as an afterthought, "I think we should visit her this weekend and bring some goodies for her and Arata, too, don't you think?"
"Great! That's just fabulous! I'll ask Mommy to cook some desserts and I'll get Mimi as well."
Mr. Takeo suddenly whistled in their direction. "You two! To the starting line!"
"Huh, eh, what?" stammered Ushio. "Is he calling us?"
"Practice is by pairs. Sorry girl."
"No way. I don't run fast. At all!"
Early in the morning Yukine passes by the view park where a bench affords a scenic view of Hikarizaka. Mostly, she would spend an hour or so basking in the fresh mountain air, or, if she got up early enough, enjoy the sunrise. She wasn't much of a nature-lover or hiker to begin with, but she had learned to love the place ever since she was a freshman in high school. This routine charges her and prepares her for another day at the library.
She took a thermos jug out of her bag. It was steaming with brew she made herself. She drew in a waft of the refreshing aroma and poured out a cup. She sipped it. Fine enough. She had advanced well enough as a tea maker that she would look for flaws in her own brewing, and oftentimes she did find reason to be dissatisfied. But today, she could find no wrong. Perhaps it was just the venue, the chirping of the early songbirds, the whistling of the cool morning breeze among the dew-softened leaves, the sweeping vista of green hills hugging the city she loved. Or maybe her being upset over the incident with her gangsters had already cleared, and it just felt good.
It was six-fifteen. She'll have to leave in half an hour if she wants to make it to work on time. Anyway, she was already quite relieved. After she put away her things into the bag, she went over to the railing to view Hikarizaka one last time…
"Yukine," said someone behind her, "you wake up earlier than most people."
"I know a dozen others who get up earlier than I," she replied, unruffled, as though she knew he was always there.
"It's really good," she added. "You should try that for a change. It could clear the alcohol out of your blood." She turned to look at him. "Or perhaps," she continued, "you're too besotted with it to actually rise in the first place."
"But I'm here," he said gently as he approached her. "Aren't you happy?"
She regarded him with a concerned look, feeling for anything in him he might conceal. Yukine was too experienced to let such a nonchalant remark pass by just like that. He shouldn't have tried to reassure her. Not after what the gang did.
"Tell me, Asahi, don't you think happiness is an expensive commodity these days?"
He chuckled softly. "Yukine, anyone can be happy over simple things. Just being out here should make you forget about the cares this world."
"Maybe." She paused to take him in with a gaze. "But my happiness had always been intertwined with others, so I could never completely forget."
"But you must forget, Yukine. Kouhei already made his decision. He assumed you already made yours."
She shifted her eyes away. "Yes, I… have made up my mind, somewhat." She returned to viewing the city. Asahi stood beside her and for a while they simply enjoyed the panorama. Then, she spoke again.
"You know, I have never regretted anything about him. Hurting, however, is a different matter."
"We have had enough over Kazuto. Why should you let Kouhei interfere now?"
She smiled weakly. "Kouhei is a man you cannot refuse."
Asahi put an arm around her shoulders as they looked out over the city together. "I should have wanted to date you once, you know." He laughed defiantly at the strengthening wind. "But I'm quite fine just standing here with you."
"As do I," she smiled. "I believe that, if someone's truly that important to you, just being seen by him counts more than anything else in the world."
"Say, I'd like to ask you something if you don't mind. Is that the reason why you barely see us anymore? Because being with us for only a day makes your whole year already? Hah! Come on, we don't work the same way as you."
"Still, isn't being a family at times much better than dating someone?" She sighed. "Perhaps our being a family exacts a high price, alright, but it's worth it."
He smirked in reply. "So, perhaps, there'd be no intrigue if I escort you to work now?"
She laughed softly. "I'll be just fine, thank you. Which reminds me," she said brightening up even more. "Do you have a job now? Is it true?"
He grinned proudly. "At the General Hospital. At maintenance."
Nichi kept looking at Ushio the whole morning, gloating. The girl came home last night in a fit of fatigue owing to the forced run she made in Tomoe's class. Even now, after an extra-long sleep that made her late for work she still hasn't fully recovered. Nichi was laughing to himself on and off as he pored over the paperworks and only Kotomi's irritated stares kept him from going berserk. It also prevented Ushio from bashing him with the keyboard. At the moment her fingers were channelling her rage on the thing.
"Okazaki," said Kotomi, "don't be so hard on the keys. Soft touches will do. I might have to extend your stay here if you break that."
"Of course," she whispered. "So I could have more chances to get back at that Nichi."
The mumbling did not escape the professor. Putting that and Nichi's self-important smile together, she finally decided to lecture them both. She cleared her throat audibly and coughed.
"Alright. I don't mind if you two have anything personal, but this is office hours. If only you could focus yourselves for once on your work, you'll never have to worry about your future career. Especially you, Hirano. It seems you're related to the famed geneticist Hirano Kasumi and yet you're ruining her name. Shape up, will you?"
"He's someone who'll ruin any name," Ushio said resentfully. "On purpose."
"What about ruining yours?" said Kotomi. "Don't you know your father has high hopes for you? If you want to go any farther than he was, you better break it up now." To them both, "Don't act like a pair of uncivilized thugs. You didn't study here to brawl."
"We're sorry, Dr. Ichinose," they said softly.
"I must talk to Dr. Suzuki in fifteen minutes. If anything ruins this place while I'm gone, I'll recommend you for expulsion. Is that clear?"
"Yes Madam," they murmured.
Later, while the doctor is away, the two tried to keep quiet at their work, but there was simply too much tension in the air. It did not help that they kept glancing at each other. Nichi obviously was still taunting Ushio. Worse, her hunger pangs were starting to creep in.
At length, the girl stood up and went over to him. "So what's the deal with you, pal?" she said threateningly. "Remember that I still have that screwdriver with me."
"You don't have a fig on me now. We got a deal on that. As you see, I'm doing my part of the contract."
"So now you thought you got a license to troll?"
"What's so wrong with your being shaken up yesterday? It's only fair. Your mischief simply went back to you."
"And now you're lecturing me on morals? You? Oh my days…"
"Hey," he retorted, standing up, "You think you're so better than me, Miss Goody-Goody? We're equally dirty, so don't come out like someone who judges whether anyone can lecture or not."
"Some people are dirtier than others."
"Then it has to be you."
Footsteps outside the door stilled them instantly. Not wanting to risk the doctor's warning, they went back to the job. "I'll get back at you, Okazaki," he said.
"My pleasure," she said acidly.
At lunch Kotomi let them out as there was less work to do for the afternoon. And, as they promised, the war raged on, the two staring at each other menacingly as they carried their trays to the counter while others looked on, baffled. But they were too hungry to talk. They took their orders and went to a table, where they kept looking at each other while eating. Still, no noise except the sound of slurping and chewing with gusto.
At last, one of them finally spoke.
"The ramen's really good today," said Nichi to himself. "And they usually make bad noodles. Soggy."
"Er?" blurted Ushio, surprised. "Really?"
He looked at her as to one who fell through the roof. "I'm not talking to you, you know."
"Well, who else is in front of you?"
"Just because someone's there when you're talking doesn't mean you're talking to her."
"Ohhhh… So you're talking to no one in particular? Man, you got to see a psychiatrist."
He threw her an irritated look. "Can't you just shut up, Okazaki? All I want right now is to enjoy my meal and all you do is harrass me as usual."
"Wha—? As usual? What're you trying to point out? I'm the one who always cause your trademark trouble?"
He finally whined. "Can't we take a break? Give this fellow a chance to relish his lunch after a hard morning's work?"
Ushio was struck. Yeah, why did they have to fight in front of a meal? For one, she was famished herself, and with her favorite anpan right there, she should be enjoying herself, too. It wasn't like her, it wasn't like anyone, to miss a good lunch just to bicker with someone else. What's more, her father always admonished her to respect the presence of food on the table, hard-won blessings earned through climbing up and down poles in heat and cold. For all she knew, it was really his money she was throwing away when she insists on bashing Nichi at lunchtime.
For a while they ate in silence. As she was about to finish, the girl stood up, went to the counter, and ordered additional rolls. When she returned, she set the tray down in the middle of the table, intending to share it with Nichi.
"Huh? You're giving it to me?"
"Just sharing, mind you. I… well, sorry for being unfair with you over the food. I just thought we could make up for the lost time."
"Heh. So you got a heart, after all." He took one and chomped down. "Thanks."
The rest of the day at work they spent finishing the last few piles of paper and a handful of fresh ones Dr. Ichinose brought in for encoding. But it was no tough job. Full bellies and good spirits prevailed and all the workload was slurped up earlier than usual. All that was left to do was clean and clear their work spaces.
"My," marvelled Kotomi. "You're so fast today. I never thought you'd get this far with that quarrel of yours this morning. I'll let you out now for the day. And, oh, I'll have you exempted for the upcoming unit test." The both of them brightened up at this announcement, further improving their mood.
As it was, they walked down the road together going home. Ushio, however, thought to pass by Minako's to see for herself how she's doing.
"So her brother's got ADHD, huh?" said Nichi. "I don't think they had to go so far as to send him to a facility. A skilled nurse or caregiver could take care of him at home."
Ushio sighed. "That's what I don't get about their family. It looks to me they already see a monster in the boy. Sure, he breaks things in the house and all, but can't they spare a room for him or anything?"
"The way I see it, they reckoned that if he's going to be tucked away anyway he'd be better off with the professionals."
"He needs love, Nichi. He needs his family, not professionals. What do professionals really know about how another human being really feels? Not even they could know everything."
"Actually, the hospital does enjoin the patient's family to be involved in managing the patient's condition. So maybe the real problem lies in their over-reliance on the outside."
"So Minako's right," frowned Ushio. "He's no more than a burden to them." Yet even as she spoke her conscience once more pricked her over her usually wanting to refuse Mizuumi. And at that moment, in a startling (to her) coincidence, there she was! Up ahead, and with her was Minako.
"Oi, Ushio!" she hollered. Mizuumi broke away from her hold and ran over to her Onee-chan. She wrapped herself around the freshman's waist. Minako followed flashing a huge grin like she always did. "Hey, what's the matter, girl?"
Her kid sister's embrace felt uncomfortably hot on her. Her mumbling "Shio-chan" didn't help either.
"Umm, shouldn't I be the one asking you that?" she could only mutter.
"Do I look anything bad?" she bragged. "I even got your kid sis for you. She's part of the team, right?"
Ushio was somewhat relieved. If Minako wants to put her troubles behind, especially here in the open, she'd best leave it that way.
"So who is he, girl? A date?"
Overly glad at the return of her playfulness, she decided to ride along. "Yup! He's not much in the way of looks but he'll do for a first boyfriend."
"Eh?" cried Nichi in consternation. "Uh, what? Hey, hey, hey… No trolling, 'K? I'm not doing anything to you, right? A-And don't say that I'll "do". I'm no second best, I'm the greatest man a girl can ever have, first and last!"
"Hear that?" beamed Ushio. "He confirmed that he's the greatest man for me."
"Hmmm?" smirked Minako. "You're a lucky guy, you," she teased Nichi patting him on the shoulder. "You'll never find a lovelier girl in short hair."
"Hey, I didn't say anything like that! And I hate her hair! Anyone would be turned off with that hair!"
"Oh Nichi dear," said Ushio sunnily even as his face smoked from the force of her fist, "you're always coy. Beating around the bush about your feelings won't do these days. If I as a girl declared our relationship to the world, you should be guy enough to face up to it!" With a severe look, "And don't do you dare be ashamed of me."
"Yipee!" gushed Mizuumi. "Shio-chan's got a boyfriend! I want a date, too!"
"Huh?" the girls chorused. Ushio's mouth actually hung. She took Mimi aside. "Hey, Mimi," she whispered, "don't you know what a joke is?"
Oh yeah, she's only seven. Man, why does it have to be her?
Worse yet, Mimi broke away and ran on home ahead of them, shouting, "Shio-chan's got a beau! Shio-chan's got a beau!"
Another loud voice rent the air. Nichi's. It was his heartiest vomiting laugh ever. His guffaw was an inflaming mixture of honk, forced cackle, and asthma attack. It was so enraging that the two girls angled their fists, but he was too busy doubling over to notice.