1. THE WRONG NAME

Another spring, another school year, and Yukari Tanizaki was late. Not only was she late, she had made an absolute ass of herself in front of another class. She drifted into her actual class, introduced herself, and broke out her seating cheat sheet, surveying the class and trying to attach faces to names. It was still really difficult. The words weren't completely mixed up like they usually were, but they wouldn't-stay-still!

"Okay, uh, I'm gonna do roll now," she announced. The class waited as she fumbled through the list of names. She had already introduced Chiyo Mihama to the class, so that one was easy, but the others were not.

KOYOMI MIZUHARA- FEMALE

"Mizu...ha...ru?"

"Mizuhara," said a tall girl with large glasses and long brown hair. "Koyomi Mizuhara."

"I apologize."

TOMO TAKINO- FEMALE

"Ta...ka...no?"

"Takino! Tomo Takino!" shouted an ebullient, short girl with spiky black hair.

"Sorry, sorry!"

Roll continued in this vein until she reached the back right corner of the classroom. Her seating chart said:

KENJI YORIMISHI- MALE

But sitting there was a taciturn, extremely tall, extremely buxom girl with stark black hair that reached down to her waist. She was staring absentmindedly out of the window, doodling something in her notebook. Yukari looked at her chart, then at the girl, then at the chart, then at the girl.

"Yo...ri...mishi?"

The girl looked up and raised her hand. "Yes, that's me. Sakaki Yorimishi."

"Sakaki?" She paused, then realized. "Ah. Got it." She erased the name on the seating chart and wrote in the correct name. "Yell...at...principal," she muttered. Roll continued without incident.


"WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THIS?!" Yukari screamed as she burst into the teachers' room. She charged the school principal, and Nyamo and Mr. Kimura had to hold her back.

"Jesus, Yukari, what's gotten into you?!" Nyamo yelled. "Miss Tanizaki, please calm down!" Kimura pleaded. No such luck. Yukari was full of piss and vinegar, and they were about to get a dose of it.

"THIS HAS, AND NO, I WON'T CALM DOWN!" she yelled, brandishing her seating chart at the principal. "You labelled one of my students as a male named Kenji!"

"And? Was he?" he asked, irritated.

"NO! She was a girl named Sakaki!"

"Saka-? Oh. We meant to tell you..." The principal looked angrily at his secretary. "Did you not fix the chart before sending it out?"

"Don't blame the secretary, this is a system error!"

"TANIZAKI! It'll be fixed! You'll be fine with a student's name being wrong!"

"No I won't! This isn't just a mix-up between two people! Her last name was correct, which means that her former name was deliberately used, or nobody cared enough to double-check! How would you like it if I called you the wrong name all the time just because your friends used to call you that when you were a boy?"

"oKAY, Tanizaki, we GET IT! Thank you for ruining lunch!" Yukari gave the entire room a poisonous glare, then stomped out, slamming the door behind her.

She slumped against the hallway wall and buried her head in her hands. A shadow loomed over her.

"Mr. Goto," she said, springing up. "I'm...sorry for my outburst."

He waved the empty pipe he used as a prop. "It was admirable, standing up for your student like that. Not many would have done the same."

"It was...the right thing to do."

"Yes, it was. I'm glad to see you're taking this job more seriously."

"Eh heh. Well, I have to go prepare for-"

Goto gave her a stern yet knowing expression. "I understand. I'll be keeping a sharp eye on you, Tanizaki." And he walked away.

Yukari took a deep breath, before returning to class. As soon as she stepped in the room, the mask went on, and Happy Yukari was back.

"Hello, class! I'm Ms. Tanizaki, and I'll be your English teacher for the year..."


2. TOO MUCH TO BEAR

It happened one Tuesday morning about two months into the school year.

"Chiyo, can you read the example for us?

Chiyo struggled. Hard. And whenever she tried again, she would get more and more frustrated, and make more and more mistakes.

"Chiyo, it's okay if you can't do it. Kaorin, could you-"

"NO! I CAN DO THIS!" Chiyo yelled. And she kept sputtering. She was a car stuck in the mud, desperately spinning to get out and getting nowhere fast.

"Chiyo! Stop!" Yukari said firmly. Chiyo stopped.

"See me after school."

She turned to Kaorin. "Kaorin, could you read the example?" Kaorin did so with no problem. Chiyo sat there, staring as vacantly as Osaka.

After school, Chiyo dutifully showed up back to Yukari's classroom.

"Hey, sport," she said. "Walk with me."

It was a pleasant late spring evening. The birds were singing heartily, and the air smelled fresh and clean. "Where are we going, Miss Yukari?" Chiyo asked.

Yukari smiled. "Oh, please, Chiyo, outside of school, just call me Yukari. And I want to spend some time with you."

They crossed the street. "Mind if I walk you home?"

"Not at all."

They walked towards Chiyo's home, talking about various things-when Yukari was in school, Chiyo's latest interests, what living with Nyamo was like.

Yukari suddenly asked, "Was it because you had trouble reading the sentence?"

The question caught Chiyo off her guard. "What do you mean?"

"I'm gonna level with you about something. I have trouble reading."

Chiyo looked at Yukari in shock. "How are you an English teacher, then?"

Yukari laughed. "I'm dyslexic, and English characters are, for whatever reason, easier for me to read and write than Japanese." She pulled out her notes for that day to show to Chiyo. They were all in English, all lowercase, with letters underlined to denote capitalization.

Chiyo passed them back. "I'm touched you shared that with me about yourself, but no, I just had trouble reading the sentence. It was...difficult."

"And you're not used to things being difficult."

Chiyo frowned. "I'm not soft!"

"I never said you were. You're extremely intelligent. It's okay if something's hard. It's not a value judgement on you. It's something to work on, and move on. I know you're a hard worker and a diligent studier."

"Yukari?"

"Yeah?"

"We're here."

Yukari looked up to see them standing outside the Mihama residence's gate. "Oh. So I guess we are."

"Yukari?"

"Yeah?"

"You know how on the first day, you said we could ask you anything?"

"Well, yes, but I don't know if I'll be able to answer."

"Well, it's just that...I feel so...lonely."

"I know. It's why I wanted to walk you home."

"And...why are you so different from how you are in class?"

The mask slipped off, and the muscles that had been straining Yukari's face in a constant smile all day gave out. Her face slumped into such a despondent expression. "Because, Chiyo, my life outside of school is a disaster. Being around you and the other kids is pretty much...pretty much the only thing giving my life meaning anymore. Well, you guys and Nyamo. I don't know where I would be without you." She took Chiyo by the shoulders. "You make life worth living. You and everyone else."

And with that, she rang the buzzer.

"Hi, Tanizaki-sensei here, just dropping off Chiyo!" she said with a massive grin. "I needed to borrow her after school."

She watched as Chiyo ran home, looked back before heading inside, then closed the gate.


3. THE SECRET

"Tomo, why are you wearing a jacket over your school uniform?"

"Because I'm cold, okay?!"

"It's not even winter!"

"I'm cold!"

"Your nose sounds stuffed, do you have a cold?"

"Leave me alone." She put her head down on her desk, her face glum. She was obviously not wanting to talk, so Yukari didn't prod any further, but that didn't stop the other kids from making quiet, hushed whispers and giggles. After several death glares, the other kids got the message from Yukari: don't bother Tomo today.

When class ended, Yukari noticed Tomo slowly get up and shuffle out of the room. She pulled Yomi aside.

"Do you know if Tomo's sick?" she asked. Yomi snorted. "Trust me, Yukari. If Tomo was sick, she wouldn't be here right now."

"So, I don't guess you have any idea what's going on, either?" Yomi shrugged. "Nope. Something's up, though."

"Hmm. Well, thanks. I guess."

"See ya later," Yomi said as she left.

As the day went on, something kept nagging at Yukari's mind. She thought it had been the way the sun had been shining that morning, but she could've sworn Tomo's nose looked slightly more...bumpy than usual. Tomo had a very small nose and it was easy to tell if it didn't look quite right.

The next day, Tomo didn't come to class.

Yukari didn't really pay it any mind at first-after all, she did look pretty unwell yesterday, and Yomi had said that if Tomo was sick, then she wouldn't be at school. But after class, Yomi came up to her and pulled her aside.

"Tomo's at my place," she said. "Mark her as sick."

Yukari trusted Yomi, but not that much. "Sick with...what?"

Yomi's face darkened. "Just...do it. Please." Her eyes were full of...something. She couldn't tell if it was rage, or sadness, or both, or who it was directed at. She wasn't going to ask questions. At least not right now.

"Okay, I'll do it."

After school, Yomi popped her head in.

"Hey, Yukari, are you doing anything tonight?"

"No, why?"

"There's...something I want you to see."

They walked together to Yomi's place. She introduced herself to Yomi's parents, before following Yomi into her bedroom. On her bed was Tomo, who looked like she'd gotten into a fight with a rabid raccoon. Or several.

"M-Miss Yukari?" Tomo said painfully.

"Shhh, Tomo," Yukari said, kneeling next to her oft-troublesome pupil. "My God, why didn't you tell me?"

Tomo averted her eyes. "That obvious, eh?"

"Not until this afternoon, actually. I'm pretty capable of putting 2 and 2 together, with some assistance." She looked approvingly at Yomi.

"I didn't say anything because, well, the obvious. 'What if he finds out I've been telling people'."

"I understand."

"I'm so scared of looking weak...that if I'm not constantly at the top of my game and making others laugh...then I'm nothing..."

"Oh, Tomo, I completely understand, I...I have a similar problem."

Tomo smiled, or at least tried to. "Heh. How about that. I'm sorry...sorry for not being a better student..."

"How could you talk about something like that right now?" Yukari gently chastised. "I'm not here as your teacher, I'm here as your..." She thought for a minute. Friend didn't quite describe it. "I'm here as your mother, of a sort." She took Tomo's hand. The smaller girl started to cry and threw her arms around Yukari.

Yukari often referred to her students as 'my kids' when talking to Nyamo about her day, but she never felt as possessive and protective of children she was assigned to teach than she did with these girls.