Ushio appeared to enjoy her new room. That morning she sat by the window hugging her toy robot, looking outside even though there was barely anything to see through the white-glazed pane, or even anything worth seeing, only more snow.
Naoyuki watched her with satisfaction. He was only concerned that the bareness did not lend any warmth to the place, but the girl was clad in his own coat, so, that shouldn't be of any concern.
He will have to bring her lunch if she becomes too distracted to notice the passing of time.
"Are you still there?" Ushio whispered.
"Are you enjoying this place?"
"I'm so glad. It's just so bad to be alone, but don't worry, I'm here. We will always be together."
"But... I think, there is very little for us to see here."
Kyou hurried into Nagisa's room and saw for herself how far her friend's condition has worsened. Tears rolled off of unbelieving eyes. "Nagisa!" she screamed rushing to the bedside. "Nagisa! Nagisa, wake up! Please! Nagisa!"
Half an hour later Tomoya arrived with Dr. Kirishima. Kyou stirred, but when she saw him, she gritted her teeth and sprang up to hit him, intimidating the doctor and a Tomoya struggling to keep the fists away. "You filth! How could you abandon her in this? You spineless... Agh!" She was exhausting herself trying to get to him.
After a while, she died down in heavy panting, but soon, she stirred again and tried to hit him one last time. After that, she truly lost her energy, which cued the doctor to escort her back to the bedside.
That whole time afterwards, she sat turning away from him, and would not so much glance at him.
In the meantime, Nagisa exhibited faint, labored breaths that alarmed Dr. Kirishima enough to make her bring out the oxygen mask. She is never taking any chances with this patient. Kyou's heart shriveled as she saw the kindly woman being subjected to all this. She does not even look like Nagisa Furukawa anymore, only a wired corpse.
And the man beside him, she could not see him as Tomoya Okazaki anymore.
In the fading afternoon light, Tomoya and Kyou walked back to Furukawa Bread in silence. They just received word of Mizuumi's illness. Tomoya was by now very much bowed down and in fact he had been listless since late that morning.
Kyou let herself look sideways at him. Even from such a glance, Tomoya's forlornness was glaringly plain. But she still refused to talk to him.
But the girl... Why? Why must he lose so much so quickly? Is it because he left them? But, inside herself, she also knew that Nagisa needed people to tell her, to make her believe that Tomoya is coming back. She always told the woman this. She even gave her the field office's phone number. Since then, the woman has received no answer from her husband, and she would only keep telling her that he will answer, he will answer, he will answer. And then she herself left her behind.
"Tomoya," mumbled Kyou grudgingly, "I am... sorry for trying to beat you this morning."
"I know. I also... left her alone. I promised, we all promised, we would watch over her. But we went our own ways and cut her out. I just can't help but think we each have a hand in this."
The wind whistled shrilly in the trees. It kicked up faint mists of powdery snow and threatened to become a chill gust, but neither of them minded it.
"Funny, isn't it?" continued Kyou. "Just when we thought we could care for her well enough. And we were the very ones who saw her through high school and all. Her stage play. Her graduation. Her weak body. Her lovelife."
Tomoya only groaned faintly.
She looked at him. "Tomoya," she said with hurt in her voice, "don't you care about what happens to her? Have you truly forgotten your family?" She stood in his way and looked him over. "Are you even him? Are you Okazaki Tomoya? Tomoya will never do what you're doing right now."
When she still failed to elicit any proper response from him, her gaze hardened. "Very well. If you are not Tomoya, I better be on my way. Go back to whatever hole you burrowed out of and don't you ever lay eyes on the Okazaki family. You have no right!"
He did not move. This maddened her even further. Not committing himself to his family yet hovering around them, what is he really stinking at?
She walked away from him trying to put him behind, but he was just too preposterous she couldn't let him get away with it. Rather, if he was some other person she could let him go, but not him. She must beat down what she saw as an insulting caricature to Tomoya Okazaki. She returned.
"You are nothing compared to a wonderful man I have met once! You may look like him, but you know, that fact annoys me even more! You don't deserve to even look like him! He is way too special to be likened or compared to you even in the least!"
"Everybody thought he was worthless, a delinquent with no future. And he really haven't any. But then he met this kindly and gentle girl, who he helped to face the world bravely even if she was weak and alone. He found friends for her when there was none left for her.
"From then on, the man who had no future, he suddenly found a reason to move on." She smiled fondly as she reminisced. "He transformed from a nameless shadow, into a man with purpose. When I was younger I used to sneer at people, such selfish creatures, but, seeing him, I realized the power human beings are given when they find something they want to give their lives to. For that, I decided to teach, and I encouraged Ryou to become a nurse.
"Now I realize even more, that he was truly a noble man, and that I found even more reasons to love him. Even if he was taken, even if he was married already," she said in a broken voice, "I know I never loved him in vain.
"But you—" she hissed, grabbing him by the collar, "—you are not worthy to be called by his name. He was a loving husband and father, and he deserved the love of a kind and wonderful woman like Nagisa Furukawa." In a trembling voice, "You do not know... You do not know how much this woman here loves him, even now."
She inched her face, and her lips, closer... closer to his. She caught the scent of his skin, and his hair, and her lips started to shudder, being so tantalizingly close... but in an instant she gritted her teeth, and in a swift movement, drew back and hugged him earnestly, longingly. She finally held him away at arm's length, struggling not to cry.
"See?" she yelled. "I can't believe the man in my heart could possibly be someone like you!"
She turned away in embarrassment and started to walk away at a brisk pace, but then, she was stopped dead in her tracks by his calling, "Kyou!" Hearing her beloved call her by name, without the polite formality of honorifics and such, sent a sudden chill down her spine. She instinctively turned and saw that he could lift his face again and look straight at her. To her, this transformation was simply breathtaking.
"What about your foreign boyfriend?" he asked. "Don't you have any feelings for him?"
She smirked at him as though mocking him. "Oh, that. Well, I have just decided that someone who wanted me to forget and turn away from the people I love, my family and friends, was not worth having a relationship with. If I am to love him, he should match the greatness of Okazaki Tomoya, the man against whom I measure all men."
"Kyou. If you love me that much, if you could have made the two of us happy together, then why did I choose Nagisa Furukawa? Why is my heart in her hands? Why Nagisa?"
She now laughed openly and loudly. "Tomoya, you're as ignorant as ever. Haven't you realized all along? Nagisa is the only one who could bring out all the kindness in you. Because of her, you learned to care. Because of her, you put it upon yourself to bear the burden of supporting someone other than yourself, something a mere delinquent would never do. She brought out all of those good things you could possibly be, those things that I love about you. And for this, I also love her." She looked down and smiled fondly. "Goodness. I must even say the reason I could not love you that much is because I love her so much. I would not want to take away from her what she rightfully deserves."
Tomoya has relaxed. It seems her answer has satisfied him.
"The least I could do for you, Tomoya dear, is to commit myself to you and your loved ones. I know. Akio-san once said once that they assumed Nagisa's dreams as their own. So now, I assume your dreams, and your family's also, as my own. Ever since I took care of Ushio and Mizuumi in school, I considered Nagisa's children as my own. Live a happy and peaceful life, Okazaki! From now on, I will stay by your side and watch over your dreams."
A sleek blue car arrived at the scene, slowing down to a stop beside them. They looked on in surprise as the window slid away and revealed a familiar face. "Tomoya-kun, Kyou-chan," called out Kotomi happily. "Good thing I found you so soon. Hop in! Sanae-san wants to see us all."
Tomoyo walked down the street to Furukawa Bread in a pensive mood. Sanae, who was apprised of Kotomi's arrival by the doctor herself over the phone, and of her own coming by Akio, called for them and the others to come, probably in relation to Mizuumi's sickness, Ushio's disappearance, or both. She left the house with Takafumi still waiting on Tenshi, who had calmed down somewhat according to him. To be sure, nothing was playing from his room when she passed by, but she was still very much worried over him.
In the dying evening light she saw a lone passer-by, a woman, a little way ahead of her. Her silhouette looked very familiar, so she caught up and saw who she was. "Yukine-chan?"
The lady turned in surprise. "Tomoyo-san," she said in astonishment. What took you here?... You don't happen to be going to Sanae-san's, too, perhaps?"
"I am," she smiled. "Let me walk with you."
For a moment they did not say anything as they progressed, but soon, each bothered by her own agenda, they felt like they wanted to ask each other some hard questions. Yukine was starting to wonder whether she should have mentioned the would-be abortion, but she was still much convinced that no one else can ever take care of Ushio than her alone. As soon as they find the girl, in fact, she intends to openly ask the Furukawas to let her adopt Ushio. Still, taking her away while her parents were still alive didn't feel quite right, so she looked for justification from her companion, who she knew was a nationally-renowned journalist and has a strong opinion.
"Tomoyo-san," she began, "I heard you have a son. I'm just curious; do you think I would find it enjoyable to have a child?"
Tomoyo smiled bitterly. "Enjoyable... yes, sometimes."
But you are very admirable, Tomoyo-san. I think only strong people like you would take on the challenge of raising offspring. I also heard of many others who just decided they weren't up to it so they gave their children away, to orphanages or relatives, and some of these were only babies."
"Yes, it's true. I once participated in a documentary about that. But you know, they gave their children away, and yes, they were definitely not up to it, not because they were weak, but because they were not real parents."
Yukine was surprised at her reply. "But how aren't those the same? Isn't the act already proof of weakness?"
Tomoyo chuckled softly. "If you can stomach giving away your own flesh and blood like an old toy, then you certainly aren't weak." She paused thoughtfully as Yukine waited breathlessly for further details. "Although it may be easy to prove weakness, strength is somewhat harder to define. At least, that's what I arrived at."
"How do you define strength, then? Do you not provide well enough for your own son?"
"To be strong, you should be able to do many things, sometimes, things you never thought you can." She breathed deeply. Maybe it would be alright to say this to someone Sanae-san knows. "Like, accepting that there's a possibility you can be wrong."
Yukine was astounded. Sakagami Tomoyo, the nationally-known radio personality and columnist, flat-out wrong? "But in what way? Perhaps a few people question what you say on air? Still, surely not in your being a parent. A parent is always right."
"Yes, it should be, it's not always so." She looked up at the darkening sky and saw the evening star blaze there. "It is true that children should listen to their parents, bt parents should also do the same to their children, if they are to love each other, also. I remember my brother Takafumi. Did you know that he nearly killed himself just to protest our parents' divorce?"
"What?" blurted Yukine.
Tomoyo only smiled weakly. "At that time, I couldn't care less about which of our parents would take custody of us. But Takafumi, he said, he wanted to go with neither of him, with their both causing us pain, they were no different.
"Everything came to a head. He went to a bridge and threatened them that he will jump if they don't make up. He was young; he couldn't have really understood how dangerous it was to jump into a rushing creek, and even today, I'm really not sure whether he really meant to do so. I never wanted to ask him and make him remember. But, anyway, he fell.
"We rushed him to the hospital and his life hung by a thread. My parents were hysteric with grief. I, I was just too dumbfounded, refusing to believe he will actually do it. I wasn't a good sister to him. But then, after weeks and weeks of looking after him, I realized how important it was to be a family to your family, even if your family would not be a family to you. I knew that I had enormous amends to make, to him, and also to my parents.
"That act of Takafumi's. It was simply insane. But if only my parents realized sooner that the separation talk was only hurting us, he wouldn't have been so reckless."
Yukine could only listen in silent astonishment.
"I am afraid that Tenshi might do something worse after how I treated him. I thought I was doing him a favor by pitting him against his father, but all he wanted to do was move on. And then I realized it was I who couldn't. He was right.
"Yukine, a real parent would never give up her child. Like Nagisa. I know she is weak. I know how ugly life can get for her, but she keeps caring for her children. And I know, now, that I want to be like her. I want now to really start caring for Tenshi. After that, I hope he will finally listen to me."
Yukine's face was hidden away. At length, she finally whispered. "Yes... perhaps I could also be wrong."
Upon arriving, the two were surprised to find so many people at the Furukawa's table. Everybody stared at them expectantly. Akio, Sanae, Kotomi, Kyou, the Yoshino couple, and Tomoya. And, of all people, Tenshi sat there beside Takafumi.
"Kah," said Akio, "where have you both been? We were about to close the sale of Furukawa Bread!"
"Akio!" scolded Sanae. "Do you have to play around at a time like this?"
"Bleh. I only meant the stocks of Furukawa Bread. All the brokers are here and you're late."
"Tch. It's only because you guys are too serious. If all of us are tense, we won't be able to think straight on how to set Nagisa on the way to recovery."
Tomoyo smiled. "Akio-san's right. If we want a positive result, we need to feel positive."
After they have all settled down and had tea, Kotomi spoke up. "Dear friends. We have not been able to keep our commitment to stay by Nagisa's side. Perhaps, we thought we couldn't be that much of a deal to her, but we should remember the roles we have played for her in the past.
"Do you remember where she stood there on stage that day after we helped her with the Drama Club? If we hadn't intervened, she might not have even been there to begin with. And when she broke down in the middle of the act, it was you, Akio-san, Sanae-san, who encouraged her and brought back her confidence.
"Tomoya-kun, surely you do not forget who it was who enabled her to walk up that upward climb when all she manage on her own was mutter 'anpan'. There was nobody left at school to support her, so she might as well have stayed alone at that hillside path everyday, if you haven't come along.
"My dear friends, I remember how each of you also helped me move on in the world after my parents have gone. You renovated my garden. You introduced me to new friends. You organized (at this she smiled a bit) my violin recital. You stood as a new family for me. And Nagisa, in all that, she ws always there. But I have not returned her the favor this time. I feel it is imperative that I do so. However, as you have done good to me collectively, so I cannot return the favor alone. Now we all show her that we stand by her for all time."
Everybody felt the gravity of Kotomi's words. All of those memories...
Kyou spoke up. "Nagisa's dream was a family. With Tomoya. With all of us. She wanted Shio-chan and Mimi-chan to taste how sweet it is to have such a family. If that dream falls apart, then fully half of her resolve to live on has been taken away.
"But I know even now, she is still fighting to recover for her children. She knows she has to keep living for them."
"You are right," agreed Kotomi. "Thus, there is a chance she could wake up at least briefly from time to time as she tries to wake up. But she cannot move on alone. Indeed, she cannot pretty much do anything alone. As soon as she gains consciousness, we must all be there for her to see."
"Hmmm," smirked Akio. He can sense where this was going.
Kotomi continued. "We will organize a vigil and keep watch over her constantly. We will take turns if we have to. Those present at the bedside must immediately phone the others as soon as she shows any change in her condition. Do you have any questions?"
They were all quiet, but everybody smiled in relief. In such times of uncertainty, Kotomi's decisiveness was a warm gust slicing through the bitter cold.
It was getting harder to make Ushio eat. She stayed the whole time in the bare room hugging her toy robot and did not touch the meals Naoyuki set down for her every so often. Most of the time, as if to conserve her energy, she slept.
He was becoming worried that she was languishing, or that, with her abrupt shift from ravenous to fasting, some sickness has already struck her. But her eyes shone brightly, perhaps brighter than he has seen these past days, albeit with a hollow expression that made the gleaming eyes look like lifeless glass.
Even more, he caught the girl mumbling a number of times, sometimes to herself, sometimes to the robot.
If she doesn't get something hot into her belly, her thick coat will be useless.
"Ushio," he said tentatively. The girl shrunk back at once hearing his voice. "Ushio, I think you should come out a bit and eat. You are getting weak.
"No, I am not," she whimpered.
Naoyuki was at a loss at what else to do. Perhaps there was a way to coax her, fool her perhaps, out of her reverie, but right now his mind was out of ideas, the task urgent, that he decided to tell it to her straight. He crouched down beside her, making her turn her back on him. "Ushio, I am very sure your parents love you very much. They will be much worried if you keep on like this."
"Ushio," he said in a low voice, "Your father will do everything just so you could live well." The same thing he felt for Tomoya when he was young. Perhaps he was only extrapolating. He did not quite understand what effect his care really had on his son with his ignoring him later on, so how much more does he truly know about what came between Tomoya and his daughter? Maybe he could say it better if he referred to her mother. He knew how frail she was, and of her pained first childbirth, the birth that brought Ushio into the world. "Your mother will give even her own life so you could survive. Even she was weak, she gave you life, because to her, having a happy family was as important as life itself."
It struck that chord in her. She groaned. "Mama. Mama is sick because of me. She should have just let me die. But now Mama will never see me again."
"You are mistaken, Ushio. If you leave her alone, all of her suffering will be for nothing. She endured everything because she wanted to be with you. You cannot take away her illness, but you can give her the happiness for which she suffered."
"I don't want your words, old man!" she snapped back.
Shortly after that, she had the door locked, somewhat, by pushing the heavy table against it while Naoyuki was away. After the exertion she slumped on the floor and cried herself to sleep.
The whole afternoon the snow fell again, this time lightly. The girl got up and huddled again in the corner, mumbling again to her toy robot. She quit wearing her grandfather's coat, and her shirt as well, leaving just a sleeveless dress for herself.
That evening, Naoyuki was startled to find the door blocked. Anyway, the girl was not actually strong enough to push the table all the way through; it didn't really touch the door. He managed to push a gap just wide enough for him to slip through with his flashlight. He was stunned to see the girl sleeping almost naked with the insufficient clothing. He went out and when he came back he brought with him a thick woolen blanket which he draped over her.
The following morning, it kept snowing and the drifts were already two feet high. Only a dull grayish glow signified the coming of obscured daylight. Ushio opened heavy-lidded eyes and was greeted by the half-darkness. She was unsure whether it was still night. But just enough light filtered through to tell her that the table has been moved, and she could distinctly see the gap left by Naoyuki at the door.
She got up quickly. Was he able to come in? She scanned frantically around her and found that a blanket covered her waist down. She could not believe this.
She went out taking with her the coat, shirt, and blanket, storming through the house as a bewildered Naoyuki looked on. Before he could stop her she ransacked the rooms and took out all the blankets and coats and even clothes she could find and threw all these out the window, as far away as she could. She found a box of matches which she, after struggling to light them in the cold, damp air, finally got a flame which she threw at the pile outside. The fabrics, having been kept snug and dry, quickly caught flame.
Naoyuki only stood at the door behind her, watching in disbelief. He said no more as he turned back to the living room. A massive bonfire ensued that not even the lightly falling snow could quell.
Later that morning Ushio watched from her room at the thick smoke that blew in from the other side of the house. She hugged her robot close and shivered in the cold as she slumped back down on the floor. Naoyuki was powerless to stop her. Nothing he did was enough. He has grown too timid and passive to even raise his voice against the destruction of his own property. He only sat watching the door to his granddaughter's room, reluctant to even peek inside. He could not stop her.
As the day progressed the sun appeared from the thick brooding fumes of dirty gray stormclouds on the horizon. It was a glaring brightness that reflected on the snow and subjected everything to a harsh light. The window was now too bright to even look at, as though it would burn the eyes. It cast sharp outlines on the hard table and on the slits on the floor, as well as the iron frames on the window, which appeared as ghastly, withered skeletons.
She had been sleeping for some time, but now, the intense brightness intruded upon her rest. Her eyes flickered open as they struggled to adjust to the light. After a while, she got used to it.
And then, she was mumbling to the robot again.
"Is something wrong?"
"Is it strange?"
"Does this place look strange?
"What about the snow?
"Are you tired of staying here?
"There's nothing for us to see here.
"Look," she smiled wanly, "the sun is shining."
"It's beckoning us. See? There's a place full of warmth and happiness over there.
"There, we will stay together. Forever.
"That place we're going to. It's over there where the sun is. You know, it is very much like that place I came from. Did you know? It... It was warm, and I laughed a lot. I had friends there.
"They are just like you. We had fun together. We laughed. We had lunch.
"And... I had a teacher there. Who watched over me in kindergarten. But now my sister is there, and..."
Her eyes were stung as she remembered the little girl. Her open mouth could not speak for a moment.
"She loved me.
"Mama and Papa. They also loved me. But... I can't see them again.
It was starting to get hot in there as high noon continued to blaze in the room.
"I can't see them again. My friends. My teacher. My sister. My... My Mama and Papa.
"But we will be happy where we're going," she said hugging the thing even closer to her. The red plastic eyes gleamed in the intense sunshine as though much interested in what she was saying. "We will never be apart, ever. We will always see each other. I will be your friend. I will be your sister. Your teacher. Your Papa... Your Mama..."
She was abruptly overcome by bitter tears as she wept in short, choking breaths.
In the afternoon the sunshine suddenly ceased and the snow returned with a vengeance. Naoyuki had slept keeping guard at Ushio's door, lulled by the heat, but he was suddenly roused by the return of the cold. He looked around to orient himself. When he has regained his bearings he stood up and scanned the place.
Something told him Ushio was gone.
He found the nerve to go to her room. Yes, the place. It is empty.
She cannot survive there for another hour, not in that scant clothing.
He rushed out of the house to follow her.
Tomoya has been staying at the bedside, holding Nagisa's hand, since last night. He has lost much rest and he was sound asleep in midday, still holding on to Nagisa.
Kyou came in and saw him like that. She smiled fondly and went beside him. "Tomoya," she nudged gently, "wake up. Go to bed properly, will you?" He got up groggily and stared blankly for a while, but when he realized it was her, he managed a smile. "Tomoya, go to bed. I will take over."
He gestured a "no." "I want to keep holding her."
It was like a faint spray of salt on Kyou's wounded heart. But she understood. "Well, then, let me hold her other hand."
She went to the other side of the bed. She leaned close to Nagisa and watched her peaceful sleeping face. She looked healthier in sleep and Kyou thought she must have even gained some weight while in bed. Yes, there is still hope.
"Nagisa," she said warmly, "Your Tomoya is here. Wake up. We are all waiting for you. It's our turn. You have waited long enough." She caressed her hair as a mother would a little child. "Soon, you will be with everybody. Come on, now, dear, wake up. We will get you some anpan if you want," she finished with a little smile.
Tomoya also smiled. "I think you're indulging her too much."
"Well, now," she frowned, "Perhaps I should have been the husband doing everything you should have been doing."
"That's what I'm saying. I should be the one indulging her."
Kyou let herself a chuckle. "Of course." To Nagisa, "Hear that?" she whispered to her, "Your Tomoya is here to pamper you from here on and for life. So you get up now, or he will go away again, I'm warning you."
The hand she was holding twitched.
It was enough for Kyou. Her eyes widened in joyous disbelief. Her mouth hung open trembling with excitement. She got up in a blink and ran out of the room. "Doctor! Doctor!" echoed the jubilant yell from out the door. Tomoya scrambled to take both his wife's hands and get onto the bed almost laying himself over her outright. "Nagisa," he stammered. "Nagisa! I'm here! I'm here! Right here—right here—don't leave me... wake up—Nagisa... Nagisa! Wake...Wake up!"
And then, a miracle.
Nagisa's eyes also twitched, and opened.
It was half-open. She must still be asleep. It was the eyes of someone still dreaming.
She then spoke, in the voice of one still dreaming.
It was spring. They were both there at the hill where the cherry blossoms fluttered, and they were in high school. He hugged her ever so tightly that she went a little off balance and lost a shoe from one foot. He was almost lifting her and her feet were on tiptoe. "Nagisa," he pleaded, "I'm right here. Stay with me. I beg you."
"You had me worried. You... did not say anything.
"I thought, you will just pass me by and wished you never met me. I was very afraid. It couldn't be true now, is it, Tomoya?"
"No. Never. I will never regret anything about you." He cupped her face in his hands endearingly. "I will always be here. I have done you so much trouble. But even if you regret knowing me because of that, I never will. Never will!" He took her hands and pressed, forced, his lips into them as one dying of thirst.
"No," said Nagisa. "Don't say that! Knowing you was the best that ever happened to me. You made me happy. Even if everything was hard, even there, I was happy, if only because you were with me. I will never regret anything we went through, together.
"Even in this weakness, I will never be afraid, because we are together.
"I will never be afraid or worried or anything, now that you're back. And I want you not to be afraid, also. Is it too much to ask?"
"No. No. No..." He enveloped her.
When Dr. Kirishima came in, she was appalled to find Tomoya fully embracing Nagisa in bed. "No! The patient—"
"Doctor!" snapped Kyou. "She's recovered! She will make it!"
Kirishima gritted her teeth embarrassed that she should be reprimanded. "I guess so," she conceded ruefully. "Well, then, get my aide here so we could check her up!"
The aide scrambled in a closet to get everything the doctor ordered her to and it took some time for her to have them all in order. When she came in, she was surprised seeing so many people beat her to it, all standing around the bed way ahead of her. The doctor will not be pleased with her tarrying.
But the doctor seems to be absorbed in what the people are doing to the patient. The Furukawas held on to one arm, Sanae gripping her hand, while Tomoya and Kotomi held the other, Nagisa's hand in his. Kirishima took the woman's temperature and was surprised to see it rise noticeably.
"Nagisa," coaxed Kotomi, "answer us. You can hear us, right? Nagisa, wake up."
"Nagisa," encouraged Sanae, "Fight-o! You can do it! Fight-o, desu-yo!"
"Nagisa," said Kyou, "Shio-chan and Mimi-chan are waiting for you. They want you to make dinner for them again. Go for it, Nagisa!"
"Nagisa," Tomoyo added, "We are all dying to see you."
"Nagisa," mumbled Tomoya hopefully.
At that moment, as one, everybody felt hope shine through the loneliness that until now held sway. They have all suffered. But now, coming together, their spirits were lifted in anticipation of Nagisa's regaining consciousness, as with a chorus that soars and is shining in the sky. Indeed, everyone can hear it playing and soaring in their hearts.
Their mood seemed to communicate itself through the warmth of their hands to her rousing body, for, soon enough, Nagisa's eyes, the eyes they waited upon, opened, and stared upward as though seeing the heavens, but when the woman's vision cleared, she saw them.
"K-Kyou-chan..." Her eyes rolled slowly from side to side. "Ko... Kotomi-chan... Tomoyo-chan... Oka-san... Otou-san... Tomoya... kun..."
A wave of gladness swept over Nagisa's face and overwhelmed it. Her expression was immediately mirrored in the faces of those around her. None of them could speak in their all-suppressing joy, save for Sanae, who shouted,
and threw herself over her daughter, weeping from the happiness she could not bear to contain.
The scene struck Dr. Kirishima as odd to the highest degree. This scene was, in her mind, supposed to be that of a deathbed, loved ones surrounding, mother crying out with unbridled emotion over her bedridden child, and severe illness. But this was more of being raised from the dead. A total reverse. That, and the powerful contagion of everybody's tearful triumph knocking at the waterworks in her, prompted her to leave before they could see her weep unashamedly.
At the moment when Naoyuki made a few yards out of the house a wind started to blow mists of snow.
The gale will again turn into a blizzard pretty soon. He will have to watch out, especially as he has but one coat left, the one he is wearing; Ushio has already burned everything else. He struggled through the knee-deep snow trying to look for his granddaughter.
His calves are starting to feel heavy as lead. The continuous walking through knee-deep snow as he ventured further off the road, one leg up, then down, the other up, then down, was becoming a vicious routine of fatigue. At that age, he could not afford to exert himself so.
Finally, after becoming to tired to step over the snow, he settled for pushing through the snow with his shins. He really didn't have the slightest idea where she might have gone, but he will never let himself not enact at least a token effort for his granddaughter. He must find her.
I wonder, is she far by now? Is she still close by?
How many steps must I take to reach her?
Or is it endless?
He tripped into the snow. His head was half-buried. He was now exhausted. He stayed there for he didn't know how long, as the wind started to pick up some more. Soon enough, a blizzard was howling over his back.
And then, the biting cold somehow caused his body to snap awake and shiver. He roused in an instant and struggled to stand up, puffing fumes of cold breath that the wind immediately tore away. He finally realized. At first he thought his coat would be enough. But the chill wind factor was something he never quite appreciated at first hand. He was now as vulnerable as a naked boy.
But move on he must. To tire himself yet again only to turn back was useless. To live in a house without Ushio was useless.
A world completely white. Completely blank. There was no outline, nothing to tell where I am going.
The wind slapping at my face with icy shards spat onto my eyes, even that did not tell where I was going.
It was always like this. I never knew where I was going all my life. It was all blank. Like this snowfield. But now it's not the same. I'm here to look for someone.
I am here to protect Tomoya's child.
In the thick rushing mist he noticed something. It protruded faintly from the snow, but in the complete whiteness it was hard not to notice even through the thick blizzard veil. A landmark finally showed itself. But in a moment it disappeared again. No, he is not letting it slip by. He knows in what direction he saw it. All he had to do was keep plowing through over there and he will find it again.
Yes. Plow. Plow. Plow.
He hit something. So it wasn't a landmark after all. It must only be a rock or something caught out here in the snow.
It's someone. It's a girl!
"Ushio—" he gasped hoarsely.
He knelt to see how she was. She was still hugging her toy robot. He was appalled seeing her like this. He can't let her lie in a cruel place like this.
He felt for her pulse. It was there, beating faintly. He felt for her lips and sensed slight breathing. Will she make it if he carries her? But he has not the strength. No, he must try. A token effort. He took her frozen hand and tugged... He faltered. He was simply drained from walking.
A token effort. It was all he could do. It was all he could manage for Ushio. It was all he could muster for Tomoya's child. There was nothing he ever did that was enough. All his life he failed. He failed his mother Shino. He failed Atsuko. He tried to carry Tomoya on his own, but in the end he failed that as well.
Surely, now, it was no different with Ushio.
But all he did were token efforts. His walking out here. His exhausting himself. His attempting to pull at Ushio's arm.
There was still something left to do.
He doffed his coat and draped it over her. Certainly, that would suffice. He knelt in the snow and waited for a while as his body heat started to drain away more rapidly. Soon, the shivering was already racking him to his core. Even that was draining his strength. He took her arm again and saw if her pulse has changed. It was still faint. Is this all he could do?
It was said that if a person undergoes the final stages of hypothermia, she experiences a supremely comfortable sensation. Like floating? Perhaps. All body senses would have been immediately cut off from the suffering it endures in the environment and so leaves the body in semblance of blissful relaxation. It would certainly feel so.
But it feels empty.
And then, after hours of floating in this hollow comfort, she can feel something again, see something again. A warm draft blew at her face and seeped into her body. It tickled her, but above all it infused substance into the emptiness. And, there was something pressing down on her, as with a weight. But it was not so much crushing as snug, more like a blanket. It was getting warm, and bright.
A light intruded itself upon her reverie and stung her eyes. Grudgingly, she let them flicker open. A flash of blinding brightness made her draw back.
When she has gotten used to it, she tentatively opened her eyes again, slowly, slowly, until she carefully met with the blinding light, gently coaxing it into letting her see. It relented. After the fog of light subsided, she could finally see more distinctly.
Tiny flakelets of snow fell upon her as the morning sun shone over them.
But there was something else.
Something lay close to her face, just beside her head. She turned. She gasped as she saw a face so close to hers. She wriggled free and sat up. A body had been lain over her and it now lay face down on the snow from her getting up.
Gingerly, she turned it over and saw. It was her grandfather. His eyes were half-open, as well as his mouth, but they were both lifeless. There was no light in those opaque eyes. It couldn't be.
The warm draft had been his warm struggling breaths which she caught and imbibed. The blanket was he himself and his coat had lain over them both. But he did not survive. The chill was too much. But she, safe underneath, bathed in the body warmth quickly oozing out of him, lived.
"Grandpa," she choked. "Grandpa."
Her distant journey was now just a memory.
She let tears of disbelief well up from within her because she could shout.
"Grandpa!" she cried, shaking him earnestly, trying to force him to revive. It was useless. The eyes only stared at her in its emptiness as she refused to believe it.
In the closing weeks of winter, the hospital has eased capacity and they were able to put both Nagisa and Mizuumi into proper hospital wards. They chose a spot where Nagisa's bed was right next to an east-facing window, so she could catch a refreshing dose of morning sunrise every morning, now that the weather afforded more of it.
With the warming weather and greater medical attention, Nagisa started to improve steadily, but what beckoned her on to recovery was the constant presence and frequent visits of her friends, bringing fresh fruit, hot meals, anything their best could give. As soon as Mizuumi could sit up in bed she was placed next to her mother so they could talk and play together. The warmth and happiness has returned to Nagisa.
Mizuumi, however, had a complication.
"The child won't be able to walk," the doctor broke to them sadly. "For how long, I can never be sure. She could be paralyzed for life."
Nagisa was speechless at this. Kyou glared at the doctor while the others simply stared blankly at the doctor. "No way!" said Kyou. "You should have done your best to assure her recovery."
"I'm sorry, Ma'am," he apologized. "It happens sometimes."
"Please, doctor," said Kotomi grabbing his arms. Her love for the child made her forget her profesionalism for a while. "Do something! Dont leave her like this. Please!"
Tomoyo only sighed painfully. "It can't be helped. Mimi-chan has been sick for too long already." She went and confronted the doctor as well. "You said she could be like this for you don't know how long. So that means there might be a chance?"
"I, I can't answer that..."
"Umm!" Mimi herself cut in. "Miss Nurse told me if I took in a lot of fresh air and always went outside, and exercised my legs often, too, I will be able to walk in no time!"
Kyou was exasperated at the child's assertion. This must only be something to turn the girl's head and buoy her up despite the odds. The "exercise" was a reference to physical therapy on her legs, but there was little guarantee it could restore her legs to normal.
"I know," said Nagisa. "Mimi-chan will walk again. If she believes it, I don't see how it can't happen."
"Yay!" cheered Mizuumi in her innocent glee. "Mama is on my side!"
Kyou looked back in surprise at her dear friend. But in a short while, she understood. They had worked so hard to return hope to Nagisa's heart, they just can't ruin it now.
"She's right!" Kyou affirmed to the bewildered doctor. "Mimi-chan will work hard so she can walk again." The doctor was still way too dubious with his aghast expression but the others followed suit and flew in his face.
"Yes," Kotomi said quietly. "Nothing is impossible. I am an international academic and I believe it, so I don't see why you shouldn't." The tricked somehow worked. Some resignation came over the doctor's face but he still had his reservations. But of course it didn't really take a rocket scientist to hope against all hope.
"She will walk," said Tomoyo. "If Nagisa could come back from the dead, then walking again is a piece of cake."
Indeed. In the following days, upon Tomoyo's insistence, the hospital subjected the little girl to therapy and soon enough she could wiggle her toes some, though she still couldn't stand on her own. To that end, they made Mizuumi grasp a bar while having her carry herself out of the wheelchair. It was a strenuous exercise for her, and every after just a few minutes she had to be carried back to the wheelchair so she could regain her breath.
Through all that, Nagisa was on hand to watch her daughter's progress while Tomoya, and Kyou, dropped by everyday after work so they could personally assist the girl. Kotomi also pitched in every other day to give the little girl treats and books.
A week later, buds appeared on the trees and a faint screen of young grass appeared on the roadsides and vacant lots everywhere. Winter was finally over.
Nagisa has recovered enough to be discharged, and walk with assistance. Of course, it was always Tomoya who accompanied her, to make up for lost time.
They were already able to go to the supermarket together. As they walked home, Tomoya carrying most of the groceries, he started to raise concerns about their missing child.
"I will start searching for Ushio on Saturday," he said. "I have been away from work too long and I only have weekends to go very far."
"Where will you find Shio-chan?"
"Have you forgotten? We always go to my father's house in the country every summer, right?"
"Oh yes," she said smiling in embarrassment. "There couldn't be a better place. I know Shio-chan would especially love that place." She looked up at the gathering dusk. "I remember how much she loves running in that flower meadow..." She started to tear up as she remembered the good times. "Shall we ever see again, Tomoya-kun?"
"Hey, hey," he said holding her, "don't give up." He wiped her tears. "I know she will be fine if she is there. We only have to wait."
"Oh, out on an evening stroll, eh?" said a voice. It was Dr. Kirishima.
Tomoya was at a loss seeing her, remembering the bills at the clinic. Nagisa didn't seem to mind. "Konnbanwa, Kirishima-san," she bowed. "It's a lovely evening, isn't it?"
"To you, yes," she smiled. To Tomoya, "And you? How could you afford to relax when you still have your obligations to me?"
Oh man. Straight to the point.
"By the way," she continued, "what did the hospital say about your wife's condition?"
He was ill at ease talking to her. "Well, they only told her to relax often and avoid stress."
"Precisely. Well now, they haven't diagnosed what's bugging her health?"
Tomoya was downcast. "No, Ma'am."
She sighed. "I have thought as much." She walked past the couple immersed in thought. A few paces behind them, she suddenly stopped and turned to them again. "On the contrary, though we don't know what her disease really is, but, irony of ironies, we know exactly what can cure her."
"Eh?" they both blurted.
Kirishama approached Tomoya and clasped his arm. "My friend, you and your friends helped her out of her sickness. It was all of you who did the most for the actual healing; I only tried to keep her alive in the darkest hours, I haven't really done anything to cure you. For that, I will only charge you the basic expenses for maintenance of the facilities you used, and no more. I am taking no profits for myself. That way, you will only have a month left to pay."
Tomoya was speechless with joyous disbelief. Nagisa also wanted to celebrate, but, "Doctor, I feel sorry for you. You have worked hard so much, also."
"Kah. I was planning to get a trip to Europe from your long stay, but, heh, I had a wonderful journey with you nonetheless. Thank you. Thank you for teaching me how to better care for people."
Tomoya set out to look for Ushio early Saturday morning. With him was Tenshi, determined to see her again after his unceremonious departure the last time they talked. He especially pleaded with his mother and with the girl's father as well so he could get the man to trust him and let him have his daughter someday.
The countryside sprang into life all over this side of Japan. Spring breathed fresh hope into them that they will see their beloved Ushio again. But they will have to move fast to make the most of the weekend time alloted to them.
Upon arriving at the country house, they were surprised to see it abandoned. Until one of the neighbors told them that Okazaki Naoyuki was found dead in a snowfield with who appeared to be his granddaughter.
"Where is the girl? Tomoya demanded. "Where was she taken?"
"I don't know," fumbled the neighbor. "I really don't!"
"You live here and you don't get wind of who gets lost in your own place?" he said angrily.
Tenshi broke into a run to look for the girl himself, and Tomoya had to follow. After chasing him for around half an hour, they found themselves at a familiar place.
This was the meadow where the flowers bloomed. The place Ushio loved in her childhood. Now the flowers where budding and a soft fluff of yellow lay over the landscape. They both stood there for a while enthralled, and then Te shi ran to the middle of the field wildly hoping he would find her there.
When nobody responded to his cry, he knelt down and wept there. Tomoya came to him. He felt for him, felt his intense longing, as much as he himself yearned for his own child. For a while he saw Tenshi as his son. He touched his shoulder. "Come," he said solemnly. "She is not here."
At the close of the day they visited Naoyuki's grave where Tomoya shed tears of profound gratitude for what the old man did for his child. Later, they were still standing there.
"I will wait for her," said Tenshi quietly.
Tomoya looked at him in surprise as though he had shouted it.
"She told me. She wanted me to work hard for our future." He looked at Tomoya, as though seeking his approval. "Okazaki-san, she told me we must work hard for our future. I love her! I want to fulfill her dreams...even if she's not here. When she returns, I want her to see me like this, accomplished, able to give her that stable future she wanted." He bowed to him deeply. "Okazaki-san, please! I want to be a part of your family, Okazaki-san!"
Tomoya was astounded. Normally he would have told the suitor to bug off, but on hearing that Ushio said those words... "Ushio," he muttered to himself. "So you were really thinking far ahead. Is he the one you want to be with for the rest of your life?
"Ushio," he choked, "thank you. Thank you for listening to me."
Tomoya, watch over my son, please.
Hardly able to control his emotions any longer, having realized now more than ever how valuable his daughter was and missing her intensely, he again wept there unashamedly in front of Ushio's lover. It hardly mattered now, for he found it in himself to trust Tomoyo's son.
As the days became even warmer, Ushio sat out on the porch more often. It has been over two months since the townsfolk found her and the deceased Naoyuki on that snowfield and turned her over to the welfare desk. She refused to speak the whole time and even now she didn't want to have anything to do with these strangers at the welfare house, so the social workers could not find any lead as to who she was except that she must be somehow related to the old man. They meant to air a bulletin on her next week.
Ushio could hardly catch up with everything that happened. But if one thing was clear in her mind, it is a single question: why did her grandfather go to such lengths to protect her? Why should somebody who caused so much suffering at home be saved?
These past days, one answer started to present itself to her. So she could be reminded over and over of what her existence did to her mother, and thus be punished with constant guilt for being born. But that was just a tentative explanation. Naoyuki's deed, his dying for her, somehow she felt it wasn't her fault. He willingly did it for her, because she was special. Because she was loved. It caused a subdued warmth in her that counteracted the depression that constantly hovered around her in her isolation.
What was the real answer?
Wrestling with questions for months was wearing her down. She now wanted to take a break go outside more often. Maybe it will unclutter her head some.
The lobby of the welfare house was brimming with excitement over the picnic they organized for tomorrow. The homeless of every age fraternized there as they chattered about what else they wanted to do on that day, perhaps take a hike, play baseball or go, or sing at the karaoke. At first, the whole time Ushio only listened from inside her room, but a little later she grew curious about the commotion outside so she went out. She looked around to see if she ask someone about what's going on, but she still had the reservations she felt from day one. Perhaps she should just talk to the officer at the desk.
"Oh!" she said delightfully seeing the girl outside of the room on her own. "Do you feel well now? Well, then! I think I shall find you a croissant for breakfast, now wouldn't that be just superb?"
But Ushio was staring at one particular poster behind the officer. It showed a little girl.
I am Okazaki Mizuumi, seven years of age. Please help me get a new wheelchair. For your donations please contact Hikarizaka General Hospital at number...
"What's the matter, dear? Are you ailing? Feeling something?"
"What?" She turned to the poster. "Do...Do you know her?"
Ushio rushed to the poster and wept there, causing such a racket that everybody fell silent and stared at her. The social workers went to her and asked her so many questions trying to find out what the problem is with her, but they only got one reply.
"Take me. Take me to my sister!"
There was something Naoyuki told her back when she was in that bare room in the country house. She did not remember the words. But, just the same, the message seeped through to her as she remembered again what her grandfather did for her. It was essentially the same thing her mother did, accepting the danger and going ahead with her birth.
She did not find the answer she was looking for all those two months, so she formulated one herself. She is not living for herself. She is still here because she has a family to love. She must find them, and return to them everything they lost because of her.
Naoyuki's deed led to Ushio having a second life so to speak, but more than that, it drove his point across.
The cherry trees were in full bloom. Everybody decided to hold a reunion at the Hikarizaka school grounds. They were all there: Kyou, Kotomi, Tomoyo, Tenshi, Yukine, the Furukawas, Ryou and her family Kappei and Taro, and her new baby, of course. They all agreed now to call often despite their schedules, and visit regularly, monthly if it could be helped. Also there was Nichi, who was indebted to Doctor Ichinose for endorsing him to the student exchange he has just returned from. Also there was Tomoe, who knew Nichi, and Minako, who hangs around with Tomoe.
"Hah..." sighed Minako looking up at the lovely cherry blossoms. "If only Ushio was here."
She was the only who voiced it, but she knew everybody else felt the same way.
Leading the way as they made up the hillside path, were the lovers who met here: Tomoya and Nagisa Okazaki. They stood by their youngest child, who was brimming at the beautiful scene in her new wheelchair.
"Mama! Was it like this when I was born?"
"Yes, darling. It was a wonderful spring."
"Oh yes," said Tomoya, "you are about to turn eight soon, aren't you dear?"
"Umm!" she assented happily. Then, more soberly, "You think Shio-chan will be there?"
"Of course," said Nagisa. "Onee-chan will always be there for you, if you only wait for her."
And she did. As she was wheeled forward up the sloping path, she saw if someone even remotely like Onee-chan would appear at the next turn. It seems that each minute made her even more excited.
"Mama!" she suddenly cried.
"It's... It's her."
"Who is it?"
With amused laughter, the couple turned to look where the little girl was pointing. They could see nobody there. Prcisely. Because behind one of the cherry trees hid a lone teenager who was still very reluctant to face up to the family she left behind. What will they say if they see her? But her eyes were fixed on the sister she had so looked forward to seeing again. How her heart crumbled seeing her in that wheelchair! She wanted desperately to go out right there and then and take the girl into her embrace.
"Why are you laughing, Mama?" asked a bewildered Mizuumi.
"Of course, Mizuumi," said Tomoya. "You will indeed see her very soon."
"No, no!" Mimi loudly protested. "She is there! I have seen her!" Then, in an act that stunned everybody, she pushed down hard on the arms of the wheelchair and raised herself, shaking from the effort. This was too much for her to take, and she quickly fell down again on her seat as her parents assisted. It was also too much for the hidden Ushio, who rushed out of hiding and ran to her sister. "Mizuumi!"
She dropped down on her knees and took her sister into her arms.
"Ushio?" chorused the Okazaki couple.
She did not mind them at that moment. She was busy hugging Mizuumi.
Nagisa knelt down as well to wrap herself upon her long lost daughter. Tomoya settled to surround all three of them. Tenshi broke forth and rushed to his Ushio. All the rest followed, amazed, overwhelmed, unable to register that Okazaki Ushio is here in the flesh, but they indulged themselves in this wonderful fantasy, and soon saw for themselves that it was true.
They are one big Clannad.
In the summer, Ushio took out Mizuumi in her wheelchair at a paved footpath out at the beach. It was a very windy day, and she had to struggle to keep Mimi's hair off of her face. Up till then, Mimi was enjoying the view hugely, but the novelty wore out with the morning and now she wanted to take a break back at the cottage.
"Shio-chan, I want to go eat."
"Haven't you had breakfast already? Come on, the weather's awesome. Let's walk some more."
The wind picked up again, but this time Ushio had their backs turned on it. She was humming as she pushed her sister along still enjoying the view, but Mizuumi was already voicing her complaints.
"No, it's not. It's cool in this wind."
"The wind is hot."
The waves pounded on the sand a little far off from them, breaking into luxuriant foam that resembled the flowing white curtains of a mansion bedroom.
"Just relax, Mimi. If you don't rest yourself, you won't be able to walk anytime soon."
The little girl waited some more, trying to amuse herself listening to the distant crashing of the surf, a sound that Onee-chan reveled in, but her patience was just too short right now and she couldn't help it. "This is boring," pouted Mizuumi. "I want to play."
Ushio felt herself give way to laughter. "Mimi, what else can you play in that wheelchair? A wheelchair race?"
This angered the little girl. She groaned in irritation and then looked up staring hard at her Onee-chan. "Humph!" Mizuumi wheeled herself away from Ushio, and turned to face her again, from a distance.
"H-Hey," fumbled Ushio, "I'm just kidding."
"I can walk now!"
What? Wait! "Eh? Are you serious?"
Huge clouds covered the sun and shaded them.
"I will walk to you, Shio-chan, you just watch!"
"Hey, stop that! Can't you take a good laugh? You'll get hurt!"
Too late. Mizuumi pushed herself up and stood wobbling on her chair as Ushio, too stunned to react fast enough, watched. Before she knew it, her sister was taking a step forward, and another, still wobbling. Ushio dashed forward just as the little girl fell forward and caught her just in time.
"Goal," panted Mizuumi.
Now, Ushio couldn't stop the tears. But there was really no reason to be sad. Mizuumi is fine, and they are together.
"Mizuumi," gasped Ushio clinging to her sister as though she wanted to stay that way for the rest of her life, "I promise you! Mizuumi, I promise, someday, you will be able to walk again."
A note of thanks to everybody who supported this work: I am honestly delighted every time I see another review, another fav, another follow, another visitor. I am very satisfied with all the feedback I got from you guys; they were quite enough to tell me that I am doing reasonably well with my fic.
Domo arigatou gozaimashita!