Chapter 16: Encounters
"One, two, and-"
With no small amount of effort, Fuko lifted herself from the wheelchair onto the support rails, breathing heavily and shaking from the exertion. She looked back toward Yoshino and I with a reassuring smile. Even at a time like this, Fuko was mindful of our worries. The thought elicited my smile in return.
In relief, Yoshino sighed the breath he had been nervously holding onto as the physical therapists assisted his sister-in-law with her daily exercises. He smiled just the same before Fuko returned to the task at hand.
"Thank you for stopping by, Tomoya."
"Don't mention it."
Yoshino took a sip of coffee from a thermos, grimacing at the bitterness as he did so, then quickly placed the tumbler onto a nearby table.
"Not a huge fan of coffee," he remarked jokingly. "Anyway, how have you been holding up at work?"
"As best as one could be on their own," I wryly replied stretching my stiff muscles as Fuko walked with both hands gripping the support rails tightly. "I'll admit she's working much harder than I am."
"Harder than both of us combined."
"How long do they expect for her recovery?" I asked, wanting to change the subject away from work.
"It's all dependent on how hard she pushes herself. It could be a few weeks to months. They think she'll be able to live life at home within a month, but normal activity will slowly come back to her over time."
I could only manage an, "Ah."
It wasn't, however, from apathy or lack of interest. There just wasn't any worry in my mind that she wouldn't make a hasty recovery. If this was the same Fuko that we knew from our high school years, she would be able to do it. I had full confidence in that fact.
My attention returned to Yoshino who was looking at me with new concern.
"You look exhausted, Tomoya. You're sure you don't want to go home and rest on your day off?"
"Don't worry, I'm alright," I promptly replied. "I'd just be sitting around at home bored since Kyou is at the kindergarten for her internship. If anything, are you sure you don't want to go home and get some rest? I'm sure you've been wearing yourself out this whole time."
"Thanks, but no thanks. Fuko is only able to work so hard because she has us for support. I can't let her down by taking a break when she refuses to take one herself."
"Sounds like another woman I know."
"Hah, Kyou seemed the type. How are you lovebirds doing?"
A fleeting thought of the other night passed through my mind. I refrained from blushing by concentrating my hardest on Fuko's physical therapy routine.
"Good," I answered simply.
"It sounds like you two made up just fine." Yoshino smiled wide enough for his teeth to show and gave my shoulder a good slap. "I'm glad your problems are all over now. I told you it would work out."
"Thanks, but I could only wish they were all over."
"What do you mean?" he quickly replied.
I ran my hand through my hair briefly wondering why I said that.
"Well," I began uncertainly, "I don't think anyone is fortunate enough to not have any problems at all. Besides, my relationship with Kyou isn't perfect, but it's improving steadily."
"Sure. I agree with you, but you wouldn't have said it that way if you didn't have other pressing matters. What gives?"
I sighed a lengthy breath in both frustration and relief. Frustration from accidentally slipping up. Relief from having someone to finally talk to about it.
"You've known me for a long time now Yoshino, am I right?"
"Yeah, enough to consider you one of my better friends."
"So you know how much I cared about Nagisa."
Yoshino's eyebrows furrowed.
"What are you getting at?" he asked in a concerned tone.
"Don't get me wrong," I raised my hands up in defense, "it's not that I'm still in love with her. I still care for her, but I've moved on. Honestly."
"I've moved on with my feelings for Nagisa," I repeated once more. "However, I still feel obligated to take care of Ushio as my daughter."
Yoshino remained silent with his arms crossed in deep thought.
"I can't say that I've been in your shoes, but I can empathize with you. With that being said, I'm not the person you should be telling this. Not because I don't care about you, but because someone else should have the say in whether or not you should go forward with this."
"I've already spoken to Kyou about it."
Yoshino's expression quickly changed into one of surprise. He likely assumed that I hadn't approached Kyou with the idea.
"And what did she say?"
"She said that she couldn't be Ushio's mother, but she would support my decision and be a mother figure for her."
I omitted the more intimate way Kyou answered to save myself the embarrassment.
"That's great!" replied Yoshino with a hearty smile. "So what's the issue?"
"Ushio is currently being raised by Nagisa's parents due to my absence and inability as a father," I answered solemnly.
"Ah, I see."
Yoshino seemed to instantly understand my predicament.
Although I had Kyou's support in raising Ushio, I had not earned the support nor the custody of Ushio from her grandparents. Worst of all, I couldn't do this with just the support of one. I needed to earn both their trust, which was a seemingly impossible task with a man like Akio.
"I'm not sure how I can help you in a situation like this, Tomoya. You'll have to somehow prove to them that you are the best parent to raise Ushio."
"My recent track record has been pretty bad, you know."
"Well, you can start by proving to them that you are out of that slump and don't intend to go back."
"Yeah," I replied with a weak nod.
My worst fears went beyond just that, however. Even if I were able to convince Sanae and Akio that I was stable once more, convincing them to relinquish custody of Ushio to me was another beast of its own. Nevertheless, first things come first: I needed to prove that I am not only capable of taking care of myself, but my daughter as well.
"Yoshino-san?" interrupted the physical therapist assisting Fuko.
He turned around and responded with, "Yes?"
"We've finished the exercises for the morning. Do you have any questions for me?"
Her assistant wheeled an exhausted Fuko resting in a wheelchair towards them. She maintained a satisfied grin of accomplishment.
"No, but thank you," replied Yoshino while rendering a polite bow towards the ladies. "I'll see you back in your room in a little bit, Fuko. I'll grab breakfast to-go from downstairs."
"Sure, I'll see you there," she said with a nod before continuing out the door.
He gave her a smile and wave as she wheeled by him through the doors of the exercise room.
I followed Yoshino downstairs to the canteen, passing by the occasional nurse or therapist in a hurry to their next patient.
After spending a few days for stability in the hospital, Fuko was transferred to a nearby physical rehabilitation center for further recovery and monitoring. Apparently there was another girl with a similar condition here so this facility was the optimal choice. In fact, the only real problem with the rehabilitation center was its distance from Hikarizaka, which was the next city over. Yoshino, however, chose to spend the remainder of his work leave at Fuko's side. Having been in a coma during her sister's marriage, the current Fuko had yet to meet her brother-in-law. The time spent toiling away creating her sister's ideal wedding would never be known to any of them. It was a discomforting thought, honestly.
"Seems like you and Fuko have been getting along well," I interjected.
Yoshino continued to walk slightly ahead of me, his expression hidden from sight.
"Actually," he began, a subtle smile likely appearing between his words. "Fuko has apparently been a fan of my older albums."
"Yep," he proudly replied. "When your music is as magically moving as mine it's not surprising."
I imagined a very excited and confused Fuko waking up from her coma to meet one of her music idols. Her happiness often reached a state of static serenity. Many great pranks were derived from it in the past. Mostly by me, of course.
"So that must have been an interesting moment," I urged expecting him to further elaborate.
He briefly chuckled as we entered the canteen and made our way to the service line.
"The best way I could put it is," he paused to pick up his tray and utensils, "Fuko wasn't sure if she had woken up yet."
His wide grin interrupted the story for a short moment.
"She started mumbling 'Fuko must still be dreaming if the famous Yoshino Yusuke is here with breakfast.' After she found out I was actually real by touching my face, she freaked out and jumped back. Kouko had to explain to her who I was. And her only response was, 'But isn't he so much younger than you?'"
I laughed at the notion. It was a typical Fuko reaction.
We ordered our food and sat down at a table for two by the large glass windows at the far side of the room.
"How far apart are you two?" I asked, never considering their age difference.
"6 years." Yoshino chewed some of his American-style breakfast. "She was a teacher in high school when I was a student."
"Wow, you're into that kind of stuff?"
"Screw you," retorted Yoshino as he bit into a slice of buttered toast. "She is the perfect woman. Some day you'll understand."
"Alright, alright- I take it back. I get where you're coming from. Kyou can be intense sometimes, but she is definitely worth it."
I sliced my waffle into smaller pieces then proceeded to devour it.
"Speaking of which," Yoshino quickly changed gears, "you have realized that you can't pretend that Kyou doesn't exist when you confront your in-laws, right?"
I chewed my food at a comfortable pace to give my answer some time.
"Yes. I've realized that already."
"What do you propose to do?"
Surprisingly, I had already given it a great deal of thought.
If I wanted to include Kyou in my future, there was no beating around the bush with Sanae and Akio. I would have to tell them upfront and hope for the best.
"I've arranged dinner with the Furukawas tomorrow evening to introduce Kyou."
Yoshino's brow shot up then furrowed.
"And talk about custody over Ushio in the same sitting?" he asked concernedly.
"There's no use pretending that's not what I'm there for." I finished what remained from my cup of coffee before continuing. "Kyou has already agreed to see them. It's not going to be pleasant, but it's what I have to do to get my daughter."
Yoshino let out a soft chuckle.
"That's the kind of attitude you're going to need."
I smiled slightly.
"I think I'm going to need a lot more than just attitude, unfortunately."
After breakfast I gave my farewells to both Yoshino and Fuko. There were some important errands I needed to run before lunchtime. To be more specific, there was a certain place I had to be with a certain thing at a certain time in order to surprise a certain someone.
And that certain someone hadn't the slightest clue.
I took the train about two stops away from the school Kyou was interning at. There was a popular bento shop just outside the station that had newly come into business last month. Kyou had been meaning to try it but never found the time to do so. And with everything that has been going on, what better time than now to surprise her with lunch?
The little stand which served as their storefront had everything a bento shop could imagine but a name. Nevertheless, the locals aptly referred to it as Ina's Bentos in honor of the chef and owner herself. It didn't take long for Ina to garner city-wide fame in a matter of weeks. According to rumor, Special B -a scrumptious fried medley of takoyaki, katsu, and croquettes with steamed rice- was to die for.
By the time I got there, Ina and her two sons were still setting up shop and hastily cooking today's entrees. With nothing better to do, I did something I rarely did these days: read manga. I stopped by the convenience store and picked up the latest issue of Dengeki Daioh. Sitting on a nearby bench, I thumbed through the pages in hopes of finding something that caught my interest.
Instinctively I glanced up at the figure standing before me while placing my hand in the magazine as a bookmark. The person was a woman – a familiar one at that – with a fair complexion with deep blue eyes and silver hair swept up elegantly into an elaborate bun. She wore a businesswoman's attire with a skirt for femininity and blue accessories which accented her features. Her most striking accessory, however, was a simple black headband.
"Oh wow, it really was you!" she exclaimed, her expression now overcome with relief. "It's been a while. You look well!"
I have to admit I was surprised.
The usually serious and coolheaded Tomoyo seemed rather... approachable.
"I've been doing good these days, thanks. You seem to be doing well yourself. Fancy job already?" I asked, gesturing at her clothes.
"Not at all," she sighed with a soft laugh. "I have an interview for an internship at noon, but I doubt they'll even pay me."
Tomoyo sat down beside me unannounced, forcing me to slide over to accommodate her.
"Waiting for them to open too?"
"Yeah, I figured at least if I didn't get the internship I'd have had a good lunch. What about you?"
I wasn't sure if I should answer her truthfully. The last time we saw each other it was at Nagisa's funeral. It seemed rather forward to outright say I was buying Kyou's lunch.
Why am I so flustered about this?
If I can't even tell Tomoyo that I'm dating Kyou, how can I muster the courage to tell Akio and Sanae?
"Actually," I began as natural as possible, "I'm picking up lunch for Kyou. She is interning at the kindergarten in the newer part of town."
"That's... nice of you? I didn't realize you two were still keeping in touch so well."
Tomoyo was staring at me with little expression. It was obvious she was trying not to jump to conclusions.
"Well," I hastily cleared my throat, "we're dating now."
A silent "oh," escaped from her lips as her eyes lit up with surprise.
"A lot has happened since Nagisa passed away. It's a bit of a story, but somehow along the way Kyou and I got together."
Tomoyo seemed to be trying hard to find the right words to say. I couldn't blame her for it. Running into each other caught us both off-guard.
I gave her a small smile for reassurement.
"Either way," she interjected, "I'm happy for you, Okazaki."
"Ouch, the formality hurts."
Tomoyo stuck her tongue out at me.
"So, Tomoya, what else have you been up to lately with your life?"
"Working, mainly. Sadly I've been living a very boring life since high school with all the glamors of being an electrician."
"Oh that's right, you have to take care of your daughter, don't you? It can't be helped though. That's what a good parent should be doing."
An insurmountable wave of guilt crashed over me.
"Right," I replied weakly.
My stomach twisted into a knot. Her words came at me like an unexpected right hook to the ribs. The gravity of my ineptitude never weighed down so heavily as it did now.
"Hey, are you alright? You look horrible."
"Sorta'," I managed to reply.
"Have you been overworking yourself lately?" Tomoyo quickly put her hand on my forehead to check my temperature. "You don't feel like you're fevering."
"Don't worry, I'm alright," I assured her. "Just a sensitive subject, that's all."
Tomoyo grimaced and sat back against the bench.
"I know you're not one to talk, but it sounds like a lot has happened since the funeral."
"I doubt you have the time to hear an old friend complain about life."
"I most certainly do have time," she insisted, scooting closer to me to show her intent. "So what's up?"
I told Tomoyo everything that happened up to Nagisa's anniversary.
How Kyou had brought me back to her apartment after a bad night of drinking. How I spent these past months recovering from depression with her help. And how she and I eventually fell in love but were a dysfunctional mess.
By the time I finished we had already purchased the bentos from Ina's and were on the train together. Tomoyo's internship prospect was conveniently located a few stops past mine.
I took a deep breath to relax. My shoulders were tense from recalling the moments when Ushio kept calling for Kyou. I could feel my hands shake slightly even while in my pockets.
"I can't even imagine how terrible that must have been for you," replied Tomoyo earnestly.
"Things have improved between Kyou and I since then, but things have only gotten worse with Nagisa's parents. That's why tomorrow I'm going to set things straight and let them know I want my daughter."
Tomoyo gave me a friendly punch to the shoulder.
"That's the spirit!" she exclaimed with a grin.
"I don't know what good it will do, but I have to do something. For Nagisa and Ushio's sake. I can't let her grow up thinking her father didn't care enough to be there."
"I get the feeling there's something more personal going on than just wanting custody of Ushio."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, while we were still in high school I had heard some things about you when I was snooping around to see why you were such a troublemaker. It might have been mentioned that you and your dad don't get along very well."
A sharp ache shot through my right shoulder.
"Me and him don't get along so well, yeah, but I don't see what you're getting at."
Tomoyo shifted in her seat so that she was directly facing me.
"Tomoya," she began tenderly, "something tells me that you aren't doing this solely for Ushio. If anything, I think you're doing this for a more personal reason."
"The reason being my father was a horrible parent?"
"In a way, yes."
"And that makes me a bad person? For wanting to be in Ushio's life, unlike my own father?"
"I never said you were a bad person."
"It sure sounds like it."
Tomoyo glared at me, but I was just as offended.
Why was she making me out to be the bad guy?
"I'm not trying to fight you, idiot. I only meant that getting custody of Ushio isn't going to solve your father issues."
My frustration quickly turned to embarrassment.
"It's great that you want to be in your daughter's life, but you probably won't be satisfied with just that. I think you're trying to make up for what you didn't have growing up. Especially since Ushio is in a similar position not having her mother."
She was right.
My mind had been filled with thoughts about disappointing Ushio as a father or not being there for her, but I was only fixated on those reasons because of my own past. I had been blind to the actual reason why I was so anxious about it.
Had I really been using Ushio as a method to atone for the relationship between me and my father?
If so, was that the extent of my feelings for her?
The overhead announcement interjected, stating that we had arrived at my stop.
"Oh. I guess this is my stop." I slowly stood up from my seat and walked to the door. "Sorry, Tomoyo. And thank you, I needed that."
Right before the door opened, I felt myself being tugged back.
And then something soft pressed against my cheek.
"Have a wonderful life, Okazaki Tomoya."
Tomoyo let go of my hand then shoved me through the sliding doors onto the train platform. A hint of red tinged her exposed cheek as she tried to hide her expression with her hand.
"Maybe we'll see each other again," she said just as the doors closed, preventing me from answering her.
I watched the train take off as I stood still, bewildered by what had happened. It almost felt like a dream. I quickly placed my hand upon my left cheek then removed it.
Fortunately I was still holding onto the plastic bag with our bentos in my other hand. All would have been for naught if I had left it.
Well, almost for nothing.
I eventually made my way to the kindergarten a few blocks down the street, pondering my conversation with Tomoyo.
The possibility that I was taking Ushio away from Sanae and Akio for my own reasons weighed heavily in my chest. My affection for Ushio could easily have stemmed from my desire to spite my father.
If that was the case, was it right for me to even ask for custody?
As I considered all this, I arrived at the kindergarten much sooner than I expected and decided that it would be best to not dwell on it for the time being. It would ruin the surprise for Kyou.
I had seen the school from the outside when Kyou and I stopped by before her internship was approved, but this was the first time I actually stepped foot inside. Thankfully, signs were posted as navigational guides for clueless visitors such as myself. According to the one by the front entrance, the kindergarten was located on the first floor in the west wing, which was directly down the hall and to the right.
The kindergarten classroom was uniquely lined with a wall that stopped halfway and continued as a large window panel allowing light from the playground outside to fill the classroom. It also allowed visitors to see the class in session from the hallway. The curtains weren't drawn completely so I was able to see Kyou roaming the classroom as she assisted with her students' assignments.
I leaned against the wall opposite of the classroom and watched her for the remainder of class. There was something gratifying about the glowing expression Kyou wore as she worked. I was beginning to understand why she pushed herself to her physical and mental limits to become a teacher.
After about twenty minutes or so, Kyou released them for lunch outside in the playground and then received feedback from her sponsor. I waited until they finished before entering the classroom with the surprise.
"Good afternoon, Fujibayashi-sensei."
I leaned against the door frame with the plastic bag raised in front of me. Kyou's jaw dropped ever so slightly and she frantically glanced around the room for onlookers before leaping at me for a hasty embrace.
"What are you doing here Tomoya? Isn't it your day off?"
"Is there a rule against caring boyfriends visiting their hardworking girlfriend at work with lunch, Fujibayashi-sensei?" I teased as I handed over the bento box I had been carrying.
Kyou had to suppress her squeal when she saw what was inside the plastic bag.
"No way! You went all the way there just to get me lunch? And there's two!"
"Of course. I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to have lunch with my darling girlfriend."
"You did something bad, didn't you?" demanded Kyou half-jokingly.
My cheek flushed with warmth.
"Not at all," I answered, which was technically the truth. "Anyway, would your teacher get mad if I ate lunch with you?"
"I don't think so. We should probably eat in the classroom unless you want all the little girls to ask questions."
Kyou placed the bentos across from each other on one of the empty tables the students used for their work. The tables were low enough to the ground that we were able to sit on the floor comfortably.
"Itadakimasu," chimed Kyou gleefully. "Ah, are these the ones everyone was talking about? Special B or something like that?"
"Yep," I answered between mouthfuls of the fried deliciousness.
I glanced around the room as we ate our lunch. Much of the walls were covered with art by the students and what wasn't occupied by that was plastered with educational posters like the kana or basic math equations. I can't remember anything about my own kindergarten, but I'm sure it was exactly like this one. I don't imagine kindergartens vary much from each other. There's not much that could change.
"So how has your day been?" asked Kyou before taking another bite of rice and katsu.
"Well, I'd gone to visit Yoshino and Fuko this morning at the physical rehab center. She's been working really hard to regain her strength. It's impressive how fast she's recovering."
"Kouko was telling me the same thing. It's good to hear she's improving."
"Definitely. Well, after breakfast with Yoshino I went to Ina's to pick up the bentos. And you'll never guess who I ran into."
"Hmm," pondered Kyou, "I don't know. Sunohara?"
"No way, I didn't think she'd still be in Hikarizaka!"
"That's exactly what I was thinking. She had an interview for an internship downtown and was stopping by for lunch. We ended up catching up as we waited for Ina's to open."
"Did you get her info? We should have a get together again."
"Oh, uh, it slipped my mind at the time."
Kyou pouted at me.
"That's the whole point of having a cellphone these days," she said with a sigh. "Ryou might have her number still if we're lucky. It wouldn't be right to not have everyone there."
We both froze for a moment.
Nagisa wouldn't be there.
Kyou hurriedly placed a piece of potato croquette into her mouth.
"Speaking of Tomoyo," I continued in an attempt to change the subject, "she said something... interesting to me while we were on the train. That I might be trying to get custody over Ushio for more than just my obligations as her parent."
"She said that it might also be because of my issues with my dad."
Kyou carefully chewed her food as she reflected on my words.
"Isn't that a bad thing?" I shot back, startled that it didn't seem like a great deal to her.
"Why would it be? Of course you don't want to make the same mistake as your father did. If anything, that's good."
"But isn't it selfish of me to want Ushio for a reason like that?"
"A little bit, I guess. Isn't it more important that you want to be a part of your daughter's life? Especially when not too long ago you wanted nothing to do with her?"
I sat back and let her questions sink in.
Was I just overthinking things?
"Let me put it this way," continued Kyou. "You want to have custody over Ushio because you don't want to be a bad father. That alone is enough. It doesn't matter if you had problems with your own dad."
"Even if I'm trying to make up for it by being there for Ushio?"
Kyou put down her chopsticks and sighed.
"You're really overcomplicating things right now, Tomoya. That's just extra reinforcement to take proper care of your daughter. If anything it sounds like you're trying to deal with a whole other problem at the same time. Focus on one thing for now. That's an issue for another time."
"I guess I really am just overthinking."
Maybe that's what Tomoyo meant when she brought it up. The fact that I had more going on than just Ushio.
A sense of relief flooded my body.
"Sensei, is that your husband?" piped a small girl peeping her head from behind the door leading to the playground.
Kyou turned into a tomato from her cheeks being filled with food.
I did my best to hold my laughter in.
My very best.
"No, he's just a very good friend, Nanako-chan," she managed to reply.
"Does that mean he's your lover?" asked another girl, popping out from behind the one named Nanako.
Kyou might have choked to death if she had been chewing.
"Where did you learn that word?!"
"Hey big bro, are you two really lovers?" asked a boy who had come to see what the commotion was.
I looked over at Kyou to see how I should respond, but she seemed to be lost in the moment as well.
Almost immediately the rest of the class came flooding in and surrounded us, bombarding us with questions.
"Have you two kissed already?"
"What's your name, sensei's lover?"
"Do you live with sensei?"
"How come sensei never talks about you?"
"Okay, everyone!" exclaimed Kyou trying to reestablish order. "What happened to playtime? Do you all want to come back into the classroom already?"
The girl named Nanako answered for the group.
"We just wanted to meet your lover, sensei."
"Yes, Fujibayashi-sensei, I think that's a very nice idea."
The entire class turned to the door where Kyou's teacher was standing and observing them. She was a very small woman, but she carried herself nearly a head higher. There was something vastly intimidating about her. Even I nearly broke out into a nervous sweat, I couldn't begin to imagine what was going through Kyou's mind.
"Kimura-sensei, I- it wasn't supposed to happen like this..."
If only to make things more confusing than it already was, Kimura-sensei began to laugh with her hand covering her mouth.
"I'm not angry, Fujibayashi-sensei," she said after her fit of laughter. "It wouldn't be the first time a teacher was visited by their boyfriend or husband at work."
Kyou let out a lengthy sigh of relief and Kimura-sensei immediately became much more approachable. Figuring this would be the appropriate time to do so, I went ahead and introduced myself to the gathering crowd.
"Well, I'm Okazaki Tomoya. Nice to meet all of you."
"Are you going to marry Fujibayashi-sensei?" immediately shot out from the crowd and soon became demanded by the other children.
Kyou just buried her face into her hands from embarrassment and Kimura-sensei seemed to be getting a kick out of our lunchtime mishap.
"I would very much like to someday," I replied as boldly as I could. "That is if she'll have me."
"Will you marry him, Fujibayashi-sensei?" came the next question from the group.
A muffled yes slipped out from between Kyou's covering hands.
Almost immediately the students began loudly delegating wedding responsibilities amongst themselves. In a matter of minutes, Kyou and I had every role but the priest fulfilled.
"Alright children, give the newly wed couple some time alone," teased Kimura-sensei as she ushered the children back into the playground.
"I'm so mortified," moaned Kyou as soon as the last child left.
I sat back down and laughed quietly to myself.
"Okazaki-kun, was it?" asked Kimura-sensei.
"Well, Okazaki-kun, don't go breaking her heart now."
I rolled over onto my opposite side for the fifth time tonight struggling to find a comfortable position to sleep in. The thought of what lay in store tomorrow had been keeping me awake. Tomoyo's speculations weren't helping much either.
"Too anxious to get any sleep?" asked Kyou who was lying down beside me.
She turned around to face me, her expression softly illuminated by the moonlight slipping between the breaks in the curtains.
"I guess so. Way too many things going on in this head of mine."
"Want to talk about it?"
"Anything better to do at," I briefly glanced at the clock, "one thirty eight in the morning?"
Kyou smiled and put her hand on my cheek.
"So what's on your mind right now?"
"Mainly what Tomoyo said about how Ushio won't solve the problems between me and my dad. I get that, but now I'm wondering if that's really what I've been doing all along – trying to atone for my own issues. Furthermore, unlike vying for custody over Ushio, I can't simply just fix things with my dad."
"Well, that is a lot going on for nearly two in the morning," she replied, moving her hand from my cheek to my chest. "I don't know what your circumstances are, but I'm guessing you can't talk it out with him, huh?"
"Not at all."
"Would you be okay with telling me what happened between you two?"
I quickly gave the question some thought.
Usually I try to ignore these questions, but tonight I need to get these worries off my chest. Maybe talking it out for once might help.
"I don't mind," I replied as I ran my fingers through locks of her hair. "It might be easier to start with what you do know."
"I know your mom passed away when you were really little. And that since then you and your dad stopped getting along."
Kyou gingerly massaged my right shoulder.
I slowly took a deep breath, held it in for a few seconds, and exhaled as memories of my youth slowly awoke from their long slumber.
"I guess I'll start from the beginning," I said after taking a few moments to organize my thoughts. "So my mom died in a car accident when I was about nine. I had begged her to take me to the toy store that day while my dad was at work. She finally gave in to my constant pestering and we took the car instead of the train. On the way back home, a drunk driver ran a redlight and struck the driver's side of our car. I wasn't injured badly, but my mom was."
Kyou murmured under her breath and cupped her lips with a hand.
"We made it all the way to the operation room at the old hospital. I remember just sitting outside the doors waiting for what felt like forever. And then the doctor came out to tell me my mom didn't make it. I think my mind was still in so much shock from the collision that the news of my mom's death didn't click at first. It was so surreal.
"Maybe ten minutes later my father arrived and received the news from the doctor. I'd never seen him cry before, but he broke down that moment and began sobbing on the floor.
"He fell into alcoholism and depression soon after that. After a while he started to blame me deep down for her death. He would never say it to my face, but I could see it in the way he looked at or talked to me. Then one day I couldn't take it anymore. We got into a fight and I started yelling back at him while he was drunk.
"At some point I was so angry I picked up a nearby empty bottle of sake he had been drinking. I don't know what I was thinking. I wasn't going to hit him with it or anything, but things got out of control so fast. He grabbed me and tried to wrestle the bottle out of my hands. When I refused to let go, he threw me against the wall and I hit it just the right way to dislocate my shoulder.
"We went to the hospital and found out that I had permanent damage to my rotator cuff due to a tear. I told the doctor I had fallen, but he didn't believe my story. After that me and my dad stopped fighting or talking. He continued to drink, but he no longer took out his anger on me. That's, uh, pretty much everything."
I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling fan slowly revolving above us. A steady pressure pushed down on my chest. It was for this reason that I tucked away those memories far back into my mind. It hurt too much to think about the past.
Kyou shifted herself on top of me and pressed her lips against mine as she ran her fingers through my hair.
"Why are you such a mess, Tomoya?" she cooed.
"Because I need someone like you in my life to help pick up the pieces."
I pulled Kyou back into my embrace and kissed her.
"Hey," she interjected, pulling away for a moment, "thank you for telling me. I know it was a very personal thing to ask about."
"Don't worry. It's probably better that I talk about it anyway. We should get some sleep though."
"Yeah, it's pretty late and we have a big day tomorrow."
Kyou quickly pecked me on the lips before returning back to her side of the futon, careful not to release my embrace.
"Sweet dreams, dear."
"Good night, dearest."
"I think I'm going to throw up."
Kyou stopped and turned around with a frustrated glare.
"You've been saying that the entire way over here Tomoya, get away from the bike and come on. I'm not letting you go home now that we've come this far."
I groaned and shuffled slowly over towards her.
"You're only saying that cause you spent like two hours making yourself pretty."
"Of course. I can't have myself looking like a hot mess for something like this," she replied with a satisfied smile. "Anyway, the place is just right there. Fix yourself up already."
I adjusted the tie Kyou forced me to put on and centered it on the gray oxford shirt she had also purchased for me. Apparently my efforts weren't good enough since she proceeded to fix it for me immediately after I touched them.
"You're welcome. Stop being so nervous Tomoya, it will be okay."
"Aren't you worried even a little bit?"
"Of course I am, but we both can't be a mess. I'll at least pretend to be brave until we get to the door. I can't promise you any further."
Kyou gave me her most courageous smile.
"I guess that means I'll be carrying once we get inside," I chuckled while stepping up to the plate emotionally. "I'll try not to mess up."
The chime of the bell echoed through the store front as we entered through the door. All of the pastries and breads were already removed from the shelves as it was past store hours. The store was deliberatey left unlocked for our arrival. Regardless of our expectance, I gave the common courtesies of entering someone else's home.
"Tomoya, feel free to let yourself in and sit down, I'm tending to the food and Akio is still upstairs changing Ushio," called Sanae from the kitchen.
Kyou followed me into the small living room which doubled as their dining room. The familiar surroundings that I had grown accustomed to during my time here no longer provided the comfort it once did. In particular, the addition of Nagisa's portrait within their shrine sent chills down my back. I took my seat at the table facing away from it with Kyou doing the same.
Akio was the first to enter the room.
"Yo," he greeted with a simple hand gesture while the other supported Ushio in the cradle of his arm.
His eyes almost instantly diverted to Kyou then quickly back to me. It appeared that he was made aware by Sanae that Kyou would be visiting. Despite the heads up, he didn't seem pleased whatsoever and the mood of the room shifted drastically. I could see that the change in atmosphere weighed heavily on Kyou's shoulders. Sanae had played off her visitation lightly but Akio was nearly the complete opposite. Nevertheless, the brunt of his disappointment seemed to be directed towards me.
"It's been a while, Akio-san."
"I don't like it when you call me pops, you know, but I hate that even more."
"Dear, you know he's just being polite," interjected Sanae who had just come from the kitchen with the rice cooker in hand. "Give Ushio to Tomoya and help me set the table."
Akio complied and gently handed over a napping Ushio to me before returning to the kitchen with Sanae to bring the dishes in.
It was the only difference between her and her mom.
Kyou leaned over to take a peek at Ushio as well while the rest of the dishes were placed upon the table. Soon everything was set and we all gathered around. I turned over Ushio to Sanae who rested her on her lap so that I could introduce my guest.
"So, everyone, this is Fujibayashi Kyou."
"Pleased to meet you," she continued.
"I think we have already met once before. At the baseball game a few years ago, right Kyou-chan?" asked Sanae.
"Yes, I wasn't sure if you remembered me. Thank you for having me over for dinner."
"You are very welcome," replied Sanae with a smile.
A sense of relief washed over me.
We each took our turn to help ourselves to dinner with the exception of Sanae whose second hand was occupied with Ushio; Akio and I helped with her portion.
Everything was going surprisingly well despite the initial atmosphere. I was worried that things would be bad from the get-go. As long as Akio warms up we might be successful.
And with that thought, Akio finally broke his silence.
"So Tomoya – and don't take any offense by this, Kyou – but why are you suddenly showing up with an old classmate of yours?"
I swallowed the food I had been chewing.
Akio already had his presumptions about what Kyou was to me, that much I was certain of. I'm also sure that Sanae kept her word and didn't tell him, but it doesn't take much to figure out what it means when a guy brings a girl with him in a situation like this. It's obviously not just for moral support.
"I guess it's best to get these things out of the way in the beginning, then." I cleared my throat and looked Akio squarely in the eyes. "Kyou and I are dating."
"Like I was saying– why are you suddenly showing up with her?" he fiercely clarified.
Akio's food remained untouched.
"I felt that it was the proper thing to do now that I've recovered. If it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here today having dinner with all of you."
"I'm glad you're better now, Tomoya, but I still don't understand why you decided to bring her here."
"If she and I weren't dating you wouldn't have an issue, would you?"
"Of course not! I don't know about you, but I have trouble keeping up my appetite when my daughter's shrine is in the same room with the woman you're replacing her with!"
We both jutted back from the table and jumped to our feet.
At that instant Ushio began to cry.
"Akio!" exclaimed Sanae who was now tending to her.
"I'm not trying to replace Nagisa! If that's what I wanted I never would have came back in the first place!"
"Tomoya! Your daughter!" urged Kyou trying to keep us from yelling.
I couldn't help but continue to yell back at him.
"I wanted to prove to all of you that I'm a better man now! If I just wanted to replace Nagisa I wouldn't be here to ask for my daughter back!"
"What do you mean ask for her back?! You think you can just waltz in here and take her like we're some babysitting program?!"
"I have as much right as you do to have Ushio! Don't give me that bullshit!"
"You took away my daughter and now you're trying to take away my granddaughter! Don't you fucking dare!"
"Fuck you! I never wanted her to die!"
I swung at Akio with my better arm.
Akio blocked my fist and threw one in my direction, connecting with the side of my face on the cheekbone.
I hit the ground and scrambled to lunge back at him as he readied his fists for another round.
Sanae jumped in front of Akio while holding Ushio who was now red and screaming at the top of her lungs. Kyou almost tackled me back onto the ground trying to stop me.
Both of them had tear-filled eyes from the sight of us fighting.
"He's your son Akio! Why are you treating him like this?! It's not his fault why Nagisa isn't here anymore!"
Akio fell to his knees while clutching his head. A line of blood streamed from where his knuckle split when it hit me.
"I know that! I know..."
Sanae dropped down to hug him with her free arm and began to sob beside him.
I touched the part of my face that stung then looked at my fingers which were streaked with blood. Kyou hastily grabbed a napkin and applied it to where my cheek hurt.
The violet of her eyes was a sea of guilt and turmoil.
"It's not your fault," I tried convincing her, but she only shook her head at me with tears freely flowing.
This scene of misery lasted for what felt like an eternity.
Nothing was going right.
Not at all.
"I'm so sorry," I apologized. "I shouldn't have been so selfish to ask for Ushio back after all that's happened. I'll see myself out. Thank you for dinner. Don't worry about me bothering you anymore."
I managed to stand up on my own and helped Kyou to her feet.
"No, Tomoya, wait! Please don't disappear again," begged Sanae as she struggled to get to her feet. "We're a family... you can't just disappear."
"Tell Ushio that her father is sorry. She'll understand someday that you were the right parents. Not me."
I tried to walk out but Kyou refused to leave her spot.
"I—I know I'm at fault here and that I have no right to talk, but why does it have to be one or the other? Why can't Ushio be shared?"
It was a sobering suggestion.
There was no reason why we each had to exclusively have Ushio. We were just being uncompromising and narrow-minded after losing Nagisa so suddenly. The possibility was always there but neither of us considered it, regardless of how simple the solution was.
I went to where Sanae and Akio were standing and helped them onto their feet. Sanae smiled at me with her face red and puffy from the tears while Akio sheepishly avoided eye contact.
"Uh," I began, equally embarrassed, "could we try this again?"
So some people asked if I was dead. I am actually. I'm posting this from the afterlife. Internet connection drops pretty often here.
Really though, I'd like to first apologize about the chapter delay. I wasn't expecting to take this long, but things got in the way here and there. And then I got multiple messages about me being dead/inactive, which is pretty much synonymous on the internet.
Long story short: I forced myself to sit down and actually write this chapter. A real bonafide one into which I poured my heart out like a writer should.
So thank you for reading! Especially after waiting for many months for an update, I hope this one makes up for it!
As usual, direct all your anger and love to my inbox!
jukkou, less than 3!
P.S. I can't be the only one laughing about the quality of writing changes over the chapters.