"Good morning, Moriguchi-san," Kounodori said as his patient walked through the door, then looked up in surprise when he saw that she was accompanied by an older couple instead of her husband. Many expectant mothers often came to their appointments alone because their husband were busy with work, but Moriguchi Keita had always made the time to come with Youko on each visit. He was a doting husband who seemed head-over-heels for his wife, and he was naturally anxious about both her health and the baby's, since Youko had suffered several miscarriages in the past.
But her pregnancy had been stable now for almost eight months, and Youko looked cheerful and confident as she said, "Keita had an important business meeting that he couldn't miss. So my parents came all the way out from Chiba to be with me, even though I told them that I'm fine."
"This is our first grandchild," Youko's father protested. "Surely we're entitled to make a bit of a fuss over it. Besides, now that I'm retired, Mieko and I have plenty of free time to visit our daughter." He smiled as if he were joking, but Kounodori could see concern in his eyes, as if he were also remembering Youko's miscarriages.
"Thank you for looking after Youko," Mieko said with a polite bow. She was more reserved in comparison with her daughter's exuberant personality, but her thanks seemed warm and sincere all the same. "I'm Katou Mieko, Youko's mother."
"Katou Hiroshi," Youko's father introduced himself. "We're grateful that you've been taking such good care of Youko."
"It's my pleasure. I'm Kounodori."
"Kounodori?" Hiroshi echoed in surprise, leaning forward to take a closer look at him.
"What is it, Dad?" Youko asked. "Have the two of you met before?"
"No, it's nothing," Hiroshi replied, looking slightly flustered. "I used to know someone named Kounodori a long time ago, so I was just surprised to hear that name. But I'm sure it's just a coincidence."
"It's not a common name," Youko disagreed. "What's your friend's full name? Maybe Kounodori-sensei is related to him."
"Not a friend, really, just an acquaintance," Hiroshi said hastily. "Years ago, before you were even born, I was transferred to a branch office in Hokkaido. There was a bar that my colleagues and I used to go to after work sometimes, and the piano player there was named Kounodori."
It was only recently that he had learned about his mother's background, and Kounodori said hesitantly, "I'm told that my mother used to work at a piano bar in Sapporo." Keiko-mama had told him that his father was a businessman from Tokyo but surely it wasn't possible that Youko's father...
"Oho!" Youko laughed. "Dad, were you carousing at bars and flirting with pretty piano players while Mom was waiting for you at home?"
Mieko laughed as well, but it seemed slightly forced--or maybe that was just Kounodori's overactive imagination, since Youko didn't seem to sense anything amiss.
"It wasn't that kind of bar," Hiroshi protested. "It was more a 'have a glass of wine while listening to classical and jazz piano' place, not a hostess bar. If Kounodori-san is your mother, Sensei, she played beautiful music. It's been a long time since I last saw her, though. I was called back to our headquarters in Tokyo after a year, then eventually transferred to Chiba where Youko was born."
"You should ask your mother if she remembers Dad, Sensei," Youko. "What a coincidence that would be!"
"My mother passed away when I was very young, so I'm afraid that's not possible," Kounodori said gently.
"I'm so sorry!" Youko exclaimed, looking mortified. "I shouldn't have asked."
"There's no way you could have known," Kounodori said kindly.
"Still, I apologize for bringing up such a painful subject," Youko said. "And I'm very sorry about your mother."
Kounodori smiled at her reassuringly. "There's no need to apologize. I was just a baby when my mother died, so I was too young to really mourn for her, though of course I'm grateful to her for giving me life. I was raised with great love by foster mothers at the infant home and orphanage where I grew up, so I never felt as if I lacked for anything."
As a child who was often teased or bullied by classmates because he lived at an orphanage, Kounodori had sometimes keenly felt the lack of a father and birth mother. But it was also true that Kagami-sensei and Keiko-mama had loved him dearly and raised him with as much care as his own mother would have if she had lived. As an adult now, he had no regrets about his childhood, so his words to Youko were not really a lie.
Youko smiled back at him, but still seemed a bit worried, so Kounodori decided to move past the awkward moment by saying briskly, "Well then, shall we get started on your exam, Moriguchi-san?"
"Yes, of course," Youko replied, looking grateful for the change of subject.
"I'll wait outside," said Hiroshi, rising to his feet. "It was good to meet you, Sensei."
"Likewise," Kounodori said, and Hiroshi left, glancing back at Kounodori one last time before closing the door behind him.
Or maybe he had been looking at Youko, which made much more sense. At least, that was what Kounodori tried to tell himself, but he couldn't shake the feeling that Hiroshi's gaze had been directed towards him instead.
He brushed off that uneasy feeling and focused his attention where it belonged, on his patient. Mieko remained with her daughter, and exclaimed with awe and delight at the ultrasound image of the baby as it moved in Youko's womb.
"He's very active today," Youko laughed. "He must be excited by all the attention he's getting."
"And the baby is healthy?" Mieko asked anxiously.
"Mom, I'm fine," Youko said, patting her mother's hand.
"I'm supposed to be reassuring you, dear, not the other way around," Mieko said ruefully. "It's just that after the previous miscarriages..."
"Both Moriguchi-san and the baby are doing very well," Kounodori assured her. "We'll continue to monitor their condition carefully, of course, but so far they are both in good health."
"We've come this far, Mom--I'm almost in the home stretch," Youko said. "There's no need to worry, right, Sensei?"
"We always have to be prepared for the unexpected with any pregnancy," Kounodori gently reminded her. "But so far everything is going smoothly, and I'm confident we'll be able to deliver your baby safely."
"I know I can't take anything for granted," Youko said. "And honestly, I am still nervous even though everything's going well. But I know it's not good for the baby if I worry too much, and you told me to try to relax, so I've been listening to Baby's music a lot."
"Um...'Baby'?" Kounodori asked, suddenly nervous himself, although he tried to maintain his composure.
"He's a pianist who's really popular with expectant mothers," Youko said cheerfully. "Partly because of his name, but also because his music is so...it's hard to explain, but I find it really comforting and soothing. When I'm feeling scared or depressed, it makes me feel like everything will be okay."
"Youko," Mieko said softly, reaching out to take her daughter's hand.
Youko squeezed her hand back and smiled, then continued, "Oh, and Baby is famous for being really mysterious, too. No one knows his real name, and you never know how long his live shows will last. Sometimes he'll play a full set and encore, but sometimes he'll suddenly leave after just a few songs."
"Don't his fans feel cheated?" Mieko asked, as Kounodori started coughing.
"That's part of the excitement--that you never know what's going to happen!" Youko replied. "Are you all right, Sensei?"
"Yes, I'm fine," Kounodori said hastily. "Just a little frog in my throat. We're just about done here. Do you have any questions or concerns, Moriguchi-san?" Kounodori asked.
"No, I feel fine--other than feeling as huge as a whale and having to pee every five minutes," Youko replied.
"Youko!" Mieko scolded, but there was a note of affection and amusement in her voice.
Kounodori chuckled and said, "That's perfectly normal. You can get dressed and I'll see you next week. But feel free to call if you have any concerns before then."
"Oh, I do have one more thing I meant to ask," Youko said. "Keita managed to get tickets for a Baby concert, a little more than a week from now. It's okay if I go, right? Of course I won't drink any alcohol."
Kounodori had never planned to market his music to pregnant women, but somehow they had turned out to make up a significant portion of his fans. He was glad if his music was able to help them in some small way, but it did make it difficult for him to remain incognito when so many of his patients tended to show up in the audience.
But Youko was clearly excited about the upcoming concert, and she deserved some happiness after the suffering she'd gone through with the miscarriages and the fear she'd felt while carrying this baby. So Kounodori smiled and said, "It's fine. I hope you enjoy the show." And he silently prayed that he would be able to get through it without being interrupted by an emergency call for once.
After Youko and her parents left, Kounodori had some time before his next patient was due to arrive. He stepped outside for some privacy, and called Keiko.
"Sakura, how nice to hear from you," Keiko said warmly. She had raised all the children at the orphanage with motherly care, but Kounodori felt a special connection with her. Most of the other children had eventually been adopted or claimed by relatives, but Kounodori had no relatives that anyone could find, and no one had wanted to adopt a sickly child who suffered from asthma.
He'd felt hurt and rejected when he was young, of course, but now he felt lucky that he'd been able to stay with Keiko and remain one of her children for almost all of his life--from the age of three to the present day. Because even when he became an adult and left the orphanage, Keiko promised him that she would always be his mother.
She had been true to her word. They continued to stay in touch after Kounodori left the orphanage, and she had encouraged him to attend university and achieve his dream of becoming a doctor. To this day, they were still close, and he still called her "Keiko-mama," as he had when he'd been a child.
"Keiko-mama, do you remember that you said I could ask you about my father if I wanted?" Kounodori asked. His mother had died of cancer not long after he was born, and had left behind little information about her family or the identity of his father. Unbeknownst to Kounodori, Keiko had spent years researching his mother's background, and her efforts had recently paid off.
She'd found out that Kounodori Sachiko had worked in a piano bar in Sapporo, where she'd fallen in love with a married businessman from Tokyo. They broke up when he was transferred back to Tokyo, and it was only later that Sachiko had found out that she was pregnant. Not wanting to cause trouble for her lover and his family, Sachiko had decided not to contact him and to raise the baby on her own.
Unfortunately, she hadn't been able to raise him after all, but Kounodori knew without a doubt that she had loved him. She had refused cancer treatment that might have harmed her unborn child, sacrificing her own life for his. It was that sacrifice that had inspired him to become a doctor that would help mothers safely bring their babies into the world.
"Of course I remember," Keiko said. "Have you changed your mind?" She had offered to help him contact his father, but he had refused. He had all the family he needed in Keiko-mama and his friends at Persona Hospital, and like his mother, he had no desire to make trouble for his father's family.
"No," Kounodori replied. "I still don't intend to contact him, but I'd like to know his name."
"Did something happen, Sakura?" Keiko asked.
"Not exactly," Kounodori said evasively. "I'm not sure, but I might have met someone who knew my mother back in Sapporo." Technically, he wasn't lying--Katou Hiroshi might simply have been a customer who admired Sachiko's music, and he had no proof that Hiroshi was his father. But Kounodori still felt a twinge of guilt for not telling Keiko about his suspicions.
"Hmmm," Keiko said thoughtfully, in the same tone of voice she had used at the orphanage when she suspected he hadn't been telling her the whole truth. Kounodori supposed that it must be a mother's instinct.
After a silence that lasted too long for Kounodori's comfort, Keiko finally said, "All right. His name is Katou Hiroshi."
Kounodori nearly dropped his phone, although at the same time, he wasn't really surprised. And now that he knew the truth, what was he supposed to do? He had no desire to announce himself and drop a bombshell on Hiroshi's family that could tear it apart, or at the very least, cause a lot of pain and confusion. Especially since he genuinely liked Youko, even if it wouldn't have been extremely unprofessional to suddenly tell a patient that he was her half-brother.
He didn't know why he had asked Keiko for his father's name, except that he had an irrational need to know whether his hunch had been right or not. He had wanted to know the truth, even if no one else ever did.
"Sakura?" Keiko asked in a worried voice.
"I'm fine, Keiko-mama," Kounodori said, trying to sound upbeat. "Thank you for telling me."
"I've heard that he moved from Tokyo to Chiba, and is retired now," Keiko said, still sounding concerned. "I don't have his home address, but--"
"It's all right, Keiko-mama," Kounodori interrupted. "I told you, I don't intend to contact him. It's enough for me just to know his name."
"You know, Sakura, you don't need to hold back if you want to meet him," Keiko said.
"I don't want to make any trouble for him or his family," Kounodori said.
Keiko sighed and said, "Sakura-chan, you've always been so kind and concerned about others. It's okay to put yourself first once in awhile."
"Even if he has a wife and children who might be hurt to find out he has a son from another relationship?" Kounodori asked.
"Even so," Keiko said firmly. "You are his child, too, Sakura. You have the right to meet him if you want."
"He might not want to meet me," Kounodori said.
"That's true, and of course you'd have to be prepared for the possibility that you won't be met with open arms," Keiko replied. "But on the other hand, your father might be glad to meet you, and to know that a part of Sachiko lives on in you." When Kounodori was silent, Keiko said, "Well, think about it, Sakura. You don't have to decide right away." Then she added in a more lighthearted tone, "But don't wait too long! Remember that I'm not a spring chicken and I won't be around forever."
Kounodori knew she meant it as a joke, but her word were true all the same, and he wished that she really could live forever. But of course that was impossible, so all he said was, "Yes, Keiko-mama."
They chatted about inconsequential things for a few more minutes before hanging up. Despite what Kounodori had told Keiko, he still had no intention of revealing his identity to Katou Hiroshi. It was enough for him to know that his father seemed to be a good man, and he didn't want to risk breaking up Hiroshi's happy family.
Despite his good intentions, Kounodori received an unexpected visitor a few days later.
"Katou-san," he said in surprise. "Moriguchi-san doesn't have an appointment scheduled today. Is everything all right?"
"Youko is fine," Hiroshi said. "She's at home with her mother. I'm sorry to bother you, Sensei, but...could I speak to you in private, please?"
"Of course," Kounodori said, trying to keep a calm, professional smile on his face to hide the sudden rush of emotion that he felt. He wasn't sure if it was excitement or nervousness--or maybe it was both. In spite of what he'd told Keiko, part of him did want to meet his father.
Kounodori glanced around, noting that there were too many people around in the reception area to have a personal conversation without being overheard. The doctors' lounge and the examination room were out of the question, too, especially since his midwife friend Komatsu was on duty right now.
She was a dear friend and he would trust her with his life, but not with a secret like this. She wouldn't gossip about it, but she she had a habit of meddling in her friends' personal lives--all for their own good, of course. Kounodori wasn't quite sure how Komatsu would react if she found out that Hiroshi was his father. She might chew Hiroshi out for abandoning his son (never mind that he didn't even know that he'd had one), or she might try to arrange a family reunion. But he was quite sure that she would never just settle for ignoring the situation and pretending that he and Hiroshi were still strangers.
Even though they were, really. Kounodori knew better than anyone that blood alone did not make a family. Keiko-mama was his mother in every way that mattered. He had also met adoptive parents who cherished their children as much as any mother who had given birth. So just because he and Hiroshi were related by blood, it didn't necessarily mean that they could or should bond as father and son.
Of course, he could be jumping to conclusions. Maybe Hiroshi just wanted to discuss some concerns about Youko's health. But just in case, Kounodori said, "Let's take a walk outside."
There was an outdoor courtyard where patients and visitors could enjoy some fresh air and greenery. Fortunately, it was not particularly crowded at the moment, and they were able to find a bench with no one within earshot.
"So what can I do for you, Katou-san?" Kounodori asked, deciding to let the other man make the first move, if indeed there was one to be made.
"I'm sorry to ask such a rude question, Kounodori-sensei," Hiroshi said. "But I noticed that you go by your mother's family name. I assume that means Sachiko-san wasn't married when she died?"
"That's correct," Kounodori replied. "She came to the hospital--this hospital, as a matter of fact--as a single mother. She never told the staff anything about my father. All she said was that she was determined to name her child 'Sakura' whether it was a boy or a girl." He smiled at the story related to him by Keiko. "I'm told that she said, 'Even if sakura falls, it will bloom again next year. Life is like that.'"
Hiroshi smiled sadly and said, "I remember her saying that sakura blossoms were her favorite flower. May I ask how she died?"
"She was diagnosed with cancer during a prenatal checkup," Kounodori said quietly. "She decided not to get treatment for it, since chemotherapy or radiation would have harmed her unborn child." He wondered then if his father might resent him for causing his mother's death.
But that sad smile remained on Hiroshi's face as he sighed and said, "Yes, that sounds like Sachiko."
Kounodori noticed that he'd dropped the honorific from her name, and although he already knew the answer, he asked, "So you were close to my mother?"
"I'm afraid that I lied the other day," Hiroshi replied. "About Sachiko only being an acquaintance, that is. I didn't want to hurt my wife and daughter--or perhaps I was simply being a coward." His smile turned rueful. "I fell in love with her music first, and then with Sachiko herself. Mieko and I were going through a difficult time in our marriage, but that's no excuse."
"I'm not judging you," Kounodori said gently. "Will you tell me how you and my mother met?"
"It started off as I told Youko, with me going to the piano bar after work with some of my coworkers," Hiroshi said. "The reason that Mieko and I were having problems was because we'd lost our first child--a miscarriage, like the ones Youko had in the past."
"I'm sure that must have been difficult," Kounodori said. "For you and your wife, and later, to see how much your daughter suffered." The hardest part of his job as a doctor was being unable to save a baby, but he knew that his own pain couldn't begin to compare to the grief the parents felt at losing their precious child.
"It was," Hiroshi said, the painful memories clouding his face. "My wife and I just didn't know how to get past our grief. People would say trite things like 'time heals all wounds,' but it didn't. Mieko cried every day and I didn't know how to comfort her. When the transfer to Sapporo came up, I was secretly relieved. My boss knew that we'd lost a child and I think he would have understood if I'd said that I couldn't leave my wife. But it was a chance for me to run away from my problems, so I didn't. And Mieko didn't offer to move to Sapporo with me, so perhaps she wanted time apart from me as well. Or maybe that's how I justified it to myself.
"But of course I couldn't really outrun my grief. Moving to Sapporo didn't make me forget about my son who never had a chance to be born. His name was supposed to be 'Yousuke'."
"The same 'You' as in 'Youko'?" Kounodori asked, and the remembered pain on Hiroshi's face eased at the mention of his daughter as he nodded.
"We went Sachiko's bar one night after work, and her music was just so...comforting," Hiroshi said, unknowingly echoing what Youko had said about Baby's music. "It didn't make my sadness disappear, of course, but somehow her music eased it slightly and made it bearable. I kept going back there, and I started talking to her between sets and...well, one thing led to another."
He looked directly into Kounodori's eyes and continued, "I want you to know that it wasn't a casual fling for either of us. It was wrong to cheat on my wife, and it was unfair to both Mieko and Sachiko...but I did genuinely love her, even though we were only together for a short time."
Kounodori just nodded, not sure what to say. It wasn't as if he condoned infidelity, but on the other hand, he wouldn't exist if his mother and Hiroshi hadn't gotten together.
Hiroshi took a deep breath, then said, "I know I have no right to ask such a question since I left Sachiko years ago." He paused, as if waiting for permission, and Kounodori nodded at him to continue. "Given the circumstances, and judging by your age...you are my son, aren't you, Kounodori-sensei?"
"Yes," Kounodori replied quietly. "As I said, my mother didn't tell the hospital anything about my father. Keiko-mama, my mother at the orphanage, spent years trying to find out more information about my parents. It was only recently that she found someone in Sapporo who knew about her relationship with you."
"She never told me that she was pregnant," Hiroshi said.
"She didn't find out until after you left," Kounodori replied.
"But she never contacted me, even after she knew she was sick and there was no one to look after the child...to look after you," Hiroshi said, looking distressed. "I know these must sound like empty words, but if I'd known..."
"She didn't want to break up your family," Kounodori interrupted in a gentle voice. "And neither do I. It was enough for me to just to know how my parents met and whom my father was. I never intended to approach you, and it was a shock to me that you turned out to be the father of one of my patients."
"I'm sorry," Hiroshi said. "I'm truly sorry that I wasn't there for you or your mother when you needed me. I'm sorry that you had to grow up alone."
Kounodori shook his head and said with a smile, "But I wasn't alone. I had Kagami-sensei, who raised me at the infant home until I was three, and after that I had Keiko-mama, who is still my mother today. I have Ken-chan, who grew up with me at the orphanage and is like a brother to me. And I have my friends here at Persona, including the Director who watched over me and encouraged me to go to medical school and achieve my dream of being a doctor."
Seeing that Hiroshi still looked doubtful, Kounodori said, "I won't say that it was always easy growing up at the orphanage, or that I didn't wonder why my father wasn't there to take care of me. But overall, I grew up feeling happy and loved, and I have no regrets now about the life I've led."
"I'm glad," Hiroshi said, looking relieved though not entirely absolved of his guilt.
Kounodori hesitated, then decided to go ahead and ask what was on his mind. After all, they had already revealed their secrets and he might not have another chance. "If I might be rude and ask a personal question of my own?"
"Of course," Hiroshi replied. "It's not rude--you of all people certainly have the right."
"You said that your marriage was troubled when you came to Sapporo," Kounodori said. "But you and your wife seemed happy together and Moriguchi-san has said several times that she wants to create a happy family like the one that she was raised in. Were you able to work things out?"
"Yes," Hiroshi said. "When I got back home, Mieko and I were able to talk, really talk about losing Yousuke. We let ourselves grieve for him and the life we had planned instead of trying to force ourselves to 'move on'. In a strange way, it's because of the time I spent with Sachiko that I had begun to heal and was able reach out to Mieko."
Hiroshi glanced at Kounodori, looking worried that he might be offended, but Kounodori just smiled and said sincerely, "I'm glad."
"Not long after that, I was transferred again, this time to Chiba," Hiroshi continued. "We saw it as a chance to make a fresh start, so Mieko came with me. And eventually we were able to have children, Youko and her older brother Youji. We used one of the characters from Yousuke's name in theirs, so that we wouldn't forget him. I'd appreciate if you wouldn't mention that to Youko, though. We didn't want to burden the children by telling them that they had a brother who died, so they don't know about Yousuke."
Kounodori didn't think that it would have been a bad thing for the children to know about their deceased older brother and to honor his memory. He also noted that Hiroshi's affair wasn't the only secret that the family was concealing. But it wasn't his place to judge or criticize, so all he said was, "I understand."
The name of Youko's brother sounded vaguely familiar for some reason, but his attention was diverted when he glanced down at his watch.
"I'm sorry to interrupt our conversation," Kounodori said. "But I have an appointment with a patient in about ten minutes."
"I won't keep you any longer, then," Hiroshi said, rising to his feet, and Kounodori did likewise. "I'm glad that I had this chance to meet you and talk with you." He tentatively held out his hand, as if unsure that the gesture would be welcome.
"So am I," Kounodori said, clasping Hiroshi's hand firmly. It was a simple handshake that was over a few moments later, but he felt a surge of warmth at being able to hold his father's hand for the first time. It was something he had longed for as a young boy when he saw other children with their parents. This didn't quite match up with his childish fantasies of his long lost father coming to claim him at the orphanage, but it was enough for the adult Kounodori.
As Kounodori turned to leave, Hiroshi asked hesitantly, "Would it be possible to meet again sometime? Perhaps when we both have time for a more leisurely conversation?"
Then it was Kounodori's turn to hesitate, torn between his personal feelings and his duty towards his patient. "I'd like that, but...I'd feel guilty about seeing you behind Moriguchi-san's back."
"You're right; I wasn't thinking," Hiroshi said regretfully. "If we were to...to have a relationship as father and son, it would only be fair to tell Mieko and Youko, but--"
"But it wouldn't be good for Moriguchi-san to suffer any additional stress while she's pregnant," Kounodori finished for him. "She's been doing very well so far, but I don't want to be the cause of any risk, however small, to her and the baby. Besides, as I told you, I have no intention of causing any strife within your family. I don't expect you to acknowledge me as your son or introduce me to your family. It's enough for me that I was able to meet with you this once and hear about you and my mother."
Kounodori smiled reassuringly, but Hiroshi still looked troubled. "You deserve more, though," he said.
"I'm fine," Kounodori insisted.
Hiroshi sighed, not looking entirely convinced. "You're right, I shouldn't burden Youko with this right now. In the meantime, I'll take some time to think things over properly."
Slightly alarmed, Kounodori said, "You really don't need to do anything."
"You're a good man, Kounodori-sensei," Hiroshi said with a faint, slightly sad smile. "I wish I could say that I had something to do with that. Thank you for meeting me."
He bowed and left after that, and Kounodori had to struggle to pull himself together as he hurried to meet his patient. He couldn't afford to miss a potential health problem because he was distracted by his own personal issues.
It was difficult, but he managed to focus his attention on his current patient, who fortunately was in excellent health. After that, it was time for lunch, but he didn't feel up to making conversation with the other doctors in the staff room.
So he went up to the roof to be alone and mull things over--or to be more accurate, to brood about what Hiroshi might or might not do. He hated the idea of causing pain to Youko and her family, and moreover, it would be unprofessional to become entangled in a patient's personal life.
But on the other hand, it wasn't as if he had known that Youko's father was also his own when he'd taken her on as a patient. And in spite of what he'd told Hiroshi, Kounodori secretly did want more than a single conversation with his father.
He had meant it when he'd told Keiko-mama that he didn't need to meet his father. But that was before he'd actually met Hiroshi, and seen the warmth and affection between him and Youko. Of course he knew that he couldn't have the same sort of relationship that Hiroshi and Youko had, but was it selfish to wish for just a little bit of that affection for himself? Was it wrong to wonder what it would have been like to grow up in the Katou family along with Youko and her brother?
On the other hand, if Hiroshi had brought home an illegitimate child, his wife might well have divorced him, and Youko and Youji would never have been born. And besides, Kounodori couldn't imagine a life in which he'd never known Keiko-mama. He loved her dearly and wouldn't trade her for anything, not even a hypothetical life with his biological father.
Startled, Kounodori jumped slightly and turned to see who was addressing him.
"Oh, it's you, Shinomiya."
The usual stern look on his friend's face had been replaced with one of concern. "What are you doing up here?" Shinomiya asked.
"Nothing much, just thinking," Kounodori replied.
"Doesn't look like it's nothing," Shinomiya said skeptically. He reached into the pockets of his lab coat and pulled out a small box of milk and a jam bun. "Here," he said gruffly, thrusting them at Kounodori.
In spite of his concerns, Kounodori had to smile. People often misunderstood Shinomiya, thinking him cold and uncaring, but Kounodori knew that if anything, the opposite was true and he cared too much. He kept up that stern demeanor in order to maintain an objective distance from his patients ever since one of them had died in surgery. It wasn't his fault, but no matter what Kounodori or anyone else said, he continued to blame himself.
The real Shinomiya was kind, and beneath the sarcasm and curtness, a bit softhearted, though he tried hard to hide it. When patients or other doctors complained about Shinomiya's bedside manner--or lack thereof--Kounodori wished that they could see the real Shinomiya. At the same time, Kounodori felt touched and pleased to be one of the few people that Shinomiya trusted enough to let his guard down with.
"I must look really bad for you to be so nice to me," Kounodori joked, taking the milk and bun.
"If you don't want them, I can always take them back," Shinomiya retorted, sounding more like his usual self, and Kounodori laughed.
"You can't take back a gift," he said, and settled down on a bench. Kounodori tore the wrapper off the bun and made a show of taking a big bite out of it.
"Hmph," Shinomiya snorted, but he looked relieved as he sat down beside Kounodori and took out another bun and milk. They munched and sipped their snacks in companionable silence for a few moments before Shinomiya asked, "So what's bothering you, Sakura?"
"Why would you think something's bothering me?" Kounodori asked.
"Because you're a lousy liar," Shinomiya replied. "You've been brooding about something the past few days, and you didn't even notice that Komatsu ate the yakisoba you were saving for lunch."
"Again?" Kounodori groaned in mock dismay. "It's just not right to steal a man's yakisoba!"
"Sakura," Shinomiya said sternly.
So Kounodori gave in and explained what was going on. It was actually a relief to be able to talk to someone about it, and he knew that he could trust Shinomiya. If he thought Kounodori was doing something stupid or misguided, he'd say so in no uncertain terms, but he would keep their conversation a secret if Kounodori asked him to.
When Kounodori finished, Shinomiya looked thoughtful as he swallowed the last bite of his jam bun. "So what are you going to do?" he asked.
"Nothing," Kounodori replied. "I don't intend to cause any trouble for their family."
Shinomiya gave him a look that managed to be sympathetic and exasperated at the same time. "Sakura, there's such a thing as being too nice. It's okay to be selfish once in awhile, you know."
"Aren't you the one who's always telling me that I need to be more objective and not get too close to my patients?" Kounodori pointed out.
"He isn't your patient, he's your father," Shinomiya said impatiently. "Obviously, you shouldn't tell Moriguchi-san about it until after she's delivered." When Kounodori opened his mouth to protest further, Shinomiya added, "If Katou-san wants to tell his family about you, that is. If he wants to keep it a secret, that's between him and you. Either way, if you want to have a relationship with your father, you should. If you don't want to, then that's fine too, but don't hold back just because you're afraid of causing trouble for his family."
"But he has a wife and children," Kounodori argued. "What if his wife divorces him? What if--"
"Sakura," Shinomiya interrupted in a firm voice, reaching out to place his hands on Kounodori's shoulders. "You are also his child. You have the right to have a relationship with him, if that's what you want."
"I'm not sure what I want," Kounodori said, but that was a lie and he suspected Shinomiya knew that it was, too.
Shinomiya heaved a sigh of resignation and said, "If you're determined to be a martyr, then I can't stop you." But his hands squeezed Kounodori's shoulders gently before releasing them, belying his harsh words.
"Well, I've got to get back to work," Shinomiya said briskly, gathering up the empty bun wrappers and milk boxes.
"Thank you, Shinomiya," Kounodori called out as his friend turned to leave.
"It was just a jam bun and milk," Shinomiya replied, waving off his thanks with a dismissive gesture.
Kounodori just smiled, watching him walk away. Of course it was a lot more than that, but he knew that Shinomiya would never admit it.
Kounodori kept busy with his work and tried not to think about his father. At first he was relieved when Youko showed up for her next appointment with her husband instead of her parents, until he saw that she looked upset, her eyes red and puffy from crying.
"Moriguchi-san," he said with concern, "what's wrong?"
He expected her to describe some sort of discomfort or pain, perhaps warning signs of a potential miscarriage. Instead she said stiffly, "I would like a new doctor."
"Excuse me?" Kounodori asked in confusion.
"You heard me," Youko said angrily. "I want to switch to another doctor."
Her husband Keita looked uncomfortable and unhappy. He bowed and said, "I'm very sorry. I know this is sudden, but please honor her--our--request."
"If you would like to see another doctor, that is of course your right, Moriguchi-san," Kounodori said, trying to keep his voice calm and level. "But may I ask why?"
"You know why!" Youko cried. "Did you know about my father from the start? Is that why you took me on as a patient, to get close to him?"
"Youko!" Keita said reprovingly. "You know that Kounodori-sensei isn't like that."
Youko's eyes filled with tears then, and she said, "I'm sorry, Kounodori-sensei. I know it's not your fault. If anyone's to blame, it's my father. Or I suppose I should say, our father."
"You found out, then?" Kounodori asked, though the answer was obvious.
Youko nodded, gazing at him with a look of hurt and bewilderment that was harder to take than her anger. "I heard them arguing when they thought I was sleeping. My mom got suspicious after hearing Dad talking about knowing your mother in Sapporo, and then somehow she found out that he went to see you in secret. I don't understand--I always thought my parents had a happy marriage. I can't believe that he cheated on my mom and had a child with someone else."
"He didn't know about me," Kounodori said. "My mother never told him that she was pregnant. I swear to you that I didn't know that I had any connection to your father when I first met you, and had absolutely no intention of causing trouble for your family. I'm very sorry for any pain that I've caused you, and I promise not to have any contact with your father from now on."
Youko burst into tears, and Keita put an arm around her, trying to comfort her with a helpless look on his face. "I'm so sorry, Kounodori-sensei," she wept. "You've been kind to me, and you haven't done anything wrong, but I just can't..."
"I understand," Kounodori said gently. "Under the circumstances, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to continue as your doctor. I'll transfer you to one of my colleagues."
"Thank you for understanding, Sensei," Keita said, then continued trying to comfort his wife. Kounodori nodded and left the room.
He went to see who was available, hoping that Shimoya was free. However, it turned out that one of her patients had just gone into labor, so she was busy delivering a baby. As luck would have it, Shinomiya was the only obstetrician on duty who wasn't busy at the moment--although Kounodori privately thought that was bad luck rather than good.
"Could I ask you to take on one of my patients?" he asked.
Shinomiya raised his eyebrows, and replied, "Someone asking to switch from you to me? That's unusual. It's usually the other way around."
"It's Moriguchi-san," Kounodori said.
"Ah," Shinomiya said knowingly.
"Be nice to her," Kounodori said. "It's not her fault."
"Niceness is overrated," Shinomiya replied.
"Shinomiya," Kounodori said in a sterner voice.
"Fine, fine," Shinomiya sighed. "I'll be nice."
Kounodori still worried a little as he watched Shinomiya walk off. He knew that Shinomiya actually was nice deep down, but it was buried so deep that it was doubtful that Youko would be able to recognize it.
"Niceness is definitely overrated," Shinomiya grumbled to himself as he went to see his new patient. Sakura in particular was just too damned nice for his own good. He worried about everyone and took care of everyone except himself.
Still, Shinomiya tried to keep his promise to Sakura, although they probably had different ideas of what "nice" meant. Shinomiya figured that he was being pretty nice by treating Youko in his usual brisk, professional manner even though he wanted to yell at her for hurting Sakura's feelings.
Sakura hadn't said, so he didn't know exactly how Youko had found out, but it was obvious she must have discovered that her father was also Sakura's. Rationally, Shinomiya knew that it was only natural for her to be upset about it. But emotions weren't rational, and it angered him to see Sakura going out of his way to be considerate to his father's family even though they were the cause of his pain.
However, it was his duty as a doctor to treat his patients no matter how he felt about them personally, so he set aside his feelings to do his job. Or at least, that was what he tried to do. Youko and her husband seemed a little taken aback by his brusqueness, so maybe he hadn't covered up his anger as well as he'd thought he had. Then again, most patients thought he was rude or cold compared to Sakura, so maybe it was just a natural reaction.
"Um...excuse me, Sensei?" Youko asked after he'd finished with the exam. "Did I offend you by asking to switch doctors?"
"What makes you ask that?" Shinomiya countered.
"Well, it's just that you seem a little angry," Youko replied.
"Youko," Keita said reprovingly, although he looked as though he didn't disagree with her.
"I'm like this with all my patients," Shinomiya said, which was mostly true. He added, deadpan, "I'm told that I don't have much of a bedside manner. You're free to switch back to Kounodori-sensei if you prefer."
"No, that's not necessary," Youko said hastily. "I apologize for asking such a rude question."
"Then I'll see you in one week for your next appointment," Shinomiya said briskly, and the couple departed, still looking flustered.
Shinomiya sighed and shook his head. Well, Youko would deliver her baby in about a month, and he wouldn't have to see them again after that. Sakura was a forgiving person and despite his recent brooding, not one to sit around feeling sorry for himself, so eventually he would get over the disastrous family reunion and things would return to normal.
A couple of days later, Youko and Keita went to the Baby concert as planned. She felt a little guilty going out for a fun evening when everything was still so tense at home: her parents were barely speaking to each other, but trying to keep up the pretense that everything was normal, since they still didn't know that she'd overheard their argument. On the other hand, it was a relief to get away from her parents and forget about their problems for a couple of hours.
Sensing her thoughts, Keita squeezed her hand and smiled. "Let's just relax and enjoy ourselves. Too much stress isn't good for the baby."
"Now you sound like a doctor," Youko laughed, leaning over to rest her head on his shoulder.
Keita had not only managed to get tickets to a sold-out concert, he'd gotten them a table right in front of the stage. "Did you have to sell your soul to get these tickets?" she joked.
"Nothing's too good for the mother of my baby," Keita replied with a grin. "But it wasn't that expensive. One of my clients knows the club owner, and I happened to mention to him how much my wife loves Baby."
"I love you, too, in case you hadn't noticed," Youko said, kissing his cheek.
Thoughts about her father and Kounodori-sensei were still a nagging worry in the back of her mind, but she tried to set them aside as Baby took the stage. He to bowed the audience, his long white hair--obviously a wig--falling over his face and obscuring his features, then he sat down at the piano and began to play.
A cascade of notes poured out that reminded Youko of the gentle patter of raindrops. Then the music deepened, washing over her in waves. It was melancholy at first, changing gradually to a sense of comfort and hope that soothed her heartache. The music changed again, the tempo picking up into a more playful, upbeat melody that made her smile without reservation. By the time the last note died away, her heart was filled with joy and she was on her feet applauding and giving Baby a standing ovation along with the rest of the audience. Baby bowed in acknowledgment, then silently left the stage.
"That was so amazing," Youko gushed as she and Keita made their way out of the club. "He's even better live than on CD! I was worried that he'd leave after a few songs, but he played a full set plus an encore."
"We were very lucky," Keita agreed. "I'm glad that the concert cheered you up."
"I do feel bad about Kounodori-sensei, though," Youko said guiltily. "I was too harsh with him."
"He said that he understood," Keita reminded her. "I don't think that he holds a grudge."
"Even if that's true, that doesn't solve the problem with Mom and Dad," Youko said. "Maybe I should talk to them..."
"Let's not worry about that tonight," Keita said, taking her hand in his. "We can talk about it later, but in the end, it's something that the two of them will have to work out. Whatever happened in the past, they have a strong bond together now, and I don't think they'll give up on that so easily. For now, let's just enjoy a nice evening out. Shall we go out for a bite to eat?"
"Now that you mention it, I think this little one is craving some ramen," Youko said with a grin, resting a hand on her belly.
"Ramen it is," Keita said as they paused outside the entrance to the club. "Wait here and I'll bring the car around." With a sell-out crowd, the parking lot was full and he'd had to park across the street.
"I'm not an invalid," Youko laughed. "I think I can manage to walk across the street without collapsing."
"Okay, but be careful," Keita cautioned.
"Yes, dear," she said sweetly, but Keita's smile told her that he wasn't fooled by her show of meekness. He offered her his arm and she took it. They waited for the traffic lights to change, then stepped into the crosswalk as the "walk" light came on.
They didn't see the car speeding around the corner trying--unsuccessfully--to beat the red light until it was almost on top of them.
Kounodori was in the dressing room removing his wig and makeup when he heard the screech of brakes that was audible even inside the club, and the sound of people shouting in alarm.
He hurried out to find Ken, the manager of the club and an old friend from the orphanage, rushing towards the dressing room to find him. They nearly collied in a what would have been a comical move under less urgent circumstances.
"Ken-chan, what's going on?"
"I'm not sure, but it seems like there was an accident outside the club," Ken said, grabbing his arm as he changed directions and pulled Kounodori along with him. "Someone said a pregnant woman got hit by a car--it must be the same woman that was in the front row tonight."
"Youko," Kounodori gasped, then took off running so fast that a startled Ken lost hold of him and hurried to catch up. He pushed through the crowd of onlookers, shouting, "Let me through, I'm a doctor!"
He found Youko curled up on the sidewalk, weeping and clutching her stomach. Keita knelt beside her, his face bruised and his clothing scuffed and dirty.
"Kounodori-sensei?" Keita asked, looking up at him in surprise that was quickly replaced by relief. "Please, can you help Youko?"
"Call an ambulance," Kounodori told Ken, who nodded and took out his cell phone. That taken care of, he turned his attention to Youko as he knelt down next to Keita. "She was hit by a car?"
There were skid marks on the road leading through the crosswalk to a red sports car that was parked, or rather, had come to a stop at a haphazard angle. A distraught man who was apparently the driver stood nearby babbling that he hadn't seen her, while some of the concertgoers were yelling at him angrily, but as none of them seemed to be hurt, Kounodori turned his attention back to Youko.
"No, I shoved her out of the way, but she hit the ground really hard," Keita said, looking pale and frightened. Tears welled in his eyes and his voice shook as he continued, "I tried to shield her, but I think she hit her stomach when she fell."
"It hurts," Youko wept, her arms still wrapped protectively around her stomach. "Oh, Keita, I should have let you bring the car around after all. Am I going to lose the baby?"
"Not if I can help it," Kounodori said firmly.
"Kounodori-sensei?" Youko asked in confusion, looking slightly dazed as she stared up at him.
"Yes, it's me, Moriguchi-san," Kounodori said. "An ambulance is on the way. We're going to take you to the hospital and have you checked out, just to make sure you and the baby are okay.
Ken, who was as reliable as ever, had taken over crowd control and enlisted some of his employees to move the crowd of onlookers back and give them some space. Kounodori placed a gentle hand on Youko's stomach and felt the baby kick.
He smiled at Youko, trying to project an air of reassurance. "The baby's moving; that's a good sign. Although I think he may be upset by all the fuss."
Youko managed a weak smile. "Thank you, Sensei. I'm so glad you're here, but...what are you doing here?"
"I, uh, just happened to be at the Baby concert," Kounodori said, which was of course not a lie although the way he was telling it felt like one.
"That's funny, we didn't see you there," Keita said with a puzzled look on his face, then quickly shook his head. "But it's stupid to worry about something like that now, isn't it?"
Fortunately Kounodori was spared from having to reply by the wailing siren of the ambulance as it approached. "I'm Kounodori from Persona Hospital," he told the paramedics as they moved Youko onto a stretcher. "Please take her there."
"I called Persona and spoke to your friend Shinomiya," Ken said. "They'll be expecting you."
"Thanks, Ken-chan," Kounodori said, then climbed into the ambulance along with Keita. He examined Youko as best he could in the cramped quarters. "Are you in pain, Moriguchi-san?"
"It hurts where I fell, and I feel some cramping," Youko replied in a shaky voice. She was obviously struggling to maintain her composure, but began to weep as she asked, "Is this my fault? Is this some sort of karmic retribution?"
"It is not your fault," Kounodori said, gently but firmly. "It's no one's fault except for the driver who ran the red light."
"But I was so horrible to you," Youko said.
"You were upset and a little angry, which was perfectly natural under the circumstances," Kounodori said. "And even then, you apologized right away and said you knew it wasn't my fault. That's not exactly what I'd call monstrous behavior." He smiled at Youko, and she blinked away her tears and tried to smile back at him.
"Besides," Kounodori continued, "even if you had done something wrong, I refuse to believe that an innocent baby would be punished for something that its parent did."
"Thank you, Sensei," Youko whispered. "I really am sorry for the way I treated you."
"It's all right," Kounodori assured her. "There's nothing to apologize for. Let's concentrate on you and the baby right now. Your water hasn't broken and I can feel the baby moving. There's a very small amount of bleeding..." Seeing Youko's and Keita's looks of alarm, he added, "Please don't panic. It's very slight, just a little spotting."
"I can't lose this baby, I just can't," Youko pleaded. "Not after all the other miscarriages, not after we've finally made it this far."
"It doesn't mean that you're having a miscarriage," Kounodori said, hiding his own worries with a reassuring smile. "But we'll check you out at the hospital just to make sure that the baby is okay. I promise, I will do everything I can to make sure you deliver your baby safely."
"It's lucky that your doctor was nearby," one of the paramedics told Youko. He turned to Kounodori and added, "Although it's too bad that you had to interrupt your hot date."
"Oh, I wasn't on a date," Kounodori said, puzzled as to why the paramedic thought he was.
"No need to be embarrassed," the paramedic said with a grin. "You still have a bit of lipstick there where your lady gave you a goodbye kiss."
Kounodori blushed, although not for the reason that the paramedic was thinking. Keita handed him a handkerchief, and he quickly wiped the traces of lipstick off his mouth. Both Keita and Youko looked at him more closely, and Kounodori thought he saw a hint of recognition dawning in their eyes, but by then the ambulance had arrived at Persona and a moment later they were rushing Youko into the hospital. Hopefully in the confusion they would forget about any resemblance he might have to Baby.
Youko's condition turned out to be more serious than he'd let on, but fortunately they were able to stabilize her.
"The baby is safe," Kounodori told her, and both she and Keita sighed with relief. "But we'd like to keep you here under observation for a few days, just to be on the safe side."
"It was a very near thing," Shinomiya said gravely. "It's fortunate that Kounodori-sensei got you to the hospital so quickly or we might not have been able to save the baby."
"Shinomiya," Kounodori said reproachfully.
"What?" Shinomiya said calmly. "It's true."
"Thank you, thank you so much, Kounodori-sensei," Youko said fervently, crying with relief.
"Yes, thank you, Sensei," Keita said, bowing deeply.
"I'm just glad that the baby's all right," Kounodori said with a smile.
"And thank you too, Shinomiya-sensei," Youko said. "I'm so grateful to you both."
Youko's parents came rushing in, her mother crying out, "Youko! We came as soon as Keita called us! Are you all right? Is the baby--?"
"I'm fine, Mom," Youko assured her. "And the baby, too. It's all thanks to Kounodori-sensei."
"I just happened to be there and rode with her to the hospital," Kounodori said, downplaying his role.
To avoid any awkwardness with Youko's parents, he intended to excuse himself and slip out as soon as politeness allowed, but Youko insisted stubbornly, "He saved the baby. Shinomiya-sensei said so."
Mieko turned towards him, conflicting emotions flashing across her face in quick succession: confusion, guilt, relief, and finally, gratitude. "Thank you, Sensei," she said, bowing deeply. "I can't tell you how much this means to us."
Hiroshi bowed also. "Thank you," he was all he said, but there were tears in his eyes and his voice trembled with emotion.
"You're welcome," Kounodori said. "I'm glad that I was able to help." The intensity of the emotions in the room made him a little uncomfortable. He was used to dealing with such emotions in his work, of course, but it was different knowing that he was connected to this family in a personal way. And at the same time, not connected, because he was still an outsider despite having a blood relation to Hiroshi and Youko.
But he tried to smile in a professional manner and said, "We're going to keep Moriguchi-san here for a few days, just to be sure that there are no complications. You can visit with her for a little while, but please let her get some rest after that."
"I've been thinking a lot about family," he heard Youko say as he and Shinomiya left the room. "And how important it is, even when it's unconventional or unexpected. Like Niisan and Iwaki-san--"
The door closed behind them, cutting off her words. "You're not going to stay behind and listen?" Shinomiya asked.
"Are you suggesting that I eavesdrop on a patient's private conversation?" Kounodori retorted.
"Well, it does concern you," Shinomiya pointed out.
"That's something that the three of them need to work out," Kounodori said firmly. "In private."
"And if they decided that it does concern you?" Shinomiya asked.
Kounodori wondered what it would be like to become part of that family, to have Youko as a sister, to have a father and stepmother. And a brother, too--he remembered Youko mentioning her brother although Kounodori hadn't met him. The idea was appealing, but also a little daunting.
"I'll deal with that when it happens," Kounodori replied. "If it happens." There was no point getting worked up until then, he decided. "For now, I'll just concentrate on helping Moriguchi-san to deliver a healthy baby."
Shinomiya patted him on the shoulder. "Want a jam bun?"
Kounodori didn't have Shinomiya's sweet tooth, but was comforted by the gesture all the same, so he said, "Sure. I'll get the milk."
When Kounodori was checking up on Youko the next day, she said, "When I get out of the hospital, my parents and my brother and I are going to sit down and have a serious discussion about...well..."
"Me?" Kounodori asked with a rueful smile.
"Yes," Youko replied sheepishly. "But not just you. I always thought we were open with each other, but it turns out that there are a lot of secrets in this family. Maybe my parents meant to spare us pain, but it ended up causing trouble instead. And I guess I was keeping a secret, too--I already knew about Yousuke. I found my mother's old maternity journal, and I finally realized why they named my brother 'Youji' even though he's the eldest son. It's because he's actually the second son, even though we never knew it."
"I'm glad you're talking things over if you feel that's something your family needs to do," Kounodori said, choosing his words carefully. "But please don't feel like you have to do it for my sake."
"But I want to do it for our sake, too," Youko insisted with a determined look on her face. Over the past several months, Kounodori had learned that while she was cheerful and kindhearted, she could also be very stubborn when she had her mind set on something.
"You're part of our family, and we want to get to know you," Youko continued. "Even Mom, now that she's starting to get over the shock. Also, saving her grandchild-to-be helped to ease any hostility that she might have had. Unless..." Suddenly less certain, Youko said, "Unless you don't want to be part of our family. I couldn't really blame you, after the way we've treated you."
"Moriguchi-san, I think your family is wonderful," Kounodori assured her. "But let's not rush things. We should concentrate on your baby's health first. Besides, you haven't talked to your brother about this yet, right? He might feel differently about it than you do."
Youko grinned. "He's hotheaded and impulsive, but he has a good heart. He'll probably be mad at Dad at first, but he'll know it's not your fault and he'll want to do right by you. Besides, he's caused a lot of family drama himself, so he's got no right to complain." When she saw Kounodori's look of confusion, she laughed. "You have no idea who my brother is, do you?"
"I'm afraid not," Kounodori replied. "I've met your parents and your husband, but I don't recall meeting your brother."
Youko lowered her voice to a whisper. "Please keep this a secret because I don't want the media finding out and making a fuss, but he's the actor Katou Youji."
Kounodori had to think for a little while before he could connect the name with the actor he'd seen in the news headlines. He didn't have much free time to watch movies or TV, and he didn't read gossip magazines, but the same sex marriage between Katou Youji and Iwaki Kyousuke had caused such a media sensation that even he couldn't help but notice it.
"Oh," he said, staring at her in surprise. "That Katou Youji. Now that you mention it, I can see the resemblance."
"Remember, it's a secret," Youko said, smiling mischievously as she lifted a finger to her lips.
"My lips are sealed," Kounodori promised.
Youko seemed to be doing well, and after a few days Kounodori was considering letting her go home, when a nurse brought word that Youko had gone into labor.
"She's still only at eight months," Komatsu said with concern.
"Get her into the delivery room," Kounodori told the nurse. He turned to Shinomiya and said, "We need to be prepared to do a C-section if necessary."
Shinomiya nodded. "I'm on it. And I'll tell Neonatal to stand by."
With their usual efficiency, Kounodori and his colleagues rushed to help Youko. It was a long and difficult labor, but finally he could see the baby's head crowning. "We're almost there, Moriguchi-san! Just a little bit more!"
"Keep pushing, Moriguchi-san," Komatsu urged with an encouraging smile. "You'll be able to see your baby soon!"
Her face was red with pain and exertion, but Youko kept pushing determinedly, and with a guttural shout, she pushed one last time and the baby slid free from her body. But Kounodori's relief turned to dismay when he saw how quiet and still that small body was.
He quickly handed the baby over to the Neonatal doctor, Imahashi, who said, "Begin resuscitation!"
"What?" Youko gasped, her eyes widening with shock.
These were the moments that Kounodori hated most. "The baby isn't breathing," he explained in a gentle voice, although he knew that no amount of gentleness or tact would lessen the impact of his words. "They're trying to revive him now."
"No," Youko said, still looking stunned. "No, it can't be. Please, he can't die, not after we've come so far..."
Kounodori was struggling to find words of comfort when a thin wail echoed through the delivery room.
"The baby's alive!" Komatsu exclaimed with relief.
The baby's cries grew louder--a welcome sound to everyone in the room--as the Neonatal doctors checked on the baby's condition and cleaned him up. A few minutes later, Imahashi wrapped the baby in a blanket and gently placed him in Youko's arms.
"A healthy baby boy," he said with a smile.
The baby was small and red and wrinkled, but Youko's face lit up with joy, and she smiled at him tenderly, as if he were the most beautiful and precious thing in the world.
"He's absolutely perfect," she sighed.
"He's beautiful," Kounodori said with heartfelt agreement. "Congratulations, Moriguchi-san."
Youko smiled at him. "I think, under the circumstances, you can call me 'Youko' from now on."
"Congratulations, Youko," Kounodori told his sister. "And you can call me 'Sakura'."
Komatsu looked from Youko to Kounodori and back again with curiosity.
"I'll explain later," Shinomiya murmured. "Come on, let's go give her family the good news." Before he left, he gave Youko one of his rare smiles and said, "Congratulations, Moriguchi-san. You did well."
"Thank you, Shinomiya-sensei," Youko said, grinning. "You know, your bedside manner isn't so bad, after all."
"Hmph," Shinomiya snorted, and he and Komatsu left the room.
"So have you decided on a name?" Kounodori asked.
"Keita and I discussed it," Youko replied. "We've decided to call him 'Yousuke,' after my first brother."
"I'm sure your parents will be pleased," Kounodori said. "Hello, Yousuke." He reached out towards the baby, and Yousuke's tiny fingers curled around his index finger.
"He recognizes his Uncle Sakura," Youko said, smiling up at Kounodori.
Kounodori smiled back at her, and at Yousuke...his nephew. After being an orphan for all of his life, it was strange to have suddenly acquired a new family. There would probably be some additional awkwardness and conflicts as they got to know each other, but for the first time, he had confidence that everything would work out.
"By the way," Youko said, interrupting his train of thought. "It seems that Youji-niisan isn't the only celebrity in the family."
"Do you have more famous siblings?" Kounodori asked, mostly jokingly, although at this point, nothing would surprise him.
"Apparently I do...Baby-sensei," Youko said with a sly smile.
"I...uh...that is..." Kounodori stammered, caught off-guard.
"After the emergency passed and I had time to think, I remembered seeing the lipstick on your face in the ambulance," Youko said. "And I thought about how you just happened to be at the Baby concert even though we didn't see you in the audience, and when I thought about it some more, you were wearing a suit just like Baby's, and I put two and two together."
"Well, I'm glad I was there to help you even if my identity was exposed," Kounodori sighed. "But please keep it a secret. Only a couple of people here at the hospital know, and it would complicate things if my patients and the rest of the staff found out I was Baby."
"Your secret is safe with me, Sakura," Youko promised. "Though maybe you can tell the rest of the family when you get to know them better. And maybe you could play a lullaby for Yousuke once in awhile?"
"I would be honored," Kounodori said, humming a few bars of one of Baby's songs as Youko smiled with delight. And maybe it was his imagination, but it seemed to him that Yousuke was smiling, too.