| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
This is Chapter 2 of Once Spring arrives, let's go to Gunma! from Volume 2 of the Toradora! Spin-Off Light Novel series.
"Harutaa! Look look, my dad got a shareholder’s coupon for Yoshigyuu beef on rice--! Gyuudon! It’s free gyuudon! Wanna go!?"
"...Please don’t talk so casually before me, Noto-kun. You picked up a free coupon from the roadside, then came over to my place to eat a bowl of Australian beef on rice, and that’s fine?"
"We get shareholder treatment. What? You’re not going? Seriously, when it’s free? Until yesterday, if you had been reborn as a cow, wouldn’t you have wanted to be made into gyuudon?"
Puzzled, Noto turned his not-so-cute face towards him, tilting his head slightly so he could see his friend through his black eyeglasses, giving him a condescending smile. Even if that free coupon had sprung up from a turnip field, there was his date.
Though it was after school, the classroom was still busy. Long haired, sassy, even brash standing there, Haruta quickly got back to packing up to leave. He stood there wearing a hoodie, a uniform jacket over that, and an imitation Burberry checked muffler wound around his neck. Today was not a good day to go along with Noto’s puzzles.
"I’ve got something to do, OK? Catch ‘ya next time! Later, Noto!"
"Eh!? What, what’s going on!? What else--, you’re so anti-social!"
"Sorry, sorry about that. Why don’t you ask Taka-chan or Kitamura the Great Teacher?"
"The Great Teacher has already left for student council work! Besides that, Takasu’s got problems of his own!"
He saw Noto pointing in the direction of that unlovely face, as sullen as ever. Over there, with a face just like a Noh mask, his friend sat in his chair, his nose dripping slowly. It was a rather incredible scene. Gulp, with a reflexive intake of breath, he hurried over to the body, but not even once could he get a response.
"Ta, Taka-chan!? What’s wrong!?"
"...She’s a klutz...! I...!"
Yipes! With those awful eyes glaring ahead, "There was an
accident.", and a proud, arrogant, very short person stood there. With fluffy long hair, like a French doll, carefully made up, their
classmate. The Palmtop Tiger, Aisaka Taiga.
"Taigaa! What are you doing to Taka-chan! He looks pretty bad!"
"Because there was an accident. Hmph, having to explain to an idiot seems idiotic, just like to this one,"
The Palmtop Tiger showed Haruta a milkshake can. Pull top.
"It was really hard to open, so I gave it my all! It opened all right, but that ugly dog-boy’s face was right there... unfortunately, right behind my elbow."
I’m an ‘ugly dog-boy’!? You are! I’ve got a nosebleed!? Isn’t it a tragedy. Aren’t you worried!? Oh, I do, I do. Aren’t you to blame!? Such a scary accident. How can you drink that juice with a straight face!? Milkshake. ...While his nose slowly dripped, to all appearances it was their usual rather overdone comic routine unfolding.
"...You, you’re making like a sprinkler, Taka-chan...!"
"More like splatter, Haruta."
Yes yes, you could say that. That Noto wanted him to go with him was nice, but now he had to hurry up and get moving. Haruta grabbed his bag with one hand. With the other hand he waved at the bespectacled turnip field, the nosebleed boy and the pint-size tiger. The time set to meet up was drawing near, and all this was starting to eat into his free time. But "wait a second" so his nosebleed could stop.
"There was something I wanted to say, and I almost forgot. Your pants are oddly shiny. When you get back, spray them with vinegar-water and iron them. Ah, and don’t forget to unplug the iron when you’re done."
"Ohhh, the Taka-chan we know and love, finally revealed. I’d left my a pair of pants at the cleaners, and forgot to go back and get them. In truth, I’ve been wearing the pants from my middle-school uniform since yesterday. They turned out to be the same color, so wouldn’t it be a surprise if got noticed?"
"But I didn’t know. ...Does anybody send their uniform to the cleaners during the week without having a replacement? Why did you do that?"
"Heehee! It’s a secret!"
Leaving his mommy-like friend’s query unanswered, he left the classroom. What they were doing was secret, secret of course, and he’d made a promise. So he kept it. He got running at once, when at that moment an idea flashed through his mind. He’d almost forgotten. He quickly ran back, stuck his head through the classroom door,
"Yo, Taiga! I had something I wanted to say, too--!"
"Who said you could talk to me that way! Idiot, just hurry up and get out of here!"
Without thinking he grinned, winked at Taiga, and shouted in a deep voice. There was something he wanted to do to that predator-girl by all means, to give her something to worry about. He had almost forgotten what it was.
"You’re looking a bit laid-back today, rather sexy... eh? In fact, to put it crudely, you’re always hanging around looking after Taka-chan, letting your lazy private life exert it’s super-sexy influence on him ☆ Boobs... you don’t have. Your chest ought to swell out a bit ☆ But Taiga’s boobs… the fact they aren't there is a mystery. When you’re wearing a swimsuit you look OK, but wearing a uniform you look rather hollowed out."
In Taiga’s tiny hand, in an instant. He saw a tin can crackling, crushed in her grip.
Run for it, Haruta------ …The voices of friends shouting “You sure told her off, but are you crazy?”, over their shoulders as they ran past him. What next? Oh yeah, next was the bonus, what he wanted to say was just the first part.
Last night, after he got done trading e-mails with Sena. He was basking in the afterglow from their secret meeting. The room may have been dirty, she may have been a bit out of sorts, lightly dressed in front of a guy the first time they met, but somehow, after all, the fundamentally sloppy Sena was still awfully attractive. She had the power to fire up a guy’s imagination. "Ahh..., she’s something else...", he had thought dreamily many times. And then he realized.
A messy girl is a good thing!
...So, from the moment he thought of it, until nearly three in the morning, he schemed alone about the "Intramural Sloppy Girl Trophy". He wanted to present that award to Taiga, for a victory well earned. He escaped from the school, straining his bicycle, pedaling at full speed. Leaving the school gate, he went straight for a little while, easily making a green light. He didn’t think Taiga would be able to catch up with him.
He rode past the riverbank of fate, passed over the bridge of destiny. Heading towards home, he took a different way, to the station. His feet slackened on the pedals when he saw the crowd gathering at the ticket gate.
"Where will she be?", parking his bike and locking it up while looking up.
Already. He’d found her right away. Sena was standing by a building post, tapping on her cell-phone with one hand. Apparently she had been hidden for a while on the other side of that column, perhaps by a little glass... or not. His heart began to beat wildly. Frankly, this was the first time in his life he’d met up with a girl somewhere, just the two of them. He’d been on so many group dates with lots of people (and they were an ongoing string of failures) that just two of them--- but still, he was quite nervous.
Should he call out to her? What should he do as an entrance? She was on the other side of the column, showing off a little, her long hair stretched to her jaw-line, carefully combed this time,
"Ah. You were already here?"
"Eeeek! Idiot brother, how about knocking next time!"
She’d become his little sister.
As if he’d been punched in the stomach, his face went red, his cheeks inflated and he involuntarily glared at Sena’s white face. Though it was a surprise, though she suddenly came into sight around the post, it didn’t matter. Silly brother. Just when I finally tried to look good… transformed into a really cool guy. Of all things, why "little sister"? My foolish, stupid stupid brain.
Haruta was floundering, about to give up. Sena, on the other hand,
"...I’m excited, Haruta-kun."
For some reason, with her hair done up nicely, with that casual wave, it seemed like a planned greeting.
Her straight brown hair parted in the middle, today it shone like silver. Not seeming at all a person who lived in a dirty room, Sena was a graceful figure standing there.
Wearing a gray outfit with a white knit coat, light blue muffler wrapped around her neck, beige cargo pants and a large brown leather bag hanging from her shoulder, of course today she appeared even more the Siamese cat. With slim dark brown pumps, she really looked like a cat on tiptoes.
Below her wide forehead, Sena’s glowing ice-blue eyes gazed intently at Haruta, quietly shaking. Haruta couldn’t help but look back, grinning at the Siamese cat on tiptoes.
"There," said Sena, pointing ahead, a stylish store-front café could be seen.
From a wooden deck there were steps leading to a plate glass entrance. Bright decorative plants were arranged along the brick wall. But then he read the place’s name. ...By himself, he didn’t think he could ever go in there. He wouldn’t be able to with Noto. He couldn’t with Taka-chan or with a teacher. To begin with, this place would never allow high school students in the door.
"...Ryousuke has a part-time job here. Today being Wednesday, his shift’s about over now."
"Wh, what, in that fancy place, is it OK to go in with this uniform on? You must have some pull, getting me in there... wow!"
"About here, shall we? ...Ready?"
She grabbed his hand. Her slender fingers, pleasantly cool, softly holding hands--- his heart was beating faster, and the blood vessels in his brain were beginning to throb. Even in the best of times, his brains weren’t of the best manufacture, and if he suddenly got a lot of blood flowing to them, he became a complete fool.
"No, I'm not, but.. if I even touch that place I'll contaminate it..."
Sena quickly withdrew her hand, confused and shaking her head. Shyly, he gently took her hand again.
"I was kidding, they’re not dirty!"
Hiding themselves under the building eaves, Sena made sure of it. Taking Haruta’s hand, she placed herself at his side once more. She attached herself to Haruta’s whole arm, pressing her cheek near his shoulder. Fingers intertwined, their hands were glued together as if by a vacuum. Through his arm, he could feel every irregularity of Sena’s slender body quite distinctly. Everything, from the soft thin layer of flesh to the slender bones underneath.
Is this what it’s like? This thing, going out, pretending, so to speak.
"...Something’s wrong. Your palms are damp. You’re sweating."
"Eh? ...No way, that’s embarrassing! I'll wipe them!"
"Keep cool, it’s OK, no big deal. ...Ah, perhaps, Haruta-kun, you’ve never held hands nor dated a girl before?"
"I have too!? But, we broke up!"
It wasn’t true…
The honest answer was in his mind, but he feared it likely that he’d already been found out. If his palms didn’t stop sweating, he didn’t know what he was going to do. Just by holding hands, linking arms and looking like an ordinary couple, they were already making a huge scandal. His face heated, and by bad luck a stray hair tickled his nose in a way he couldn’t stand. However, Sena didn’t even notice the atmosphere, looking at her watch,
"It's time, shall we go? Act like a perfect boyfriend, OK? If anybody asks anything, it’s all right if you don’t answer."
"Look cool, OK?"
The tiptoeing cat quietly stepped out. Slightly behind her, Haruta walked out too.
Sena waved her phantom tail in the air and wrapped it around Haruta’s body – it seemed like. They fell into step. At the same slow speed, with a similar gait, advancing in a similar fashion. Their hips were about to strike when the invisible tail whipped around him as if to say "Match up!". Haruta adjusted his pace. They were glued to each other, hip to hip.
Petite Sena, it seemed like she fit perfectly under his arm. The tail still guiding him, he shyly let go of her hand and placed it on her shoulder instead. I fit perfectly next to Sena’s form, he thought. Even through their clothing, it was warm everywhere they touched.
"...Hmm, a little too familiar, don’t you think?"
"Yep. No big deal."
As for Haruta, his problem with sweaty palms subsided and he could breathe again.
Sena quietly turned to look straight at the café entrance, a determined look on her face.
So they went up the deck steps, looking to all the world as if they were flirting, sticking to each other still. Haruta opened the glass door, letting Sena into the café.
"Welcome to our establishment."
He thought, "Of course, the handsome shop employee shows up suddenly." He ought to be saying "Party of two?"
The handsome clerk became aware of Haruta beside Sena. He was much taller than his own 5 foot 9 inches. The arms below his rolled up shirt sleeves, in spite of being slender, bunched and swelled with muscles. Casually asymmetrical, his hair was done in a stylish manner. He was clean-shaven, except for a thin moustache in an old style. The jet black shirt and style of his pants went together really well. When that guy saw Sena, he did a double-take upon recognizing her.
"...What? No way. Ryousuke’s shift has started. We can’t, I forgot... excuse me, I was careless."
It was Sena speaking.
Wow, he thought.
Suddenly that guy, suddenly something about you so-and-so--- Ryousakushi, that’s who he was. Surprised, without thinking,
"G’afternoon! Ho! Stuud!"
"Bang☆", he shot so-and-so-kun with his finger. ...Perhaps a little idiotic, he thought a bit too late. The guy didn't utter a word, clutching his chest by mistake and then looking back at Haruta.
"...No way... already..."
Sena kept her cool, assuming a similar pose. She lowered her head to conceal the pride that was showing. However, she shook it off shortly, and, looking up,
"...After all that fuss, let me introduce you. This kid, in fact, has just become my adoring boyfriend. It must be a surprise, he being a high-school boy and all. ...Haruta-kun, this guy, is just, merely, a college classmate."
So he was. So easily declared "merely". Wow--- without even thinking about it, many frightened words fell away from Haruta.
"...Because the manager’s here, don’t speak loudly about high schoolers. Welcome. Please come this way."
Falling quiet, things were going Sena’s way. Sena’s words had disturbed so-and-so-kun a bit, even if he concealed the fact. He played the part of the handsome waiter perfectly, not even cracking a smile, guiding the two of them over to the seats he had prepared. Water, hand-wipes and menus were already placed on the table.
They took their seats. Then, both Sena and Haruta still quiet, they looked through the menu. While some other customers got up to pay their bills, so-and-so-kun smiled and stood by the register.
"Sena-san... really, just what is that guy’s job though..."
"...As for me, I’ll have coffee. How about you, Haruta-kun?"
"Ah? Let’s see, then orange juice. ...How should I put it..."
"Excuse me. Could we order?"
Sena hushed Haruta, since that guy was close by directing the help. Ordering coffee and orange juice, they sipped water. He combed his long hair over and over with his finger. Suddenly she put her big bag on her knees, rummaged around inside it, and lined her notebook, cell phone and wallet up on the table. They were sipping water still.
Her notebook had all sorts of folded corners and pieces of paper stuck into it. With regards to her cell phone, the first thing he saw was that it had a number of souvenir straps from various places attached to it. But then he saw it’s entire current state (though the Shisa Kitty wasn’t too bad, what about the chess piece with ‘Sunlight’ written on it, or the gourd with a map of Shikoku stuck in it?). Her wallet was swollen like a chubby piglet, but certainly not from money.
As you might expect of this messy girl... thought Haruta in the middle of watching all that stuff, the notepad, the cellphone and
the wallet, Sena had closed her bag once more. You could say that she
had absolutely everything thrown in there. Finally, she pulled out her wallet again, and from amongst the cash pulled out a crumpled receipt. She unfolded it, refolded it, and stuffed it back into the change purse.
While she was doing this, for some reason she stared intently at the middle of so-and-so-kun’s counter. I’m not going to give it away, she was probably thinking.
If so-and-so-kun went to the right, she looked right. If he went left, then left. If he went in the back, she waited for him to come out. If he came out, she would try to hide, dropping her gaze and inspecting the wood grain of the table.
"Sena-san. Hold on. Hey. ...You should stop that."
He wanted to tell her to stop glaring at so-and-so-kun. Making a face at him as if to force him back, quit making the guy look over here, will you?
No way. She had poked her fingertips into her eyes, something he’d never have thought of... Sena held her fingers to her eyes, collapsed over the stylish café’s table, not even saying anything.
"Ex, excuse me, seriously... but I’d thought you’d stopped going out with him..."
Sena asked, slowly raising her face. It felt like he’d been slapped on the cheek by her long tail, whipping back and forth agitatedly through the air. Her big misty eyes glared back at him briefly, virtually stabbing him.
"'What's that?', you're not self-conscious, are you? Sena-san, staring at him so much is a problem. Your happiness hormones aren’t showing. Your plan isn’t going to work."
"...But I’m not looking..."
"You were looking. You were playing with that gourd while you were looking."
"Gourd? I don’t have any such thing."
"It was attached to your cell phone. Don’t you even remember your strap?"
Sena got the cell phone out of her bag to reexamine it, making sure the gourd was there, mixed in with everything else on the souvenir strap. Her brow creased faintly, "What’s this...", was all she muttered.
"See, the gourd was really there. You didn’t need to give me that look. Your hormones aren’t going to come out that way. If you keep on looking full of regret, ready to fall apart, you’ll get discovered and you won’t progress even one bit. Hey, am I saying too much?"
Still turning the gourd over and over on the table, Sena’s thoughts seemed to have gone floating down the river...
"Y...es. I’m all right. ...So it is. It sure is. I think I agree. ...So it is, so it is. Fine, there are things that need doing."
Sena came firmly back to herself. She put away the gourd, stopped chasing after so-and-so-kun’s form with her eyes, said “Have this”, and from her bag pulled out some kind of pamphlet and quickly put in front of Haruta. Kusatsu, Kinugawa and other names jumped off the paper. It looked like a travel agency pamphlet for a hot-springs tour.
"Ah, there’s naked people! Eh, that, with me!? Wa~ thank you~! I’d be happy to!"
On the front cover in the open air the wet face of a model saying 'Hey there... sister, the water’s really nice...' It was tempting Haruta. As it was, he just wanted to dive into that two-dimensional advertisement. But,
"...I wasn’t giving it to you, Haruta-kun. I was given it out front of the station. Let’s go look. Look, I’m thinking about us going together to the hot springs, to see what it’s like."
"...Ah... Is that so... I guess that’s so... Nobody’s ever done anything like that for me... This is already good..."
"...If it turns out you like it, we can surely go again..."
"Good~!? Let’s do it!"
Enthused, they crowded next to each other as they started looking over their one pamphlet. "Kusatsu’s pretty good, what do you think?" "Sounds pretty good~! What’s the best place!?" "Gunma" "Gunma maybe~! Where’s that!?" "Kanto" "Kanto maybe~! Kusatsu sounds good~!" "But this one is Ikaho." "Sounds pretty good~! What’s the best place!?" "Gunma" "Gunma maybe~! ...Eh!? Gunma!?" "Gunma" "Gunma, that’s awfully surprising, isn’t it!?" "But that’s not all. Minakami, Sarugakyo and Shima hot springs are all in Gunma." "Wow! Me, I’m getting to like this Gunma already!" "Me too." "Gunma sounds good! Pure happiness!" "Me too." --He touched her lightly, taking advantage of the moment.
"What’s with this? Rather couple-like," she laughed at Haruta’s side, then suddenly serious, she murmured in a quiet voice.
"...I am making conversation with you, you dunce, don’t you ever use your head..."
"Eh!? Wasn’t that awfully rude!? Would you want even your gourd to be saying such things to strangers!?"
It was a completely inexcusable thing to say. They separated a bit. "Sorry, sorry...", she said, trying to smooth things over, but Haruta’s humor was beyond repair. In spite of Sena’s efforts to build up the mood between them, in spite of having taken the trouble to build up a desire to go to Gunma, she had said those things.
"This head of mine, I’m lending it to you! That, I will do!"
In revenge, he pulled a page of math homework out of his bag. Getting out a mechanical pencil, he repeated "I will do it!".
"No way... what’s this? Wow, X or Y... I forget, I don’t know. I can’t do it. I can’t even look."
"What!? You’re a college student!? Ha, suspicious...! Very suspicious! No way, Sena-san, did you cheat to get there!?"
"...Not good for your reputation. If you really think about it, you’ll understand. ...OK, from this point let’s be serious..."
The waitress brought them coffee and orange juice. She cast a mildly disapproving look at the math handouts scattered about on the stylish table, feeling them poorly done. But, right now that wasn’t the case.
Glaring at the problems, Sena frowned seriously, wrinkling her brow, forgetting even to breathe for a bit, lost in thought. Without realizing it, even Haruta stopped breathing. Then after a short time, there was a rustling.
"Wow!? ...Very good!"
"...And I didn’t even have Pinoko by my side..."
Inspired by the genius Tezuka and, he guessed, with a touch remarkably like his, a certain unlicensed doctor and his young girl assistant were drawn in the answer section. By just putting fine outlines here and there, the atmosphere was suddenly transformed. Scribblings became an illustration. From the darkness, the shapes of two people began to come out, as if they were moving towards the light and coming to life,
"...As you would expect of a art college student...! That’s great! It always looks like a trick that with a mechanical pencil one could draw like that... as if it were a proper tool for drawing... seriously, that’s really good...!"
"No, this has nothing to do with studying painting. Simply that I’ve loved it since I was a kid, it’s just copying."
"Even so, it’s great!"
Without thinking, he applauded. If a standing ovation had been permitted he would have done it. Apparently unused to such praise, Sena’s mouth curled in a faint smile.
It was at that moment.
"---So as not to bother the other customers, studying and similar things are not permitted here."
The two of them looked up. So-and-so-kun, slipping away from the waitress (yes, she really was a waitress), stood up. On top of that, he whispered:
"...If you’re just going to play, why don’t you just leave and go to McDonald’s? High school students are not allowed to come in here."
Excuse me, I’m sorry if I have some free time.
From Sena’s point of view, that extra something was really dead.
When he understood, Haruta took Sena by the hand. Suddenly forced to get up, they picked up all their stuff, not forgetting the handouts nor their bags, filling their arms. Like that, they jerkily dragged themselves to the door. In total, the bill for the two of them came to exactly 1000 yen, so Sena threw a 1000 yen bill and the ticket an the unmanned register and silently stalked out of the shop.
She went down the deck steps, continued walking down the street, then went down a dirty alleyway behind the station, full of garbage.
"Hold on! Sena-san! Er, wait a bit..."
"...Today was enough. I'm quitting."
"Quitting?... No way, we haven’t done anything yet! I mean, you’re just getting yourself upset."
"...It’s all right. Stop already. This day is over."
Sena still wasn’t looking at Haruta’s face, still not speaking a single word while she rummaged through her bag. Hidden by her hair, Sena’s face could not even be seen. Grabbing her overstuffed purse, she pulled out three 1000 yen bills. Then,
"Here you go."
It was pushed towards Haruta’s chest. Fluttering down towards the filthy ground, without thinking Haruta caught it. Then, at that very moment,
Sena ran out of the alleyway. He quickly ran after her. Running after her back, he noticed the 3000 yen in his hand. It dawned on him. He’d received 3000 yen. It was an uncomfortable feeling--- brought over from Sena, what that money meant.
Wham! With a shock that shook his mind, "no further", you could say, was a four letter word. In other words, the 3000 yen she’d handed him, was like a line between Haruta and Sena.
He could not get past it. How to get past it, he did not know. If he were to throw away the 3000 yen, that would be a bad thing. In this hand was 3000 yen, money discarded when Sena paid for something you could say didn’t work out. Sena’s feelings, that reality, had not changed.
With regards to Sena, he had been pulling that string, the so-called part-time job. He finally understood. And once again he realized just how dim-witted he was. Despite his plan of becoming her boyfriend little by little, he didn’t know if the string would break anyway as soon as he pulled on it. Three thousand yen wasn’t that big a problem, even so, he foolishly couldn’t quite get past it. Even in that, the all-knowing Sena had taken the initiative, striking precisely.
It was terrible situation. In spite of it all, his feet weren’t working. In spite of the awfulness of their separation, he wasn’t able to chase her. The 3000 yen that were in his hand, that was surely Sena’s intention, he thought. In the meantime, Sena’s form disappeared into the crowd.
Would it turn out to be the last time? --- With just Gunma and the unlicensed doctor, would that be the end?
Alone, in the back alley left standing still, that moment a cold winter wind pushed against him. Unable to do anything else, the rascal hurried home. His feet could hardly bear him, he still couldn’t hardly walk, his foolish body trembled miserably.