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E6 - 6 This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.

This is Chapter 3 of Once Spring arrives, let's go to Gunma! from Volume 2 of the Toradora! Spin-Off Light Novel series.

Transcript

"...Wh, what now?"

"Shouldn’t you be elsewhere?"

"...I should, but, I, I don’t really feel like eating..."

"Why? It’d be better if you ate. Hey, teach, it looks like you ordered out for lunch. What’s that? Something delicious---"

"Umani soba. ...It’s really good."

"Me, I’ve got a yakisoba sandwich, a jelly donut and crusty bread. It’s expensive. It’s terrible."

While chewing on the dried out bread, Haruta Kouji watched as Koigakubo Yuri, single woman (age 30), split her wooden chopsticks apart. Taking the wrapper off the bowl, the single woman (age 30), weakly extended her chopsticks towards the umani soba---

"Yech. ...Yuri-chan, you’re the kind of person who starts eating with the quail?"

"...It's not that good, not particularly..."

To Haruta, that seemed really strange. Normally that would be last, wouldn’t it? What kind of homeroom teacher starts by suddenly attacking the quail eggs? It’s got to be because she’s single, and she’s thinking about something awful like a lover’s suicide. Last night, Sena having left him behind, he had trudged home under the weight of all his feelings. And after that, no received contact at all, leaving his young heart to run wild. His homeroom teacher sometimes wound up bearing the brunt of his adolescent frustration.

It was lunchtime in the teacher’s staff room. They were in a corner nook, surrounded by the second year homeroom teachers' desks. Haruta was seated close to the desk belonging to the single woman (age 30), looking at his homeroom teacher’s face, while she drank a gulp of Oolong tea. The single woman (age 30) looked uncomfortably back at Haruta’s face. Hesitantly, she asked him.

"...Ha, Haruta-kun..., not that it matters all that much, but why are you eating here?"

"For some reason, I just didn’t want to stay in the classroom. ...I really didn’t feel like talking nor laughing, and my being quiet was upsetting everybody else, wanting to checking my temperature, wanting to carry me off to the infirmary like a dead thing, girls offering me tissues so I could wipe my nose, girls saying 'those gloomy eyes are ruining my cellphone reception', cursing me ...and because nobody would leave me alone."

"...Really? That really shows that people care, doesn’t it? It seems, with that around here... especially... that that..."

"Yep, it was just like that."

You see, Koigakubo-sensei was really popular, so easygoing she could actually eat lunch together with a student. And, at that moment, another young female Japanese teacher was calling for her. "Please, help me!" Looking rather desperate, with her chopsticks brandishing some pork from her umani-soba, the single woman (age 30) answered in an encouraging tone.

"...Well then, since we’re talking... Haruta-kun, the other day in English class, you did pretty bad on your test, so you will need to take a make-up exam, OK? Cause if you don’t, you might wind up being held back."

"But you know, Yuri-chan, it’s cause it’s a really strange language..."

"...Haven’t heard that one, never."

Hardly in the mood to eat, still holding his bread in one hand, Haruta gazed at the profile of his teacher. That face slurping umani soba was really different from Sena’s, he thought. Among other things, her features weren’t the same, even more than ten years difference in age could account for. Whatever you might call beautiful, it wasn’t that. Whatever it wasn’t, as a living being, she appeared to be of entirely different species.

In Haruta’s eyes, Sena was completely different from other human beings.

"Wouldn't it be incredible to be loved by a cat?"

"Yes yes. ...Ah! What shall we read? They didn’t put in any Jew’s Ears... how lucky."

"Despite having been cared for by all my family, if the window were opened just a bit, I would surely have escaped."

"Uh huh"

Slurp slurp---

"I’m talking seriously, and you’re just slurping noodles!? Aren’t you my homeroom teacher!?"

"Ah, excuse me. But I was just stretching..."

"Well then... I forgive you. There’s something I want to talk through, um... Yuri-chan… why do you think that cat ran away?"

"Eh? ...Are you talking about some sort of dream? Things of the deep psyche can be somewhat scary..."

"No, it doesn’t have to do with me. You could say it was a dream. What do you think? Since you’re already thirty years old and resigned to living a long life, you should understand many things of life, right?"

"Why would you say such a thing... ...well, but, whatever. You’d be surprised, even with thirty years, how little more we adults actually know. Even teachers don’t know things."

"Eh? You don’t know!? Even though you’re a teacher!?"

"I don’t know. I don’t know but... yes, a proper teacher-like example answer, ‘When dealing with rebellion, one must keep in mind that specific steps must be taken.’ --- As a young man, might you be trying to assert your independence out of adolescent anxiety? Is it something like that? Am I close to the mark? Ah, that was something, educational psychology, that was quite something else... Ah, I’ve forgotten so much, I must be getting old."

Slurp slurp---

"I must be getting old... or perhaps I should say that my answer was completely ridiculous..."

"Ah, please don't mind me, ok?"

Slurp slurp---

"Well then, one more question. ...A man being together with a women he doesn’t love, or a woman being together with a man she doesn’t love. Which is more pitiful?"

"That situation I understand! Obviously, the guy’s more pitiful! Women, even if they don’t love their companion, will stick with that companion, dealing with problems calmly. Men, they will limit themselves to clearly and distinctly denying that they ‘hate’ their women, though that is not all that awful… but still, it’s not all that nice either… That’s the way it is! It really is! Haruta-kun will become like that too! Aaah! No way no way, Men! No way! Slurp! Yuck!"

"Now now, let’s stay on subject. OK then, just why would women put up with such ugliness, just because they can? Why should they, if there’s no love there?"

"You’re right, it doesn’t matter. Because I’m not seeing any likeable men. ...What, Haruta-kun, are you possibly playing games with some strange girl? No way already... just a second... stop, aren’t I asking rather strange questions? Under normal circumstances in our class, if you do anything strange, you come under a lot of pressure from others."

It’s nothing strange, really.

---Hmph. He found himself getting angry, mixed with annoyance, at this carefree single woman. Isn’t this just pitiful, he also thought.

"...Let’s make a trade!"

"Ah! Aaaa! My umani soba~..."

Taking the opportunity to grab the bowl of ramen, he got work with the chopsticks used by the single woman (age 30), wolfing down the umani soba as fast as he could. It was unexpectedly delicious. It suddenly came to him that if he kept this up, he’d wind up stealing all her umani soba. Pushing aside his old half-eaten bread, he vacuumed up everything in a flash, the cabbage, the carrot, the pork and even the the Jew’s Ear hidden at the bottom.

Oh wow, we’re trading lunches. We’re on really good terms. I’m envious. Then, after the Japanese teacher who’d received her help earlier returned, having bought her something to drink, the single woman (age 30) said "I want something in return!" He replied by waving his crusty bread in the air.


It may have seemed an eternity, with everything going through his imagination, but after he was done gobbling his teacher’s umani soba, as he was returning to his classroom, a text message from Sena arrived.


"...Did you hear me?"

"I didn’t hear you!"

He flipped her a peace sign, and then said clearly, "I did the times tables!" Sena said, "How?" Her ice-blue eyes turned towards him, as chilly as today’s wind.

"Wh, what~... why’re you talking so depressed like. I don’t wanna hear it, you’ll just make me gloomy too..."

"Haruta-kun shouldn’t be getting depressed. It’s my problems we’re talking about, after all."

It could even be said--- the subject of Sena’s gloomy words, a few difficult spots scattered through her times tables, had crept back into her head. Truth be told, Haruta Kouji had been depressed for a while. Then, a sigh escaped him too. More of them wanted to. ...It was not even something they could joke about, walking down the road side by side with the fallen leaves blowing around, hearing such talk was getting to be really depressing.

Sena had asked him to go with her to her college, about ten minutes by private railway from the dirty apartment’s neighborhood. He felt like he was trespassing on the college grounds, clad in a high-school uniform, looking like he might be there for an entrance examination, and checking out the students wandering about, but campus security didn’t try to kick him out, nor even bother him.

While he walked together down the sidewalk with Sena, past a big lawn, the grass turning yellow, he unconsciously hunched his shoulders against the cold wind blowing past them. What you might expect of a college, but still spacious. Far away in the corner of the grounds could be seen a snowbound bunch of trees. Over in that direction some sort of school building had been built. On the steps leading to the main door, on benches scattered here and there, and even on piles of building stone, the forms of students could be seen scattered all over the place. It was already turning towards evening.

"If you didn’t hear me right, then I’ll say it again. You know,"

"Heeey! It’s all right if you repeat yourself, but I’ve already got the idea!"

"...What? I heard you clearly."

"Listening with half an ear..."

---According to Sena.

Once upon a time, there was a certain high school, with a certain four people, young men and women when it all happened.

First, the two girls. The had come from similar backgrounds, and shortly after starting school they became fast friends. The two of them went to the College of Arts, lost themselves in art museums, joined clubs, and then met a pair of guys, close friends from another class. Adding them to their group, in the blink of an eye the four became friends. At the dorms, or exhibitions, or cultural festivals… The four of them attended every event, became best friends and began to call each other, and during the summer of that year, one of the girls and one of the boys fell in love, and officially became a couple.

Becoming second year students, the remaining girl and boy wound up in the same class. Thinking on that, the girl was secretly pleased. Since two of the four were now a couple, the remaining two would naturally be attracted to each other. With just the two meeting up in class, their attraction was steadily gaining strength. In the space of that year, the set of four became a pair of couples.

Then, they were third year students. The storm of cramming for the exams started. Commuting back and forth every day to cram school, preparing for the exams to move up to a specialty within the College of Arts, only once skipping class, returning to work on a plaster design. Winter came, spring came, the only desire of the late-starting couple being to attend the same art school. Of the first couple, the girl went by herself to the school of arts. In the end, the guy didn’t pass the entrance exams and ended up going to a private college of literature.

Nonetheless, the four of them spent every weekend and break together. Since they had become college students, they would stay in the taverns almost to the morning. Even when they threw up on themselves, sick because they were unable to get used to drinking sake, how many hours they passed away talking? They started out sharing the latest news about their various friends from high school days, then talked about their different schools, their new friends, they gossiped about the oddball professors, and the up and coming artists. What the art museums might be doing. Whatever they might have seen or experienced. Who at what age was doing what. What kinds of things they wanted to make. What kinds of urges they found inside themselves. How they were becoming artists. What they were eating. How life and work came together--- the Literature guy, who had already been quiet for a while, now became really quiet and depressed.

He still wanted to go to the College of Arts. He wanted to do as the others, holding to the same dream. But it had fallen through. He couldn’t go a year doing nothing, and it would have been a miracle if they had allowed him to retake the entrance exams. All four had been worried if they would meet the qualifications, but in the end those who judged, the experts of the Fine Arts program, had not chosen him. He hadn’t painted since the test. He wasn’t becoming an artist anymore. He had become a dropout, an outcast. He had withdrawn from the race. It was just him, alone.

They became second year college students, then third year, spring, summer and then fall. The guy bid the girl farewell. Having quit the race, deeply disappointed, at length he began to build a new life with new interests. The girl’s feelings were hurt, then---

"I was robbed. Whatever, there’s so much more out there, I think."

Sena’s hair, tucked into the muffler, fluttered in the cold wind. Haruta was by her side, both of his cold hands stuffed into the pockets of his uniform jacket. After all, he had no choice but to put up with her depressing talk.

"I can’t believe it... it’s only been two weeks since we split up. Ryousuke and I worried about that kid, not leaving him alone every day, going together to drink, though he cried every day when we went out. ...But then one day, Ryousuke, it seems that he took a girl back to his room. I had gone home with some sort of cold. ...On the railway platform, facing the opposite direction from another couple waiting for the train, I saw myself alone. The couple stood side by side, I could not near what they were saying... That moment was terrible, I had an awful feeling. There was no way, I thought... but I got burned.”

...Not good.

Sena’s voice had faded to almost nothing. It wasn’t that he was just going deaf. She was so pitiful--- and if she thought about such things, Sena was going to become even more pitiful.

At that moment, in the hard cold wind, Sena’s white face transformed, suddenly sobbing. Having seen that expression, however...

"...Ryousuke, what is he saying about me, I wonder? Really, from our first year in school I loved only him. But once we started hanging out with our friends, what else could I do?"

"...Yes..."

"Woman as a woman, in truth from the beginning Ryousuke was affectionate in his own way. But I imagined that Ryousuke loved me, ...in return."

"...Really~..."

"...All my life I believed that whether it were boyfriends or close friends, ...even in those days I was like an idiot, which can’t be forgiven. Now I hate all of it.

"...Ow~..."

Rather harsh talk, he thought. It was hard for Sena, it was awfully harsh for others to hear too. Those fun high school days, to collectively "hate" them, it was too much for a busy high school student to take. It was too depressing. As you might expect, he couldn’t even consider it. To not be able to imagine the faces of his friends. To even have various reasons to "hate" them before much time had passed...

No way. There’s just no way. He didn’t even want to imagine such a thing. Pulling up his hair, closing his eyes, he concentrated. Shout. There’s got to be a way out of this.

"I’m freezing---! Gunma---!"

---In his mind, he had imagined a wonderful vision of the Gunma Prefecture. It was adorably heart-shaped. He had no idea what the real shape was. No matter, Gunma was wonderful. Kusatsu, Ikaho, Minakami, Gunma. Sarugakyou and Shima, all of them Gunma. Gunma was warm and fun, full of unclothed people. And best of all, lots of hot water in gardens. He loved Gunma. He loved going around without clothes. He really, really, really loved Gunma♥

"Ahahahaha! If I even think about it, I get warm! Man o man~, Gunma is it! Gunma it is~! Fuuuunnn! Right Sena-san, Gunma’s really good, right? It’s fun, isn’t it!"

"It really is fun. Ah, yesterday, the pamphlet I gave you… sorry, but I forgot about it."

"That’s OK, that’s OK, for now that’s fine♥ Always my heart lives in the warm heart of Gunma-chan♥ Gunma is my dream♥ I totally love Gunma♥ I am by Gunma and Gunma is by me too♥ Gunma is my buddy in everything I do♥ Tonight’s side dish is Gunma’s Kusatsu♥ Nyaa~n♥"

"Gunma is a nice place, for sure. ...By the way, I threw away that gourd from yesterday."

"Ah, so what of it! We can do without that weird thing! We don’t need it!"

"...The gourd was reminding me of that thieving woman... I crushed it with my foot as hard as I could, and then threw it from the veranda..."

"Gu, gun...gu...gu..."

...Eeh! Cool! That fits even better with my plans for Gunma!

Noticing the gloom soaking into her bones, Haruta suddenly stood still. He had noticed something really strange was going on, and the imaginary train to Minakami was heading off without him. He was losing the chance to escape to Gunma.

On the sprawling lawn, a dozen or more people dressed in flesh-colored bodysuits were moving back and forth sinuously to the beat of a set of drums. Sena’s slowly turned towards it, gloomily. Even after running around Gunma barefoot, that was a strange scene.

"Kya---! What’s that!?"

Haruta’s shriek was like silk tearing, and Sena stared at the group too.

"Ah... there was an announcement about dance class practice, so they must be practicing, I think."

"But isn’t it awfully strange!?"

"I think they want to do something strange."

"What a strange dance~! They even do that! Can you do that too!? Wow, that looks great! Absolutely completely right! Heehee!"

"No, because I don’t dance. ...If I had more time, but that field is always too noisy. Dancing, singing, storytelling, acting on stage, doing comedy, the guys are there... Because I am just a painter, and this is my school. The people here like hanging out to see the eccentric, amongst other things."

"Kya..."

Thadump ♥ his heart leaped for Gunma.

While they were talking, Sena’s hand casually extended out to Haruta’s hand. Her slender fingers gently entwined with his. Gunma beat faster. Yet at the same time, conflicting with his heart, his blood was running cold, rising up from the bottom of his stomach. Sena’s fingers were rather chilly too.

Without thinking, he withdrew his hand.

"...Why?"

She looked up at Haruta’s face, eyes glowing ice-blue. Her phantom tail softly twined itself around his wrist, trying to bring his hand back. But he escaped. A little apart from her, he stopped.

"Don’t do that, even though... Holding, your hand... again the same thing, isn’t it? Something meaningless? Yesterday it didn’t mean a thing. It didn’t mean a thing to you. Wouldn’t doing the same thing again look suspicious and backfire? And... ah... uh..."

---Really, he thought as they separated yesterday that he wanted to talk about softer feelings. But he couldn’t find the words, and he gave up. But because so many things happened, essential things could not be said. This was what his pathetic brain really feared.

She stood absolutely still before Haruta’s eyes, her expression unchanging.

"I’ve been behaving myself better today. That wasn’t called for. Don’t worry, I’ll make up for my foolishness. ...Yesterday I really messed up. It was a surprise, I lost my cool …rushing out like that, embarassed at being found out like that. I regret that. I’ve been, behaving myself better today. With regards to Ryousuke, very soon there will be an announcement of his work, and the workshop ought to be finishing up."

Splat, at that moment, a drop. A raindrop fell on the tip of his hose. Mouth open like a fool, he looked up without thinking.

Sena’s finger reached out, catching Haruta’s finger once more. Gripping strongly, that was good, she looked up at him as if she were speaking to him. Ice-blue eyes, trembling and speaking. It must have been the work of the three thousand yen. There are so many things I cannot do. I can’t even think about them. I cannot let myself cross that line. Not even in Gunma could I think about it. Because I cannot even think about you.

"Over there, the big building with the workshops. ...The rain’s coming. Hey. Let’s go quickly."

---He could not escape.

He never even got on the imaginary train to Minakami. He never got on the imaginary train to Kusatsu, either.

Unable to say anything more, unable to do anything more, by Sena’s slender fingers, guided by her soft hand he had to start running. "Wow, what rain!" "What a mess! We really need an umbrella!" "You’ve got to be kidding! Until yesterday getting wet didn’t even bother you~!" ---Looking up at the darkening rainclouds, many of them protesting, the other students started running too. People out for a walk, old men and even the dogs started running.


It looked like they’d managed to escape from the cold raindrops falling down, while Sena ran together with Haruta, the raindrops was making polkadots on the sidewalk, but before long they threw themselves in the shadow of the eaves of an old building.

"Haa, it’s cold... here. This is the workshop building."

"It’s really coming down!"

As soon as they had gotten all the way inside, even Haruta saw and understood how completely the place was crumbling from age. Dark mold was crowding the corners of the ceiling. The window glass was completely fogged over, and the iron window frames and latticework was rusted. A line of dull, drab doorknobs went down the hallway. Looking like they’d been there for decades, from what he could see, these things are antiques... if what he’d heard was correct, anyway, the building was a junkyard.

From the moment he stepped into the place, he could smell the unique odor of oil paint. And even more irritating--- thinner or something stronger smelling was wreaking havoc with his nose. "This stinks!", exclaimed Haruta without thinking, then frowned: Sena must have been used to this. Putting on a good face, Haruta went without hesitation down the dark corridor, barely lit by the flickering, nearly burnt out flourescent lights.

They went up the bare, cracked concrete staircase, arriving on the third floor. Sena’s feet stopped. They could see rooms lined up down the whole corridor, each identified by a letter of the alphabet. A guy looking like a student dashed out of one of the classrooms with a huge backpack and a canvas tote, and went running down the staircase as if he still had more to do.

"...That guy, he had a painting, didn’t he? Do you paint here too?"

"Yes"

"Could you show---"

"No"

For some reason they had lowered their voices, since everything echoed in that dim and narrow corridor. Sena looked around a bit, then shortly started walking down the corridor. Going steadily but surely, today her boot-heels echoed.

What kind of person came to this floor? Walking side by side with Sena, hand in hand, he noticed that her delicate earlobes were pierced, but there was nothing stuck there. Really, wasn’t Sena just perfect today? If he could be her new boyfriend, would he be able to pretend to be completely happy?

Sena perfectly hid her true feelings of love, and instead pretended to love---

"...?"

Something hurt.

'What was that?', he thought, clutching his chest.

"What’s wrong?"

"...I don’t know. I’m all right..."

It hurt, didn’t it? Wasn’t it painful? What about Gunma? He had no idea. In any case, he didn’t know why his throat tightened whenever he breathed. If he were a little smarter, maybe he could express in words just what this hurt he was suffering was, and then maybe he could understand. Not born all that smart, he still hadn’t gotten to understand himself yet. Sorrowful, Haruta scratched his long hair roughly. For the time being setting it aside as something to think about later, inside of three seconds he had forgotten.

3D, 3E, and next, 3F said the number-plate on the white sliding door they stood in front of. Sena made a slight grimace, he noticed from the side. 'Perhaps in this room', Haruta thought, at almost the same instant.

The door suddenly opened from the inside.

"..."

The voice that cried wasn’t Sena’s. Door opened, what was inside was revealed. What’s-his-face was there.

Hair all raised in a headband, he was wearing black-rimmed glasses with very thick lenses. With holes in his worn jeans and a cheap-looking flannel shirt, and, in spite of it being winter, he was almost barefoot, wearing sandals. He wore an wrinkled apron so paint-stained that it’s original color couldn’t be guessed. It contrasted sharply with yesterday’s handsome, super-cool, jet-black, stylish store employee, which had made Haruta’s looks suffer in comparison. Now he just looked like a nerd. But maybe whats-his-face was in his element here, he thought. Because even in Haruta’s opinion, what he wore today was surprisingly appropriate for what he was up to.

...At any rate, so it was. They both wore the same black-rimmed glasses, but Noto could hardly be more different from this guy. Noto. The poor thing, Noto.

"Hullo, even today you’re co~ol, of course☆ Really good! Whatever you wear, it matches! If I dressed like this it’d be seriously dangerous, yo maan, Seihou! Hoo! Seihohho! Hohho! Hohhohhoo! Hohhohoo! A slob inside! Whoa!"

Without thinking, Haruta had staggered nearly halfway over to him, but caught himself just in time, recovering his sanity. Nope, you don’t just walk up to and hug a guy like that.

Then at Haruta’s side there was a Siamese cat with beautiful silver-grey hair, her long tail gracefully swinging back and forth--- long and slender, waving in the air. She snuggled against her new boyfriend, melting to his form.

"...How fortunate. You were here hard at work. We meet up like this a lot, just like yesterday. ...Why would I want to go out alone, I ask myself, or would I rather meet up with someone?"

What’s-his-face didn’t say anything. He glanced at Haruta’s face, then looked hard at Sena’s face. Sena gave him a composed smile in return. Only Haruta could feel the awful pain that flowed through her fingers, knowing the commotion in her heart.

"A break? Go buy coffee? Convenience store? Somewhere out of the rain?"

"...What a coincidence, for sure. I’d really like to know what you’re up to here."

"What? No way, I had no idea Ryousuke had come here! I didn’t think he was here. I wondered if Misako’s bunch had come here. Even those girls are doing things here, and since they said they’d make tea I was looking for them."

"Bringing a high-schooler?"

"Oh, us ♥"

Her tongue stuck out cutely, as if in greeting, while the matter of Haruta continued to be left out of their conversation completely, as if it were just a pin-prick.

"Even for this young 'boyfriend', I want to do a proper introduction. Ryousuke and the others have already kicked me out, finishing things completely, so to speak. We thought we’d give everybody something to worry about. Isn’t that right, Haruta-kun? We’re going to the hot springs, aren’t we?"

"What? Hot springs? What’s with this?"

Fully five seconds later, it dawned on Haruta. Oh yeah, the Gunma pamphlet, the bare people, the hot springs. They were pretending. Holding Sena’s hand tightly,

"Ah, Gunma Gunma! Yes, we’re going to Gun~ma! Because we love Gunma~! Right, Sena-san!"

"Ahahahaha!",

---Carefree laughter echoed, but nobody else joined in. Sena, of course, was not laughing, having brought up the subject of hot springs.

The phantom tail swam from side to side in the air.

Deep in what’s-his-face’s eyes, a sharp look burned.

"...Hot springs though, it doesn’t matter. Maybe this way, you’ll finally stop coming over here to the studio to bother me? When I’m too wound up, I’ll finally be able to come here and take a break. You aren’t going to help me with my work after this? Will I be able to work with the same energy, I wonder? What about the deadline? Mine is the same as yours. Don’t you understand just how awful the situation is now?"

"Whatever... I wasn’t planning on bothering you,"

"You aren’t bothering me. Lately though, you’ve been crying a lot, and clinging, but I had to turn in my assignments on time... if they dropped me, what was I going to do? Every time I found the time to meet up with you, you’d cry. We’d go out, you’d even keep me for hours, and because of that I’d be ridiculously late to the exhibition. Aren’t you doing the same thing today? In the middle of my third year I’m the best, in spite of this awful situation."

"...That’s a lie. Excuse me. About that stuff, I don’t want to know..."

"Maybe I don’t want to know either. Your prospects are good, you’re getting just the right guidance on all your subjects, your classes are finishing up... about my feelings, I don’t want to know!"

The sudden shout echoing in his ears, Haruta reflexively hunched his shoulders. He was almost frozen at Sena’s side. So-and-so-kun threw something with all his strength at their booted feet. There had been a 500-yen coin clutched in his hand. Now it made one big bounce off the floor, then rolled strangely around, then making a plinking sound when it struck the wall.

"...Forget it! Understand this! I’m not going out with you anymore! We’re making an end of it, can we do that!? So that way you can stop bothering me!? Of course, I, we are such a problem! We’re betraying you, you’re jealous, and we’re making a problem for you! I’ll get even! ...I want to do a good job of it! But for now, I am going to think of other things!"

That so-and-so scratched his head furiously, and his face was twisted in almost uncontrollable irritation. His hairband fell to the floor, trampled under his sandles unnoticed.

Sena stayed frozen where she stood. Suddenly, Haruta had a flashback to that day: submerged in the muddy river, a white hand struggling painfully for the surface of the water. Without thinking, he gripped Sena’s hand tightly. At the same time he tugged at Sena’s hand as if to say, "Shall we get out of here?" But they could not. Sena’s feet were nearly buried in mud, and she couldn’t move.

She had failed. All was in shambles. So-and-so-kun has blown up. Sena had stepped on a something like a land-mine --- so he thought, at that moment.

Then it came. The idea came.

"...Ahem? Just a bit? Wait? Please?"

In order to protect Sena he took one step forward, standing before so-and-so’s eyes. Then, he spoke.

"Ryo...Ryousaku-kun, is it? I have something to say, if you don’t mind? I’d rather talk about other things, but, would changing girlfriends do? Besides which, though you’ve been blaming everything on Sena, might the problem be that you don’t want to go out with her? If you had explained properly, what could she have said? Why didn’t you explain it to her? Or perhaps I should say, were you just going to keep her tied up in chains? You decided to do nothing about the matter, but what about Sena? Whether it’s this matter, or your assignments, you don’t seem to have done too well. I wonder if it’s really Sena’s fault. So what’s with you acting all angry?"

So-and-so’s eyes finally looked straight at Haruta’s. The look in his eyes was almost murderous. But he wasn’t scared at all. As for his face, well, Taka-chan’s smile was a hundred times scarier, and as for the sentiment, the Palmtop Tiger’s wrath was a thousand times scarier. For he was a real beast, a dreadful living weapon, ready for military use. With an slack-jawed idiotic face, facing so-and-so’s eyes directly, or at least, continuing to do so.

So-and-so’s irritatingly self-important comments had finally begun to bother him. To some extent, even he had noticed the malice behind them.

"It was Ryousaku-kun that started the whole problem. But Sena-san carried on as if she were dying, and he had had quite enough of that, so Ryousaku-kun honestly felt he didn’t need to do anything at all. First of all, Ryousaku-kun replaced her with another of their friends, starting this whole mess. Whether he was too busy to deal with the issue or not, that he started by cheating was of course the very worst thing he could do. Or did he think it easier than dealing with the issue? Was he afraid it wouldn’t turn out quite the way he wanted? Because of that, he threatened her like crazy so she wouldn’t talk about the problem. In spite of being so busy, he was unfaithful. He robbed her. What’s am I going to do? I won’t speak of that. ...What we have is a really talented person, but why can’t he, with a little self control, just treat people better? And to cap it all off, bothered by the whole mess, Ryousaku-kun is about to flunk his class..."

Bam!

--- A sound went off near his ear.

"...Wow. A guy slapping a guy? That’s..."

It didn’t hurt at all. Every day he was greeted by a slap in the face from the comparitively voracious Taiga, something which definitely left your skull ringing. How much of a problem is a slap weaker than a 4-foot 8-inch high school girl could do?

"Hey!", said Haruta laughing and looking.

Sena gasped.

Still holding Haruta by one hand, Sena let out her breath like a doll, and sank slowly to the floor right there. She looked like she’d been slapped on the face.

Haruta, confused, crouched down and repeated foolishly, "Are you OK? What happened? Did I slap you? Are you hit somewhere?", trying to look at her face covered by both hands.

Turning towards Haruta, so-and-so-kun almost said something, but didn’t.

"---Why’d you have to drag, this, high-schooler into this!? What were you doing!? Aren’t you an idiot!?"

"...I, am, going, out, with, him."

Like a robot running out of oil, Sena’s upturned face went white. She stared at so-and-so-kun’s face as if she were clinging to hope. So-and-so-kun’s face, on the contrary, had gone red, seeming to be on the verge of growling curses.

"As you wish. But for your information, you’ll get yourself arrested. Your getting arrested will be convenient, though, I would never get involved with brats!"

Sena’s right hand, hanging on to Haruta’s finger, fell to the floor. "...Ah", she spoke in a thin voice, what took a few seconds to recognize as a crying voice. Standing up, Sena walked out. Confused, Haruta stood up too. He wanted to say something to that wretched so-and-so-kun, but looking back found the workshop door had already been closed.

It wasn’t worth saying, so he shook himself and took off after Sena. He caught up with her at once. She was crying as she walked. He couldn’t touch her, but he immediately placed himself at her side and walked along with her.

The rain soaking their bodies felt like ice.

The weather report hadn’t said it was going to rain.

Everybody else went around with umbrellas. Jogging, Sena and Haruta passed them by.


By the time they got back to the apartment, the rain was fading and Sena had stopped crying.

After they’d gone in, which was good, yet a little uncomfortable, Haruta combed his wet hair. On a cushion in one of the few empty spaces in the disorderly room, he gave a exaggerated shiver.

The winter rain had frozen him to the core. He rubbed his numb hands together.

"Let me go wash my face," said Sena, and went off to the bathroom. After more than ten minutes she still hadn’t come out. He couldn’t hear the sound of the shower.

She looked far from happy with so-and-so-kun, after all, that last farewell had definitely been hit out of the ballpark. That may have been her own fault, since she had subjected him endure endless complaints. He couldn’t leave, since he felt that even cold comfort was better than nothing. He was worried sick. With her crying so much--- she’d tried to drown herself once, so of course he was worried.

"...Uh. Are, are you OK...?"

He turned around at the sound of the doorknob.

Sena was standing there.

In the dark corridor with the light still turned off, hair wet from the rain, she stood with a bath-towel wrapped once around her.

"...Aren’t you cold?"

Slowly, her hair still stuck to her cheeks, Sena tried to nod at Haruta.

"...Well...you’ll catch a cold..."

"It’s all right. It’s fine, whatever happens."

He watched her white ankles as she slowly, noiselessly, walked over. In the small one-room apartment, Sena came over before Haruta’s eyes, crossing in only a few steps.

The light wasn’t on. He wanted to turn it on, but he couldn’t find the switch. Outside it was already dark, but light from a billboard right next door came faintly in the window, the weak light showing the inside of the messy room.

Sena’s cheeks were already tinged blue.

"...You really ought to take a shower. Really. I want to also, I’m freezing to death."

"The cold’s all right. ...With Haruta-kun, even with the cold, it’s OK. We won’t die. ...We can’t die."

He really couldn’t see the floor of Sena’s room. Bending down, Sena was able to kneel right in front of where Haruta sat on a cushion. Her blue eyes sparkling, her white face looked up at him. The shadow of her eyelashes fell on her cheeks. Colder even than ice, Sena’s hands caught Haruta’s wrists. At that moment, the bathtowel wrapped around her body slipped down to her waist.

The back of his neck stiffened as if he were shivering.

Rattling, his jaw hardened. He couldn’t breathe either.

Your breasts are showing...

The idiot idiotically whispered with all his might. But even that voice shyly cracked and shook. At this distance, frankly, everything about her, her fragrance, her body heat, everything had the power to make him tremble. Her silver hair shone bluely, clinging to her bare skin.

Both her arms stretched out, wrapped around him and in an instant he was pulled down. He was startled, afraid of his own weight crushing Sena’s slender form, and reflexively pushed against the floor with his hand to get up. But in this messy room, pushing with just one hand in the dark, he knocked over a tower of sketchpads.

Then---

"...So it’s indecent. ...As long as nobody finds out, it’s all right..."

---Then, so it is.

Sena’s thin voice went darkly husky. Suddenly reversed, Haruta’s body was leaning against Sena’s naked body. The bathtowel had gone away somewhere.

Reflected in the light coming in from outside, he looked into those big, trembling, ice blue eyes.

Her skin where he touched, those eyes, all over, how cold she was, he thought.

This whole affair seemed like a dream. A beautiful girl, older than him, naked, trying to seduce him. He didn’t know how many times he’d wanted something like this to happen in reality. As it was, if he were to lay himself down, this person would do it all.

As an idiot, it might not be a good to think about too many things, but rather let them go. Yes rather, that might be wiser. It might be better for him. It might be right.

Sena’s breath crawled up the base of his neck.

Her fingertip traced his cheek.

The feeling brought by that gentle finger moving was like a dream, and the power from her body overwhelming, ...but, of course, he was an idiot.

And because he was an idiot, he didn’t have a lot of control over things. Things were going well, he couldn’t take advantage of it. It was only for the moment.

So, what was before him wasn’t the naked Sena, such a thing would be ‘crossing the line’, you could say, but rather hard cold reality.

"...Love, so to speak, is a really strange, thing, wouldn’t you say?"

"...Eh...?"

"...That so-and-so, he was never a very good guy... but Sena-san, you ought to know that even doing it this way, you will still be drawn back to him. You’re jumping into the river, or the same thing, that’s what you’re trying to do. ...Up next to play the role of new boyfriend, so you can drown yourself in the river mud. Me."

Sena’s wandering finger suddenly stopped.

Looking up at the ceiling still, Haruta continued talking with a shaking voice.

"...Hey. I’m thinking! Give me a bit. It’s my problem. ...A terrible thing, I don’t... River mud and the like I can deal with, but me, getting hurt..."

He didn’t look into Sena’s eyes. He just looked at the ceiling. He already wanted to go back.

I want to go back home quickly. I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home already. It was just that. He was a sad, lonely, lost child. Scared and insecure, he was just looking for the way back home.

"...Ahhh. I’m not going to do as you’ve proposed. Nor do I wish to be called your helper. I would only be a problem. I don’t want to be together with you."

Sigh...

I want to go home.

He pushed her body aside. Without even refastening the buttons of his uniform jacket, which had come undone without him knowing, he pulled on his shoes and flew out the door. He took off running.

"Wait! Wait, I’m sorry... I’m sorry!"

Sena’s voice could be heard. He turned around suddenly, and saw through the partially open entry door, nude, about to give chase but unable to do so, he saw Sena’s confused white face. Suddenly, inside of his head there was an explosion of white light, and he lost consciousness. When he came to, he was crying.

"Sena-san is an idiot! It’s not the time to apologize... I’m thinking! About your matters, and my matters too! Just right now, please let me thinnnk! I’m such a dunce, there are so many things I’ve got to think about, and I’ve got to get through it all! As because of that, I wind up getting hurt! And it hurt a lot, look! Until not long ago, I was just bait to get Ryousaku-kun to come back to you! That’s all right, though, if you had just thought about it, then of course you would have understood! And yet, and yet, even helping you from the river mud… was that... nothing!? Did you try to understand!? Perhaps you didn’t think about it at all!? ...Hey! Because I’m asking! A little bit better... think about it! Aren’t you an adult!?"

"Sorry, sorry sorry sorry... sorry... sorry excuse me sorry sorrrryyy"

Sena, still naked, shedding tears, in the end began to emerge from her entryway.

"Come back, you fooool!"

Her voice was hoarse, having shouted so much. Turning, he ran down the steps at once.

Leaving the apartment, he ran as hard as he could.

Running, running in the light rain, he ran stubbornly for home. Even forgetting the bicycle he had left at the station, he kept on running.

Though there was hardly any wind, the rain was cold. He stopped along the way.

He crouched down under the eaves of a convenience store. It was cold. His throat hurt. He was dizzy. Cold. He didn’t understand anything more. He wanted to go home. Still, he didn’t go home--- still he didn’t return.

Pulling out his cellphone, he tried to dial the best person for this moment. After five rings, that person answered.

"...Yuri-chan..."

"...Eh! Who’s this!? Haruta-kun, is that you!? ...No way, why are you calling from your cell phone!? Were you caught shoplifting!?"

"...Yuri-chan, know what, know what..."

"What!? What!? What happened!? Are you crying!? Did somebody rob you!?"

"Well, you see, though I remembered, the Siamese Cat, see, it didn’t come back, and it must have died on the floor of that house. ...Why did it go out to die? Anyhow, as any human being, I thought, why couldn’t I save it? Why couldn’t I save it? Why is it bothering me so much?"

"I don’t understand! Anyway since your teacher is coming, please wait right there! Where are you!? Don’t go anywhere, cause I’m coming right away! I’m leaving now!"

"...You don’t have to come... but it’s OK, Yuri-chan, I’ll show you the way... The Siamese Cat, well, even though it was nearly dead, why did it run away from the human? That much, please show me. Myself, though I want to think about myself, my head doesn’t work very well. For that reason please, could you think for me? Teacher, please, help me to understand."

"Eh!? Ohhhh what am I going to do? Umm... umm... yes... well..., umm yes... maybe that’s it. ...The Siamese Cat, it didn’t look so 'bad' it was about to die... did it?"

"...Bad...?"

"Look, if it looks about to die, for a human to be sad for it is perfectly understandable."

"...That... in the end, is the line? The poor cat, saddened, about ready to die, decided that was the way?"

"Do you think it will be grateful for your concern? Look, aren’t you carrying an awful lot of responsibility for just an animal? Though I remember how it was in the old days, with the dog in my parent’s house."

"Your talk helped."

"Is that so?"

"...But you know, I rather want to be there when it dies. Of course, being there when it happens is sad, but if I’m not there I’ll always be looking, right? Forever worrying, thinking about it always… wouldn’t that be sad still? Forgetting about it just because you cannot see it is absurd (like how a cat thinks). Human love isn’t like that. Why don’t you understand this? ...Anyway, if it dies, then I need to see it all, even the dying, the very moment we part... Only seeing her til the moment we started liking each other won’t do. Running away without seeing her... it’s like, like, don’t take humans so lightly! I want to say, ‘Try and think about it better!’ ...Though I said it, whether she understood those words or not, I have no idea..."

"Oh, I see. She isn’t an animal. Which reminds me, next door to my parent’s home there was a cattle farm."

"Your talk already helped."

"...So it seems..."

---She still don’t understand.

As he turned seventeen, speaking with his teacher, under the eaves of the convenience store, Haruta Kouji continued crying.

Then, he caught himself a bad cold.

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