| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
The plan was simple.
In gym class we were going to play basketball. Normally the guys and girls would split into two different games and play amongst themselves, but there was a warm up period where people would break off into pairs for ten minutes to stretch and practice passing balls. The gym teacher wouldn't worry about who pairs up with who as long as everyone had a partner.
"Which is why it's a good opportunity for two people who don't normally talk to one another," I explained to Aisaka. The two of us were walking towards the gymnasium in our gym uniforms. Aisaka was moping and fidgeting with her ponytail. "I think it's a great. Just go team up with Kitamura. Simple as that."
"Team up with him..." she said nervously. "But guys always pair up with guys and girls with girls! I've always teamed up with Minorin and you with Kitamura-kun. I just can't just suddenly pair up with him!"
I waved away her worries and continued to proudly explain my strategy in further detail. "Of course you can't. Instead, it's gotta happen naturally and casually. We just need to prepare a few things. First, I'll pair up with you."
She shot me a suspicious look, "And then...?"
"After that, Kitamura will have to team up with someone else. Whoever that someone else is will 'accidentally' get hit by a ball--thrown by me. I won't hurt him but I'll still cause a fuss and take him to the school's clinic." I paused a moment to let the plan sink in. "And so, who'll be left behind?"
"Me... and... Kitamura-kun?"
"Right," I nodded. "This way, you can just say 'Looks like we'll have to pair up.'"
Aisaka paused a moment before saying anything. "You're a terrible actor. Do you think I'm a fool? Is all of that going to happen smoothly?"
"I'll do my best to make it smooth!" The two of us sat side by side on a bench to change into our sneakers before gathering around the gym teacher.
"Today we'll play some basketball," the teacher explained simply. "Let's start with warming up. Everyone pair up and--"
I turned towards Aisaka, "Hey, Aisaka!"
Quickly, she replied, "Hey, Takasu-kun. Let's pair up!"
I noticed the gym teacher glancing between Aisaka and I. "Right, it seems we've got some eager and fired up spirits today! Dismissed!" Maybe this wasn't as natural as I thought it would look.
Aisaka and I moved towards a corner of the gym as the other students paired up. I heard a few whispers behind our backs, "Takasu mustn't value his life anymore...", "It's as though he's the Palmtop Tiger's pet..." I ignored them. They didn't know what they were talking about. Besides, I had more important things to worry about.
"No problems with the first part of the plan." I said to Aisaka.
"Yeah." She nodded. We realized how wrong we were when we turned to look at the rest of the class.
"Hmm. That sort of day today, huh? Alright, I'll team up with a girl, too. Anyone interested?" Someone called out.
"Me too! I wanna team up with a guy!" A girl flirtatiously said and many more responded.
"Hey why not? Sounds fine to me."
"This could be fun! I'll show you girls how a man plays ball!"
Though a few people still paired up with their usual friends, an excited mood spread throughout the class. It seems part of my plan was so good many others caught onto it and were using it to interact with girls or guys they normally wouldn't talk to.
A sudden thought crossed my mind and I looked towards Kitamura. "Maruo-kun!" A girl had already approached him. "Oops, I mean Kitamura-kun! Pair up with me?"
Kitamura gave her his usual, friendly, cheerful smile. "Huh? Ah, sure, since Takasu seems to have dumped me..."
I felt Aisaka smack my back in a panic. "W--wait! What's going on?! Why is Kitamura-kun pairing up with that weird girl?!"
Weird isn't the word I'd use to describe Kihara Maya. She's one of the most popular girls in the class--especially with the guys. The reasons for this are rather obvious when you consider that, even for a seventeen year old, she's got a rather good-looking, flexible figure. She's also the kind to put extensions on her already long eyelashes and a thin layer of pink lipstick on her lips. I'm sure I'm not the only guy in the class who would consider her cute. "What do you mean weird? That's Kihara-san. Don't go bad mouthing your classmates like that. Even if things aren't going exactly according to--" I stopped berating Aisaka. Partly because my words degenerated into a high pitched whining exclamation.
"Hey, Kushieda, let's pair up." Noto Hisamitsu, I shared a class with him last year, approached Kushieda in an almost coy manner. He's seventeen years old and wears a popular set of black-framed glasses which didn't suit him. What the hell is that bastard doing?!
"Okay! Let's go!" Kushieda skipped cheerfully towards Noto.
The plan was going all wrong! All wrong! "Wha?! Him and Kushieda-san?! Why is she pairing up with that weird guy?"
"Weird guy? I thought he was a friend of yours?" Aisaka said to me in a mockingly deadpan voice. "Really, this is why you're a useless dog! Why didn't see think about this happening?"
"You agreed to the plan!"
Before the two of us could continue shoving the blame on one another, the gym teacher blew his whistle then turned on a radio for us to listen to while doing stretching and calisthenic exercises. We all gathered and lined up around the radio. As Aisaka began stretching, her ponytail shook and bounced around but the somewhat cute image didn't make up for the frustrated glare in her eyes or the tightly clenched jaw. The guys closest to her tried to inch away.
Unless you're Kushieda, you're bound to get bitten if you go near Aisaka Taiga. I remember a classmate of mine asking about her alias once. Despite being a horrible pun, the Palmtop Tiger is a fitting nickname. She was comparable to a tiger in many ways that separated her from the other girls. For one, she seem to be a mostly solitary creature, not concerned about what Kitamura--or anybody else, for that matter--thought about her.
Yet, I know otherwise and the unexpected contrast was simply glaring as I watched Aisaka performing her stretches to the timing of the radio's music. Nothing matched. Her small and thin figure didn't make one think of the word "savagery". Those who didn't know better presumed her to be a fragile-looking pretty girl. When she first entered this school, many thought of her as one of the prettiest new students and lined up to confess to her. I guess I could understand how they felt.
She was one size smaller compared to the other girls. The gym uniform that fit every other girl was too large for her so she had to roll up the bottom part. Speaking of which, even her butt was as small as a child's. Frankly, she's been tormenting me since I met her but she was a cute, diminutive type--even if it was all looks.
Aisaka glared over her shoulder at me. I suppose a teenage boy's heart can't lie, I felt mine beat faster as we made eye contact. There was some sweat dripping from my face and I had a feeling it wasn't because of the squats I was doing. It would be great if there wasn't a tiger inside that figure of hers. Wait. What the hell am I thinking?!
"Are you spacing out, you piece of junk?" Aisaka growled. "Is that head of yours broken or something?"
The music from the radio changed, signaling a change in exercises. Aisaka coldly looked away and sat down with her legs forward and back to me. "Great, you get to help me with my stretching exercises. I can't wait for these warm-ups to be done with."
Aisaka continued to mutter as she leaned forward, trying to reach her feet with her tiny fingers. To help her stretch forward, I'm supposed to crouch behind her and push her. I'd have to touch her t-shirt and body. I hesitated for a moment, trying to calm myself, before I began to push--gently--on her back. "Huh, you're pretty flexible. It would be great if you could talk to Kitamura in this situation instead of me."
"Yeah." I probably shouldn't have reminded her. Our conversation quickly became empty, silent, idle chatter. As time went on, I began feeling unsettled. All those thoughts about Aisaka's body earlier resurfaced as I couldn't help but notice her from the close distance. My hands pushing against her back and shoulders felt the warmth of her body. With both sight and touch, I could faintly make out the outline of Aisaka's underwear beneath her shirt.
I thought about all the other guys who followed my lead to pair up with a girl and were in the same situation as me. I think I've done the guys in the class a huge favour by breaking the status quo.
"Umph! Hey... you're pressing too hard..! Stop!"
Wait a minute. Was Noto also looking at the outline of Kushieda's underwear beneath her shirt, too?
"Ryuuji! I can't... breath! Ow, ow, ow!"
Was Noto seeing what I was seeing--except on Kushieda? Was he looking at her neck? At the parting of her hair? Was the back of Kushieda's neck, where the sun rarely shined, as white as snow? Was the skin behind her ears as smooth as polished marble like Aisaka's? As though you could leave a finger print if you touched it? These sights was enough to make my heart race, was Noto's heart racing?
Aisaka let out a long, loud grunt.
Startled, I stopped pressing down on her back. "Huh? How come you sound like you're in pain?"
She quickly stood up, inhaling deeply like a diver breaking the surface of the sea. "Y--you'll find out in a--" she coughed, "--moment. Switch."
As I sat down I saw Aisaka smiling at me for the first time. This took me by surprise. Why is she smiling? I wondered. As I stretched out my arms and legs, I reminded Aisaka, "Remember not to push too har--!"
My breathe escaped from my lungs as my torso suddenly bent down at an angle I never thought possible. Aisaka was on my back, she had pounced on it like a tiger. "Ow, ow--stop!" Did she take a running leap or something?! With its weight and momentum, a tiger was trying to break my back. I thought my spine was about to snap when she finally stepped off of me. "Damn..." I croaked, "That hurt!"
"Good," Aisaka glared at me and explained simply, "We're even now."
I wanted to say something back but I had a feeling arguing would just be a waste. The gym teacher finally turned off the radio and passed around some basketballs. My back and legs felt like they were about to crumble into dust. It'll be a miracle if I walk out of this gym class.
"Let's hurry up with the plan already." Aisaka growled. The sound of basketballs bouncing around rang throughout the gym as students began passing back and forth.
The plan was to "accidentally" throw the ball at Kitamura's partner during the passing exercises but now I wasn't sure if I could go with it. Aisaka took a few steps away from me and maneuvered herself so that Kitamura's partner--Kihara--stood behind her. No matter how lightly I might throw the ball, I wasn't sure if I could deliberately hit a girl. Aisaka gave me an impatient look; maybe I could stall by passing the ball to Aisaka first.
"Hey, what are you doing?" she frowned as she caught the ball. Her eyes reflected the bright lights in the gym like a sharp blade in my direction.
"Just... Uh... Waiting for a good chance. Come on, pass me the ball."
She scowled as she threw the ball back at me with more force than necessary. Once the ball was in my hands, she gestured with her chin over her shoulder at Kihara. Do it! her glaring eyes said to me.
"Right," I sighed, "Okay." I bounced the ball off the floor in an attempt to prepare myself. I ended up tossing the ball back to Aisaka who scowled deeply.
"Hurry the hell up already!" she bounced the ball between both her hands with the expertise of a skilled basketball player. "Here!"
She threw the ball at my face so quickly I almost didn't catch it. In fact, even though my hands were able to intercept the ball, it traveled with so much force the momentum knocked my hands into my face. "W--why you..." I mumbled as I rubbed my face with one hand. Now I was starting to get annoyed.
"Hey, Ryuuji! Come on! Pass the ball to me!" Stalling like this was going to get me killed. Aisaka continued to glare at me as she paced left and right impatiently, causing her sneakers to squeak on the floor with each step. Her arms were hanging loosely by her side, she clearly wasn't intending on catching the ball unless it went directly to her. I just had to do it now I decided and brought the ball up to my chest to throw it forward.
"Ah!" Somebody cried out.
I was thankful for the distraction. Aisaka turned her attention away from me. "What are you looking at?" I asked half-heartedly and followed her gaze.
"Sheesh! Kitamura-kun, just where do you think you're throwing the ball?" Kihara chased after their ball but stopped when it bounced off Aisaka's leg. Aisaka scowled as she looked at the ball but didn't say anything. "Sorry about that Aisaka-san!"
I wondered if being a girl made it easier to communicate with Aisaka. Kihara was smiling as she called out to her where as a guy would be wearing an expression of dread and terror. "Can you pass it over, plea--Oh, wait," she bent down, "My shoe lace is undone."
"Aisaka! Sorry about that, can you pass it to me instead?" It was none other than Mister Nice Guy with the flashy glasses--Kitamura Yuusaku. He smiled as he called out to Aisaka. As expected, he treated every girl with the same cheerfulness. I wondered if that was one of the reasons many thought him "innocent".
I turned my attention towards Aisaka who seemed to stop moving like an engine out of gas. I couldn't see her face but her body was as rigid as a diving board.
Suddenly she started moving--if you could call what she was doing moving. Her movements were jerky and spasmodic; she took a stiff step towards the ball. Moving like a wind-up toy with damaged and rusted joints, she bent over awkwardly at the hip and picked up the ball with both hands. Without saying any warnings or acknowledgements, she stiffly swung both of her arms forward, weakly throwing the ball at Kitamura.
The ball bounced a few times before coming to a rolling stop at Kitamura's feet. He picked it up and waved a cheesy V at Aisaka with his fingers, "Thanks!" How does he honestly get so much attention from girls? This geek with his V-signs and shirt tucked into his slightly tight-fitting track pants?
I turned my attention back towards Aisaka who was standing still as a stick. "Aisaka?" All it took was a few words from Kitamura and she dropped all signs of intelligence. I looked around and noticed that a few energetic students passing balls had moved around a bit and gotten closer to us. Fearing that Aisaka might get hit by a stray ball in her witless state, I gently tugged on her sleeve and pulled her away from the other students.
She needed to get over this. I turned her by the shoulder to look her in the face. "Aisaka--" I paused and took a step back, surprised by the rare smile on her face. I had to double check but she really was smiling.
Her eyes were scrunched up so that she looked like a small kitten who had just finished eating its favourite meal. Her hands caressed her puffed up cheeks and her mouth hung in an open smile. Her face and ears began to blush a bright red. My ears could just catch a faint sound coming from her throat.
"Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh..." She was giggling...?
"H--hey, Aisaka? What's wrong?" I asked again.
She finally snapped out of her little stupor. "Huh? What now?! You staring at me is what's wrong! Rub that dumb look off your face, you should happy for me like a dog."
"Happy for you...?" I was stunned. Happy for what? There was a pout on Aisaka's lips but she was clearly in a better mood. Her hands grabbed her ponytail and she was slowly spinning. Almost dancing...
But why? I wanted to ask her what got her into this mood but it was difficult getting her attention as she spun around in circles. Her ponytail hit my arm a few times before I finally asked, "Hey! Why should I be happy?"
I finally had her attention. She stopped spinning to give me her usual scowl. "Huh?! What are you moaning about? Have you forgotten what we're trying to do here? You really are an idiot aren't you? How small is that brain of yours? Stop fooling around and wasting my time. Though, since I'm in a good mood maybe I'll tell you..." Aisaka began to giggle between her words at this point. "Ki--Kitamura-kun just, heh, practiced passing the ball, heh, with me!" She just barely finished the sentence before degenerating back into her giggling stupor.
Was she serious? Did she think what happened now was progress? I waited a while for Aisaka to calm down before speaking up, "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Huh?! Seriously, a dog like you needs to quit complaining."
"I'm not complaining. But, are you serious? You're happy just because of what happened a few moments ago? You call that practicing with him? You just threw the ball back at him. You were supposed to start a conversation with him and get to know him better--" Aisaka's giggling and grinning came to a quick stop. She glared at me with her usual grim expression. "--Am I right? You didn't even say anything to him. You just kept quiet and stiffly threw the ball back to him. You call that a conversation when all he did in return was--"
I mimicked Kitamura, held the ball in one hand while waving a V with my fingers.
"Hmph!" Aisaka slammed down on the ball. It bounced off the floor high into the air. The force of Aisaka's strike caused a stinging pain to shoot through my hand and up my arm but her anger didn't end there. As I clutched my hand in pain, gravity pulled the ball down straight onto my head. "You're right. I guess you are useful for something every once in a while. We're continuing with the plan!"
I held my throbbing head with both hands as the ball bounced off the floor once and was picked up by Aisaka. With a high and mighty expression on her face she walked passed me, kicking the back of my leg as she did so. Before I fully recovered from the pain climbing up my leg, she called out my name.
"Hey, Ryuuji!" I turned towards Aisaka just in time to catch a speeding basketball with my chest. I bent over, gasping for air and worrying that I was going to cough up blood. With my arm, head, leg, and chest aching in pain I decided to be more careful when pointing out just how small Aisaka's victories are in the future.
"Th--that hurts!" I croaked but Aisaka ignored my pain. Instead, her eyes glittered with an intense madness. She seemed to be engulfed in a burning aura of determination.
"Hurry up and stick with the plan," she repeated. Then added in a warning tone, "This time we do it right."
"About the plan..." After experiencing just how painful being hit by a ball could be, I really wasn't sure about it. "I don't think--"
"What are you mumbling about? You're the one that came up with the plan! Come on, practice time's almost over!"
She was right. I glanced at the clock, the teacher would blow his whistle in a minute or two and the class would divide to play actual basketball games. I glanced at Kihara--I can't do it! I can't hit a girl! With only one or two minutes left, I had to stall some how. Aisaka's going to go ballistic on me but that's better than hurting Kihara. I just need to find a way to stall her.
"What the hell are you waiting for, you low-life" Aisaka yelled at me but then wiggled her nose. "Damn it! My nose is itchy again..."
Now's my chance! "How d'you manage anyway? You look terrible!" As Aisaka rubbed at her nose, I opened my mouth and words shot out of my mouth like bullets from a machine gun. I had to keep her distracted! "You're always sneezing--like last night! Are you allergic to anything? Or do you have a cold? Maybe you're nose is bothered by the mess in your kitchen? The smell it gives off can't be good for your health. Do you ever clean that place up yourself? Really, it's a horrible waste of such nice carpet. Speaking of which, do you know where I can buy carpet like that? I'm guessing it's imported, right? It doesn't look as if it's made in Japan. Still, it would be nice to have carpet like that in my apartme--"
"Shut up! Why are you talking about carpet?!" Rub, rub. "How should I know where it came fro--Gah! That's not important!" She continued rubbing her nose with one hand and raised the other, gesturing wildly at me to throw the ball. "Pass!" She was about to explode. "Pass it over!" Despite what she was saying, her eyes told me that I'd be a dead man if the ball touched her. "Paasss!"
I saw the gym teacher in the corner of my eye. He had his whistle in his hand, he'll blow it any second now. I decided to pass the ball to Aisaka. It might give me a chance to escape death if her hands are occupied.
"Right, here it comes!" I thrust my arms outwards. As the ball left the grasp of my fingers, Aisaka unexpectedly leaned back.
Just as she recovered from her sneeze, the ball struck her square in the face, snapping her head back. I didn't do it on purpose! I swore to myself. It was an accident! I didn't mean to hit her!
Aisaka stiffly collapsed to the ground. The ball bounced away. It took me a few seconds to break free of the stunning shock that gripped my body. I rushed over, knelt down beside her, and lifted her slightly with an arm behind her neck. It was bad: she was unconscious and bleeding from the nose. For some reason, I thought of Inko-chan and my mother from earlier in the morning; they were both lying on the ground in awkward poses. Was it all an omen leading to this?
"What's wrong, Takasu? Is Aisaka hurt?" I heard the gym teacher and Kitamura approaching from behind me. Idiot. Now's not the time to be worrying about stuff like that! I refocused my attention onto Aisaka and thought now would be a good time to let Kitamura take care of her.
I can't let Kitamura see her like this. I thought about everything that had happened last night. Every time she thinks of Kitamura she turns into an emotional, blubbering idiot. Guilt seized me by the throat. If I let Kitamura see Aisaka like this--bloodied, unconscious, weak, vulnerable, in every way she probably doesn't want to be seen--she'll become a total wreck.
"Sh--she's hurt, but I'll take her to the clinic!" I scooped Aisaka off the ground, hiding her face against my chest.
I heard the rumours spreading before I made it past the gym doors. "Takasu took down the Palmtop Tiger!", "That's a surprise."
The plan was simple. I just hit the wrong person.
She may be the Palmtop Tiger and I didn't do it on purpose but I still knocked her out and gave her a bloody nose. I was afraid of Aisaka's retribution but the guilt that racked my conscience was what made me take my role as her "dog" seriously.
When Aisaka returned to class from the clinic just in time for lunch, I put into play a plan that I hoped would make amends. "Hey, Aisaka! I want to make up for what happened earlier, so how about having lunch together? Kitamura, Kushieda, why don't you join us, too?"
Simpler than my previous plan, "Operation Having Lunch Together" was as easy as its name implied. I usually ate with Kitamura; Aisaka usually ate with Kushieda. What could go wrong with the four of us eating together?
Kitamura was quick to respond without any hesitation, "Sounds good! Let's move these desks together."
"Yeah, let's eat together!" Kushieda piped in cheerfully. "Hey, Taiga, stop standing in the corner like that! Let's go eat with Ryuuji and Kitamura!"
Kushieda pulled Aisaka out from the corner. Aisaka walked silently while holding the bento lunch box I made for her. Nervous might as well have been painted over her forehead. Maybe this was a bad idea? Maybe she can't handle being so close to Kitamura so suddenly?
"We probably don't need four desks," Kitamura suggested as he moved a table. "Two of us could share a desk."
"You're right," Kushieda said as she landed into one of the chairs. "I'll sit here."
"Then me here." Kitamura took the chair opposite of her, leaving a space beside Kushieda and Kitamura.
Of the two seats left, I preferred the one beside Kushieda. The desks were wide enough that two could sit side-by-side. Closely. Kushieda, however, was patting the chair beside her and looking to Aisaka. But I want to sit there! Rushing into the chair would just look silly, so instead I accidentally caught my foot on a nearby chair leg.
I pretended to trip and bumped into Aisaka's back which gave me the chance to discreetly push her past the free chair beside Kushieda. Aisaka seemed to have gotten the hint and began drifting towards the chair beside Kitamura. But it seemed I nudged her a little too hard since as she was about to glide into the chair, she instead twisted and began falling towards the floor.
"Whoa there!" I couldn't let her fall like that in front of Kitamura so I quickly stepped forward and grabbed her hand. In a smooth movement that surprised even me, I spun Aisaka once and landed her in the chair beside Kitamura. Again, however, I seemed to have used too much force as Aisaka was tipping her chair back. Thankfully, she was able to grab a hold of the desk with her hands and pulled her chair back down. "Phew..."
I let out a sigh of relief and sat down next to Kushieda. I wondered if all of that was too exaggerated and hoped nobody was looking because Aisaka and I probably looked like a couple dancing.
Kushieda broke out into song, "What are we having today? What are we having today? Aha! We're having fried nuggets! All together now, 'fried nuggets!'"
Smiling slightly, I looked to Aisaka. She was shaking in her seat and since her hands were still latched to the desk, it rattled slightly with her. "Uh, Aisaka? You're going to spill our food if you keep on shaking the desk..."
Kitamura and Kushieda began eating their lunches in their own distinctively cheerful ways. I couldn't help but over hear the surrounding classmates murmuring. Just as I feared, I some of them whisper the words "Takasu", "Palmtop Tiger", and "dancing".
It didn't look as if the gossip entered Aisaka's ears however. Instead it looked as if she was too overwhelmed with being so close to Kitamura. Her hands were now holding onto the bento lunch box but it didn't look as if she was going to open it. The expression on her face was stiff and rigid. She couldn't even speak to him properly; maybe it's too soon for her to eat lunch with Kitamura after all?
I'll have to try and talk her out of her stupor. Before I could say anything, however, Kitamura spoke to her first. "You've also got a bento lunch box, Aisaka? Did you make it yourself?"
I pulled out my chopsticks and was about to open my bento box but paused to see how Aisaka would respond. She was so close now, she has to use this chance to talk with and get to know Kitamura!
Surprisingly, she actually did say a few words. "Huh...? My lunch...?" Thinking of only answering Kitamura's question, Aisaka answered by pointing her chopsticks at the one who packed her lunch: me.
"Huh? Your lunch was made by Taka--"
Even though I hadn't even started eating yet, I felt as if something lodged in my throat. Instinctively I coughed, loud enough to startle everyone at the table. Well, everyone who wasn't too distracted. "What's wrong?" Kitamura asked me while Kushieda continued to stare intently at her fried nuggets.
My hands tightly gripped my bento box, holding the lid down. Not only did I make Aisaka her lunch, but I packed her the exact same things I did for myself. If Kitamura and Kushieda see that I'm practically sharing my food with Aisaka, what would they think?!
A quick glance to Aisaka indicated that she'd be of no help in this situation. Her eyes were glazed over, stunned from merely being near Kitamura; she was like a deer caught in headlights.
"Takasu, what's wrong?" Kitamura asked again. "You look terrible."
"D--do I?" Yeah. I can pretend I don't feel well and run off without opening my lunch.
But before I could stand up, Kitamura looked around and asked, "Huh? Did somebody call my name?"
At the classroom door, a first year male student was calling out, "Kitamura-senpai! Kushieda-senpai!"
Kushieda noticed as well, "Oh, isn't that the first-year softball club manager?"
Kitamura and Kushieda, managers of the boys and girls second-year softball clubs respectively, excused themselves for a second to speak to the visitor. They came back with bad news but I couldn't have felt more relieved. "Sorry guys," Kitamura said as he began repacking his lunch. "Turns out we've got some stuff to take care of."
"There's an emergency club meeting," Kushieda explained as she did the same. "We've got to go to the club right away. Taiga, Takasu-kun, we'll have lunch together next time!"
They left in such a hurry it took me a while to react. "Ah, they're gone..." I said to no one in particular. I looked towards Aisaka, "Huh?!"
She had her face down on the desk with her hands covering her face. Her shoulders were already small to begin with and now they looked even smaller as she wrapped herself into a little ball on the desk.
"Ai--Aisaka...?" She didn't respond to me but she seemed to be muttering something. I leaned in a little closer and heard her mumbling in a low, defeated tone.
"Why? It was such a good chance! Why didn't I do anything? I don't understand how I couldn't do anything..." she muttered to herself and also added a string of curses. Despite being so nervous, she hoped something would still happen.
I was at a loss for words but I couldn't leave her like this. "H-hey...? We'll invite him for lunch again tomorrow, okay? Come on, let's eat."
Of course, she couldn't let things be that easy. "Again tomorrow?" she brushed some hair away from her face and fixed me with a murderous glare. "So you're going to smack my face with a ball again?"
"I never said that!" I retorted loudly but quickly lowered my voice. Tears were welling up in Aisaka's eyes. No! Don't cry! I was about to panic, how the hell was I suppose to deal with a crying Palmtop Tiger in the middle of a classroom?! "You used me getting hurt as an excuse to invite Minorin and Kitamura-kun, didn't you? You can't casually invite them without a reason! Or do you have another plan? I definitely don't want something that direct! Absolutely not!"
"Okay, okay!" I said defensively. "I'll think of something. Let's just eat."
Tears were beginning to cling to Aisaka's lashes so before she could say anything else, I quickly grabbed her chopsticks and stuffed a potato into her mouth. After a moment's pause, she began to munch but she was chewing so hard I started to worry a little. "Was it too big a piece?" Aisaka continued to chew silently.
A while later, Aisaka finally swallowed then sniffed. "Are you going to sneeze? I've got lots of tissues."
"No, you idiot! I was just thinking how I was about to choke do death back there!" She grabbed a carton of milk and began drinking deeply. When she put down the much lighter carton, her tears had dried.
I breathed a sigh of relief and began eating my own lunch. Good thing that Kitamura left us alone. If he was still around, I might've left and let him try to deal with Aisaka instead. Who knows what she would do in that situation. I suppose it’s better it's just the two of us for now.
"Ryuuji." Aisaka had been eating silently for a while when she lifted her head to look at me. The food seemed to have calmed her down from angry and depressed to a merely annoyed.
"There's no meat."
"That can't be helped. My house isn't the type of place that stocks a lot of meat in the fridge. If you want meat, go and live with some richer family!"
The two of us ate our lunches silently.
The other classmates looked at us confusingly and curiously, as if we were a spectacle, but nobody bothered us.
The day was nearing its end. Aisaka and I experienced setbacks during gym class and lunch, but we were determined to make some impression on Kitamura, no matter how small it may be.
"Are you ready, Aisaka?" I got no response, she was frozen. "Ai--Aisaka, breath! Remember to breathe deeply!"
She sucked in a haggard breath. "Heave..." And exhaled, "Ho..." Yeah, like that.
The last class was about to begin and the two of us were standing in a corner. Aisaka wore a serious expression on her face. I felt one on my own face, though I had one more out of guilt, which felt like chains bounding my whole body.
"I'm getting nervous already... Isn't something like this too bothersome?"
"Why say that now after we've come this far? Relax. No guy in his right mind would be unhappy with getting hand-made cookies from a girl. Besides, Kitamura likes sweet things and he'll appreciate that you made it yourself. It's not like he hates you."
"I--is that true?" Does she not know anything about Kitamura? I nodded and saw Aisaka's face relax a little. In her little hands were the cookies she baked during home economics class.
Since this was a co-ed school, no one would think too much about giving hand-made food to the opposite gender. If anything, the guys would love that sort of attention and girls made extra cookies for their boyfriends all the time.
Aisaka had secretly--that is, hiding behind my body--spent a lot of time and effort during home ec to make a batch of colourful cookies. Thus "Operation I made Extra, Would you like Some?" was born to give Kitamura a good impression. Like everything else earlier in the day, things didn't go exactly as planned. Aisaka made a secret batch of ten cookies; six were burnt to ashes because she set the wrong baking temperature. I had to hide all evidence of the secret cookie batch by shoving them down my throat.
Now Aisaka's success depended on those four cookies. She held the small bag of cookies by the knot in a fist, holding them to her chest. Looking down at the nervous girl from thirty centimetres above, I felt an ominous feeling come over me. Is her nervousness going to cause this plan to end up like all the others?
"Anyway, listen. Don't push things. Just try to act as though it's nothing. And stop being nervous."
"Yeah, I know. Relax, right?" Aisaka began repeating a mantra to herself. "Relax... Relax... Relax..."
She relaxed her hands and the small package of cookies in her little hands stopped trembling. I saw the back end of her skirt shift slightly and I wondered if she had been clenching all this time. Eventually it looked as if all of the muscles in her body had unwound.
Aisaka was so focused on relaxing her entire body that she was startled when the teacher spoke up to start the last class. As everyone rushed to their seats, Aisaka slowly wobbled between the aisles to her seat.
Once the last class of the day ended, Aisaka would have to act quickly. He's usually busy with Student Council work, I had explained to Aisaka. Then ordered her, you've got to get his attention before he leaves the classroom. If you just sit there day dreaming he'll be gone before you know it.
I glanced over my shoulder towards Aisaka and sighed. I knew she would be nervous but this was just ridiculous. She was holding onto her desk, her back arched as if she was suffering from stomach pains. Her feet were shaking violently and her face was pale-white like a ghost.
"Oh my!" Koigakubo Yuri, the homeroom teacher said cheerfully. "There's a lovely smell in the classroom today! Ah, that's right! You were all baking cookies in home economics earlier, right? Oh, I love cookies! I can still remember making cookies with the family I boarded with when I studied abroad in England--"
"Tch!" Oh, no.
Koigakubo's rosy but pointless chatter was interrupted by the harsh sound from Aisaka. Now being filled with both nervousness and agitation, Aisaka had cruelly clicked her tongue. Koigakubo shuddered slightly as she looked to Aisaka but responded, "Y--you shouldn't interrupt a teacher like tha--"
"Tch!" Aisaka was losing control of herself and letting things slip out.
The students sitting around her began trembling in fear but Koigakubo continued in a slight stupor, "Umm... A girl shouldn't make such a rude noise--"
"Tch!" Damn it! Aisaka! Get a hold of yourself!
Koigakubo covered her face with her hands and started sobbing slightly. "Ahh, I can't--" she sniffled, "--reach the heart of my students...!" She should've just ignored Aisaka instead of trying to confront someone so intimidating. No wonder she's still single.
"Koigakubo-sensai!" Kitamura had stood up suddenly, causing his chair to clatter. "There's some time before class ends, how about letting me handle the rest as class representative? Many of us, after all, have club activities so perhaps you could continue this discussion tomorrow?"
Kitamura, the smart guy that he was, tried to knock two birds with one stone. If the class was dismissed early, Koigakubo would have a chance to save face. The single lady spoke between sobs, "Kitamura-kun, I don't think I under--"
It's difficult communicating with someone when in they're in such a state. Luckily, Kitamura knew when to take charge of things. He was likened to the reliable Maruo TV character for a reason. Kitamura turned to face the whole class and announced, "We've got arts and craft tomorrow so don't forget your supplies. Everyone stand! Bow! Goodbye Koigakubo-sensei!"
"Goodbye Koigakubo-sensei!" The class repeated. And just like that class was unilaterally ended by the students.
"I'm really not suited for this job," Koigakubo sniffed as she left.
I stood up and looked towards Aisaka, ready to get her moving after Kitamura if she wasn't paying attention.
"Uwaa!" Already in a panic, she had knocked her bag to the floor. Such a clumsy girl, I thought as I turned to look for Kitamura.
"Goodness, it's already so late," Kitamura had picked up his bag and was heading for the door. "I'm gonna get scolded by the President."
Damn! If Aisaka can't get to Kitamura before he makes it to the Student Council room she won't have a chance to give him the cookies. I quickly made my way to Aisaka's desk. "Forget your bag, just go after him!"
Aisaka stood up and held a hand up to get Kitamura's attention. "Ah, um... Ki... Ki..." She was paralyzed as if she was struck by a spell. She was close to tears as her mouth struggled to form his name.
"He's gone! Hurry and go after him!"
I nudged Aisaka's tiny body. "Ah, yeah." She quickly took off at a run and I followed behind her as best as I could. If I left this clumsy idiot running on her own, who knows what damage she’ll cause.
The two of us gave chase, Aisaka clutching the package of cookies to her chest. I spotted Kitamura turning a corner. "That way!"
We started moving towards the staircase at the end of a corridor but found ourselves going against a tide of students coming down.
Aisaka merely sped up, now moving much faster than I was. "Out of my way! Scram!"
"It's the Palmtop Tiger! Everybody move!" The crowd of students parted like the Red Sea, letting Moses through before merging close again.
I took a more polite approach, "Sorry! Can you please let me through?"
"It's Takasu! The two bosses are after each other!" It seemed many people outside of class 2-C still regarded me as a delinquent. The depressing thought slowed me down but I quickly sped up the stairs. Now was not the time to be fretting about that!
The momentary distraction still cost me though. I had lost sight of Kitamura and I could just barely see Aisaka's long hair as she turned at a landing and continued to climb the stairs. The two of them sure could run! I was struggling to catch my breath as I climbed the stairs two steps at a time.
As my legs strained, I realized that Aisaka doesn't need to catch Kitamura, just his attention. She just needs to call out to him. "Ai--Ai...!"
Just as I reached the landing, I looked up the stairs to find Aisaka. My eyes widened. She had reached the final step at the top but her foot slipped. In a panic not to fall face first, she had launched herself backwards into the air and down a flight of stairs that could cripple anyone’s back.
Somehow, without know how it happened, I found myself halfway up the steps in the perfect spot to catch Aisaka with my arms. The momentum was still enough to push me back, however, and the two of us fell back to the landing where my back slammed into the wall. Pain blurred my vision but I saw a familiar package slip from Aisaka's hands and towards an open window.
This was the third floor. The four cookies that Aisaka worked so hard to bake didn't stand a chance of surviving the fall intact.
Aisaka let out a scream as she tried to grab the cookies. It was too late, they flew out the window.
"Ai..." I tried to speak but the pain in my back wasn't letting me speak or breathe properly.
"Ryuuji!" Aisaka held onto me tightly. Blinking away tears of pain, I saw a frozen expression of worry on her face.
I managed to inhale slightly. I was fine. She didn't need to look worried like that. I tried to wave her away and pointed towards the window, the cookies and Kitamura were more important.
"H--hurry... The cookies..." I squeaked, trying to push Aisaka away. She had worked so hard to make those cookies, even though I helped. I wanted them to be given to Kitamura. I want Kitamura to realize her determination and hard work.
Yet Aisaka wouldn't budge. "Ryuuji, are you alright?! How did it end up like this..."
She felt my neck and limbs as if to see if I had broken anything. This was surreal: the normally violent Palmtop Tiger being concerned over me, because I got hurt protecting her. Is it possible, I wondered to myself, for this to continue...?
"I'm fine," I managed to take a deeper breath and speak more clearly. "See? I'm not hurt at all."
I was lying a little. I hurt in more places than I ever thought possible but I was feeling better than a few seconds ago. I forced myself to my feet and stretched out my limbs. This actually helped to ease the pain. Aisaka finally breathed and sighed in relief.
"Ryuuji..." she reached out to me with a hand and an expression that I've never seen before. It was somewhat like the expression she made when she struggled to say something to Kitamura, "I... I--"
"Hey!" Someone yelled from outside. "Who's throwing stuff out of the window?! Show yourselves now!"
Ugh! The two of us groaned in unison; it was the ornery school dean. There wasn't a chance to give the cookies to Kitamura anymore. "Such perfect timing," I said sarcastically. "Go and get scolded by him, I'll wait for you in the classroom."
"But... Let me carry you to the classroom first!" Carry? I almost laughed.
"Don't bother, I can walk. Hurry, we don't want this to get any more troublesome." I gave her back a push and waved her away. She gave me a fretful look over her shoulder with nearly ever step down the stairs.
I could hear the dean grumbling with annoyance. I wondered if he was even capable of scolding the unchallengeable Palmtop Tiger.
When Aisaka was out of sight and earshot, I began walking back towards the classroom. "Phew," I let out a sigh and said to myself, "Maybe I used it after all..."
When I was still a kid in elementary school, my mother once told she was a mini-esper with the power to teleport three times during her life. She used it once when she was a kid where she was in a car accident that threw her into the air. To avoid injury, she teleported herself safely to the ground.
The second time she used this power was when she left her home to give birth to me. My mother never went into the details but it was thanks to her teleportation powers that she managed to safely reach my father's side so that he'd be there when I was born.
The third and final time, my mother said, "I'll give to Ryuu-chan! Ya-chan no longer has any need to use the power." She dropped her hand on my little-kid head and said, "If you're ever in danger, use this power to safely return to me."
I wasn't sure if I ever believed my mother. Sometimes I would jokingly think to use the power so I wouldn't be late getting to school. But now, as I wondered what it was that let me catch Aisaka, I was thankful that I had never used it in such a frivolous way. I felt a little bad that I used the power for Aisaka though, instead of keeping myself safe as my mother expected.
"Are you sure you're alright?" Aisaka asked me yet again as she stood beside me at the windows.
"I've told you a million times already, I'm fine!"
"Good," she said as she leaned her forehead against the window glass. "Even I would lose sleep if my dog were to be hurt." I can't believe she's got the guts to say that after breaking into my house to kill me. I let that thought remain silent in my mind.
Aisaka had returned with the cookies in an apparent depression. She spoke with a very weak voice, quiet voice. The classroom was empty and silent except for us two. I was the only one to ever see this side of the Palmtop Tiger.
"I'm always a failure," What enthusiasm she had earlier in the day had completely disappeared. "Nothing I do ever turns out right..."
"This is only the first day. It's not surprising that we haven't succeeded yet."
"That so? What if I wasn't so clumsy? What if I was a bit smarter? Even you're ending the day in a worse state than you started. Nothing at all has gone smoothly or according to plan." A long pause. "I've had enough already."
She turned her back to the window and slid down to sit on the ground beside my legs. She pulled her tiny legs to her chest and began twirling her long hair with her hands, trying to bury her face with her hair. "For the past seventeen years I never realized..." she muttered through her hair, "But now I know how clumsy I am."
"Umm..." What's a guy suppose to say in a position like this? "I guess..."
"If you want to say it then say it clearly!" Her tiny hands tugged on my trousers. "You too... Even you think that way, huh? You think I'm hopelessly clumsy beyond help, right?"
I crouched down beside Aisaka and found myself exchanging glances with her. Even with the both of us low to the floor, she still looked up at me. Her cheek was on her knee, her sad eyes quivering. Her usual aggression and ferocity had vanished, replaced by that unsettled look in her eyes and her self-lamenting.
I shook my head. "The mess in gym class was my fault. The plan wasn't thorough."
"It's not just that. There's still all the trouble from my clumsiness." She wearily closed her eyes. There was still such a sad expression on her face, she must have been recalling all of the chaos of the day: gym class, lunch, and the latest let-down just now.
At least the dean didn't bother wasting time reprimanding Aisaka when he learned it was her that threw the package of cookies out the window. Things didn't get worse with the dean but Aisaka wasn't looking on the bright side.
"So much for all the effort I put into those cookies." She rubbed at a small scratch beneath her chin. That must've been caused when I caught her and crashed against the wall. She pulled out the package of cookies from a pocket, I could tell from the sound and sight it was mostly crumbs.
"Putting a love letter in the wrong bag; trying to beat someone but fainting from starvation; getting hit in the face by a basketball; not saying a word during lunch; burning a bunch of cookies; falling down some stairs... All of... This is just..."
"You forgot not putting the letter in the envelope."
"Yeah, that too..." Aisaka turned her face away from my sight and buried it into her knees silently. I need to learn when trying to lighten things with a joke wasn’t going to work.
"Hey, Aisaka?" She didn't respond. Instead, she remained tightly wrapped up, like a snail hiding in its shell. Her soft hair that fell over her shoulders moved with the rhythm of her breathing and I could see her tiny fingers shaking.
Women are so devious. Now's probably not the time to be thinking that but I couldn't help it. Whether they realized it or not, they could do so much. Now matter how arrogant or troublesome they may be, they show a guy such sadness and despair and his heart will quickly melt.
These were emotions that were impossible to ignore. They were impossible to disregard.
I scratched my head a moment, thinking what to do, before I stood up and walked over to my desk. I came back with something in my hands and sat down beside Aisaka.
"Hey, Aisaka," I tapped her on the shoulder, "Let's swap!"
When she lifted her face to look at me I pretended not to see the tears in her eyes. I had baked some of my own cookies during home ec and wrapped them up in some aluminium foil. I placed these in her lap than took her cookies in exchange.
I opened the battered wrapping plastic that held the cookies. A pile of crumbs revealed themselves to me.
"Ryuuji--wait. I picked those up of the ground a--and they're--"
"I only ate your burnt cookies earlier. I want to know what these taste like." I ignored Aisaka's protest and stuffed the crumbs into my mouth.
When I got rid of her burnt cookies, I was prepared for the bitter taste and so swallowed them in a hurry. This was the first time I tasted Aisaka's cookies and... It seemed as if she might have mixed up the sugar and salt.
"H--how are they?" Aisaka asked cautiously.
"Mmm! They're pretty tasty!" Her eyes widened, she almost looked worried. I continued, "Really, they're great. It's too bad Kitamura can't have them. There's always next time though."
It looked as if my poker face had convinced her. I gestured to the pack of cookies I gave Aisaka. She carefully pulled back the aluminium foil then gave an amazed look.
"Amazing! They look perfect! You sure I can have them?"
"I was planning on giving them to my mom. But go ahead."
I had baked my cookies thinly, glazed them with some extra butter, then sprinkled them with sugar. Aisaka stared at the cookies for a while before finally taking a bite of one.
"They're tasty!" Her eyes widened. "Really!"
"This is the first time I've heard you use the word 'tasty'."
"They're incredible," she continued to gush. "They're better than the stuff you can get at a bakery."
I shrugged. "In my experienced baked goods are better when you make them yourselves. Fresher, warmer, you can make them as soft as you want them to be."
"I see. I like them, really I do."
She looked just like any other normal girl as she continued eating my cookies. "Delicious!" She muffled with her cheeks full of cookies. Her tongue darted out of her mouth to lick the sugar that stuck to her lips. "They'd be great with red tea!"
Who would recognize this? Besides me, who would look at her and know that she was Aisaka Taiga? It was an incredible feeling being able to see this; not to be afraid of the Palmtop Tiger. Only yesterday, I was thinking that I didn't want anything to do with her, but now I felt something simply from seeing something that nobody else saw in this girl.
This girl. Possibly the daughter of an underworld criminal or karate master. A cruel girl who treated people like dogs. Someone who got so nervous by her crush that she forgets how to speak. A girl so unbelievably clumsy. One who could so easily find herself on the verge of tears and shame. Someone who was always hungry and loved tasty foods.
Aisaka was an extremely peculiar girl. Always causing trouble and giving people headaches.
But I didn't dislike her peculiarity. Instead, I felt a sort of bliss; I'm glad that I met her.
Yes, she's annoying and I always seem to have to save her from hurting herself. But I just want to comfort her. Considering all of that, what does Aisaka mean to me?
"Hey, Ryuuji," her voice startled me, "I think I know."
She was staring at me. Her face was small--but not child-like--and complexion fair. Her eyes were large, transparent, and seemed to glitter with stars every time she blinked. She had beautiful eyes.
A cold shiver travelled up my spine. I cleared my throat then asked with some hesitation, "Kn--know what?"
"It's because you didn't help me properly! You're such a hopelessly dumb dog!"
What the hell?! Aisaka shrugged with a contemptuous look on her face. It looks like she's back to her old self again. But that was still harsh.
I got more pissed off the more I thought about it. How can she switch back and forth like that? No one should take crap like this.
I saw her lips form a small, gentle smile.
I guess I'll let her off this time. A sort of special offer from me.
We started to head home. Walking with a bit of distance between us.
Walking ahead of me, Aisaka stopped before the school gates. Her head was turned. From where she was standing, she could see the track field beyond some trees.
"What is it?"
"The softball club is practicing. Minorin's there." She pointed and I spotted Kushieda running energetically under the setting sun's light. I watched Kushieda in silence for a moment as if she was the only thing my eyes could see.
After my drying eyes forced me to blink, I looked to Aisaka and realized she, too, was staring at somebody at the track field. A dark-haired guy doing warm up exercises: Kitamura.
Standing still, Aisaka's cheeks were the colour of caramel as the orange sunset fell upon her. Her hair was shifted by a soft breeze.
She must really, really like Kitamura Yuusaku. "Hey, mind if I ask? Why Kitamura?"
Aisaka turned towards me but didn't answer, at least not my question. "I'll go ahead. Why don't you stay here for a while?"
She was changing the subject but I didn't know why I asked the question in the first place. "Go ahead? What do you mean?"
"I'm sure you want to stare at Minorin with those horny eyes of yours for a bit. I'm not going to help getting you two together but I'll at least let you look at her." Her voice softened just the slightest bit. "She's beautiful, isn't she? So I know why you chose her. I'm not that unreasonable." Then her voice changed back to its usual tone. "Be at my place at eight to make dinner. That's all."
That's all? Wait--make dinner at her place?! She's ordering me around again?!
Aisaka turned to walk away as I stood still perplexed by her behaviour. "Uwaa!" I was startled out of my confusion when she yelled loudly and her bag flew from her hand. She had tripped forward onto the ground like a clumsy little girl.
I sighed. "Ah, just what are you doing?" I walked over to her prone body and picked her up.
"Shut up! Leave me alone!" She grabbed her bag and dusted off her skirt. Her knees were full of bruises. I wondered how many times she tripped when people weren't watching; to help her up; or to catch her.
How can I just leave some one as careless as her alone? I sighed again then looked Aisaka straight in the face.
"Hey, what do you want for dinner? You don't mind if I just eat at your place right? I can just take my mom's share home with me. Oh, but your fridge is empty. We'll have to stop by the supermarket first--you'll pay for the groceries, right? We should also buy some liquid mold remover and dish washing detergent."
Can't be helped, I guess.
"Fine! Whatever!" Aisaka exclaimed. I figured she wouldn't have a reason to refuse.
After yesterday and today, I knew she was stubborn, unreasonable, self-lamenting, and obnoxious. Threatening her was useless; she'd do whatever she decided to do. If I'm going to help her, I'd have to do so with some force of my own.
There were many things that worried me about her that I couldn’t just leave her alone. Can't be helped.
Besides, her mess of a kitchen would bother me to no end if I didn't do something about it.
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6 • Spin-off|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6|
|Prologue • Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6 • Chapter 7|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6|
|Prologue • Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5|
|Prologue • Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Epilogue|