| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
Ryūji shuddered and instinctively pulled back.
Going to school like usual while keeping some distance between himself and Taiga, he had entered the classroom and gone to his seat. Ami had come over to say ‘Thanks for yesterday’ and he was looking at her face,
She was illuminated by the bright, early-summer light from the morning sun---Surprisingly dispirited, she looked completely worn out and exhausted. Her voice was even a little raspier; yesterday had really done a number on her.
“…How should I say this…You seem like you’re worn out…”
“…Do I really…?”
Looking unlike her usual self and letting out a pitiful sigh, Ami pulled up a nearby chair and sat with her elbows resting on Ryūji’s desk. Then gloomily wrinkling her brow,
“That’s right, I couldn’t shake my exhaustion from yesterday…”
Like that, she ended up pressing her head face down against the desk. It might have been shampoo or maybe soap, or perhaps she was wearing some sort of perfume, but she was giving off a lightly pleasant scent. Just a little stimulated, Ryūji’s eyes were glinting animalistically. However, he somehow maintained a calm appearance,
“…Yesterday, you really had a horrible experience. It’s understandable that you’d be tired.”
He tried saying something like that in a manly way.
“That’s not it.”
Raising her white face, Ami looked straight at Ryūji with evenly shining eyes.
“At Taiga Aisaka’s apartment…Doing one thing or another for five hours…No, more like six hours…”
“D, did Taiga do something?!”
“She kept me dancing. And, she kept me singing.”
Turning away from Ryūji, who was tilting his head at her really odd answer, Ami let off another sigh…She was staring off into the distance with a sense of ennui.
“…If I didn’t listen to what she said then I’d be thrown out, I was threatened like that and…into the middle of night…she made me do it…”
“W, what did she make you do?”
“…Performing a monomane medley, 150 sessions one after another…”
“She just kept me doing them countlessly until they all blurred together…Uganda…Falcon… Ami-chan wants to die…” Ami mumbled as if moaning before she ended up putting her face back down on Ryūji’s desk. Off in the distance, Haruta and Noto were whispering between themselves, “Notocchi! That guy’s a bourgeoisie!”, “Let’s think about who we’ll associate with from now on.” He noticed that they were staring in his direction with open jealousy, but it didn't have anything to do with him.
He shivered, chilled to the core, remembering how Taiga had been smiling with seeming kindness when she had invited Ami into her apartment and also her mood later as she had been devouring the meuniere-styled salmon like a bear preparing for hibernation.
Even now as he looked, Taiga and Minori were huddling together and seemed to be laughing uncontrollably at something or another. When Taiga was in a good mood, it always seemed like someone else was suffering instead---Like how Ami had basically collapsed right in front of him.
Once again he was looking at Taiga’s well-ordered profile thinking, ‘What a dreadful fellow’, when,
“Can I speak with you for a moment?”
Kitamura cut into the conversation between Taiga and Minori. Ryūji was wondering what in the world it was about, as he couldn’t hear anything they were saying, but in any case, it seemed unmistakable that Taiga’s mood was getting even better.
He looked at Taiga, who was just staring at Minori while unable to look directly at Kitamura’s face, and Ami, who seemed to be recalling a monomane repertoire that had unfortunately grown on her as she went “Seichou Matsumoto…Mitsuhide Akechi…”. Ryūji had no idea how one would dance or sing those, but comparing the two girls, he thought,
It's just like heaven and hell.
---However, the situation wasn’t nearly that simple.
Ryūji realized his mistake when,
It was during afternoon recess as he had happily taken out his bentou from his bag, and was cutting across the classroom to go to his locker to get his stored chopsticks (Of course, he always washed them thoroughly after eating each day).
“What the heck are you doing?! Gu~h!”
He became the victim of a random assault.
The culprit was a gloomily silent Taiga. The weapon she had used was a thoroughly chilled can of Oolong tea she had just recently bought. As he had been passing by, she had pressed it against the relatively sensitive back of his neck, causing Ryūji to stand on his tiptoes and contort his whole body.
“Just what the heck, you?! If there’s something you want to say then…Gu~h! So stop doing that…Gu~h!”
No matter how hard he tried to avoid her, Taiga just kept coming at him and pressing the cold Oolong tea against him forcefully. She was squinting as if she might go ballistic any second, visibly grinding her teeth with her jaw moving side to side, and crinkling her nose fiercely,
“…My chest, it feels like it’s going to burst…!”
“It’s a horrible feeling!”
“Gua~! Stop it! I’m the one having a hard time!”
He finally wrested the can from her small hands and held it up high out of Taiga’s reach. Prowling around like a tiger gone neurotic at the zoo, Taiga was circling Ryūji,
“Geez, no way…! Why…?!”
She kept muttering to herself.
“What, just what in the world happened?”
“…Ooh, no way, but, but…”
Unthinkingly, he had taken the chilled can that was in his hand and tried pressing it against Taiga’s nose. Taiga grabbed her nose and jumped,
“What the heck are you doing?!”
She had then grabbed and pinched the face of Ryūji, who was standing on his toes and had his arm outstretched. It seemed she was finally back to her senses.
“Geez…Your face left sweat on my hands!”
“You scratched me with your nails! Come on now, if you’ve got something to say, hurry up and say it! Just what has you so troubled?!”
Ooh, letting out a single breath Taiga’s face contorted with what seemed like regret and she bit her lip. Finally, a few moments later, she lowered her voice as she quickly let him know what problem had led her to committing the assault.
“…Kitamura, this morning he told me…to be more friendly with Ami Kawashima and to even invite her to lunch today…”
Ryūji hesitated and visibly blinked once.
“That’s what I want to ask!”
He could understand how the screaming Taiga was feeling. There was just about no way for that to happen.
The first quarrel at the family restaurant and Taiga’s team attack with Minori, Kitamura should have witnessed it all for himself. So just why would he do something like that…It couldn’t possibly be that from Kitamura’s point of view, it looked like Taiga and Ami might be able to get along, could it? If that’s how it was, then that guy should really get his glasses prescription updated as soon as possible.
“…That’s…This doesn’t seem like it’ll be good for anyone…”
Ryūji mumbled quietly and Taiga’s face looked extremely pitiful as the two of them just ended up staring at one another.
He had been wondering just what Kitamura had been talking to Taiga about, but he had no idea that it could be something like that---From what Taiga said, it went something like this.
“I’m aware that Ami’s personality is pretty bad. However, if she only interacts with people using that sort of disguise, then no matter how much time passes she’ll never make anything close to real friends, you know? So I’m asking Aisaka, who already knows about her real personality, and Aisaka’s closest friend, Kushieda, to please take care of Ami. You know, Aisaka, you’re one of the few female friends I can count on to do this for me.”---Is what Kitamura said.
Having repeated Kitamura’s words, Taiga was twisting her short body around uncomfortably. It seemed like the inescapable conflict was stirring around violently within her.
“I don’t want to do it…I really want to refuse…But it’s not a joke…It’s something Kitamura-kun has asked of me…Or more like, why the heck is he constantly worrying about her anyway…O~h, oo~h, oooh~.”
Taiga was grabbing her head as she moaned until finally she ended up squatting down next to Ryūji’s feet. Somewhat confused, Ryūji also crouched down beside her,
“Hey, you could get a hemorrhage like that, you know?!”
“B, but…! Hey, anyway…he said friend…! After all, we’re just friends…! I’m one of his few reliable female friends…Huh, am I supposed to be happy with that?...No way! I’m not happy at all! But, he asked me for help…Should I be happy?...I’m not!”
Without thinking, Ryūji had also started looking breathlessly conflicted. He didn’t really have much experience even watching other people deal with their problems. Not saying a word to her, he ended up simply keeping an eye on her for a while.
“Aaah, but…but, but, but!”
Taiga firmly shut her eyes and grabbed onto Ryūji’s sleeve. Her fingers just barely hanging on, Taiga opened her mouth and started panting roughly, then a bit later she went ‘Umu!’ and nodded resolutely to herself. It looked like she had finally come to a decision.
“…I’ll bear the unbearable…Tolerate with lots of tolerance!”
“…I, I kind of understand, somehow.”
Nodding, Ryūji watched as Taiga stood straight up. Like that, she made long strides and stared with only one goal in mind as she walked quickly.
“Come with me. We’re having lunch.”
…Dumbstruck. Looking up at the sight in front of her with her mouth partly agape, was Ami Kawashima.
Ami was at her seat holding her bentou box and getting up, and just a little further away going “Ami-chan! Let’s hurry to the rooftop!”, Maya and Nanako were waiting for her.
“Wha?”, Ami was blinking again and again in surprise---Finally it seemed as though she had returned to her senses. She countered Taiga with a smile so pure it was mockingly hateful.
“Just what are you saying? I’ve already got plans with Maya and the others.”
Taiga had overturned Ami’s objections with a single command, and as for the Maya and Nanako duo, she simply uttered a single beast-like growl. And with just that,
“Ah, I see. If Aisaka-san says so, then there’s no helping it. Let’s go, Nanako.”
“That’s right, no helping it. Well then Ami-chan, see you next time.”
The two of them didn’t look frightened, but not even giving it too much thought, they nodded in response to the growling voice then gave Ami a quick wave. The creature known as the Palmtop Tiger was probably a pretty well understood being amongst the girls of the class.
However, it was probably natural that Ami wouldn’t be able to understand.
“…You, what are you thinking? Telling me to come with you, just what are you planning?”
“We’re going to eat lunch together.”
“Huh?! This isn’t a joke, why would I eat with you?!...Fuh, whatever. I’ve got a lot of other friends.”
“…Michael Jackson doing a bus guide tour…”
Taiga suddenly and drily muttered. It certainly sounded as if she was only speaking to herself, but,
“…Mona Lisa striking the corner at 200 kilometers an hour…Tsunku desperately trying to sing western-styled music that he cannot sing…It’s all within my digital camera…They’ve already been thoroughly developed…The title is ‘A certain model has gone and done it; 150 continuous sessions of monomane’…Possibly, by chance, I might just end up leaking them…”
“S, stop it! Okay! I get it already! It’s fine if I just eat with you, right?! That’s fine, right?! Damnit!”
About ready to cry, Ami had even forgotten to keep together her facade, and roughly holding her bentou box, she made her way over to Taiga’s desk.
Minori was already there on standby,
“Hey Kawashima-kun. I’m starting before you.”
She was holding a giant ribbon between her chopsticks…She held that thing that kind of looked like boiled kelp high up in plain sight.
“…W, what is this, you guys…Geez, I don’t get what it means.”
“Now now, just sit here Miss.”
Minori seated Ami to her left, and with her left hand she took a firm hold of Ami’s shoulder,
“Here, say ‘ah’.”
She brought the kelp up near Ami’s lips.
“I don’t need this!”
---Ami yelled something like that, but,
The one who unthinkingly muttered that while meticulously keeping an eye on each turn of events was Ryūji. If he could only be that close to Minori, being made to say ‘ah’, being spoiled by her, and being given that ribbon-styled kelp…Haa…
“Takasu, what are you spacing out with your mouth open for? Let’s go.”
“…Hm? Eh? Where?”
Suddenly calling out and appearing next to Ryūji before he knew it, Kitamura poked him in the back.
“To where Ami and the others are. I asked Aisaka and Kushieda to invite Ami. Just making the request and then leaving them alone, how could I do something like that?”
“…Just what does that have to do with me?”
“You know I’m not the type to just barge in on a group of girls eating together by myself.”
If it’s you, I’m sure it would be fine…was what Ryūji was thinking, but instead he just said, “It can’t be helped.”. Actually really pleased, he followed after Kitamura. It might have been bad for Taiga, but for Ryūji, it was greater luck than he could have hoped for. If he could be allowed to spend the lunch break together with Minori, then he didn’t really care at all about the showdown between the Tiger and the Chihuahua.
“Hey, please let us join you.”
“Oh, if it isn’t Kitamura-kun and Takasu-kun. Please sit here.”
The only one who went to the trouble to welcome the two boys who stepped into the girls’ group with a smile was Minori. Ami on one side was grumbling ‘Why? Why did things end up like this?’, wrinkling her brow, and just openly showing her displeasure, and coming to Taiga on the other side,
She was still silent. Perhaps preoccupied with the presence of Kitamura, who had suddenly shown up on her right side, Taiga’s eyes were unfocused like she was in a trance as she couldn’t direct her gaze, and her rosy lips were slack, but,
As if suddenly remembering that Ami was across from her, Taiga’s face filled with anger, but once again preoccupied with Kitamura, it went soft, and then, thinking about Ami once more, she turned sharp; switching back and forth like that, it was hard to tell what kind of thing she was really feeling.
“H, how incredible…”
Taiga’s face became so unbelievable that without thinking, Ryūji wasn’t breathing; as her right half looked dumbly perverted facing Kitamura and her left half looked extremely displeased facing Ami---The way her face was perfectly asymmetrical on the left and right, it reminded him perfectly of Baron Ashura.
And yet as things were, it looked like her face and even her mind had reached some sort of precarious balance. She wasn’t lashing out at Ami, and considering that Kitamura was around, she was able to smoothly remove the lid from her bentou without her hands trembling or being otherwise overly agitated. Although her face might have turned into something remarkable, the situation didn’t really allow for him to say anything one way or another about her expression.
“Well, well, time for the bentou. It’s nice to eat together with girls every once in a while, isn’t it?”
“…Is that the reason Yūsaku set this whole thing up?”
“Hm? I wonder, what are you talking about? Wah, Kushieda’s bentou is so huge this time too! Come on Ami, you take a look at it too!”
“Fufufu, even if the box looks enormous, what’s up with the contents seeming so scarce…? Hey look, this one is maroni, and this one is konnyaku.”
Discreetly watching Minori as she happily showed off her bentou side dishes, Ryūji was thoroughly savoring this small bit of happiness. He didn’t care at all that he wasn’t in the conversation. If he could just be near her like this for ten or even twelve minutes, then he would count it as a blessing.
It had been about a month since the failure of last time’s attempt at operation ‘We want to eat bentous together’. At least this time, he could actually eat his bentou together with Minori. Ahh, how glad he was that Taiga and the Chihuahua were fighting.
While he was deep in thought, he went to remove the top of his bentou box when his breath caught and he came to a standstill. They were about to run into the exact same reason for last time’s failure. Taiga’s bentou, it had the exact same contents as his bentou.
There was probably no helping it…He shrewdly hid his bentou by covering it with the lid so no one could see the contents. However,
“Ah~, so there are guys who do something like this! Come on, come on, Takasu-kun, what are you acting so secretive for?!”
Minori had deftly pilfered the lid from him. She had revealed an omelette filled with soybeans, fried bacon and onions, rice topped with seaweed…It was a magnificently handmade bentou with the exact same composition as the one Taiga had already started eating.
Looking back and forth between the two bentous, Minori appeared to be thinking for a while,
“…Well, that’s, huh. Hey…Takasu-kun, what’s your starsign?”
She casually handed the lid back to him.
“I’m a toilet seat. Not!”
Ahahahaha~---But her eyes revealed that her laughter was only a pretense.
Minori had likely sensed how delicately horrible things were between Ami and Taiga, and so rather than setting Taiga off by putting forth any questions about the relationship between Ryūji and Taiga, she had probably been thinking desperately in her own way for some means to preserve the miraculous balance that had been established.
“J, just what kind of thing are you saying while we’re eating?”
“Sor~ry! I’m really a knee~ Toradora vol02 heart.png”
At the time, he had felt relieved thinking perhaps, by some stroke of luck, they were able to shift the conversation smoothly enough that things would somehow end agreeably enough.
Completely unnoticed, Ami had stretched her arm out across the table and suddenly taken the lid off of Ryūji’s bentou, leaving it exposed again. She moved so fast that Ryūji unfortunately had no chance to react.
“Why is it that the contents of Aisaka’s bentou and Takasu’s bentou are exactly the same? If I think about it, the two of them were together yesterday as well.”
With a twitch, Taiga’s shoulder started shaking.
At the same time, the classroom that had been full of liveliness just moments earlier suddenly came to a dead standstill in that instant.
“…She asked…”, “She really did it…”, “That thing we weren’t supposed to talk about…”. Eventually people started whispering quietly, in low voices that betrayed their fear.
“Eh?...W, what? Why did it suddenly become all quiet? Did I do something?”
Only the recently transferred Ami didn’t know.
If anyone was to ask the Palmtop Tiger about her relationship with Ryūji, then they could look forward to a disaster of epic proportions. That was something that all the members of their class were aware of, as it had been practically beaten into them. So concerning those two…even if anyone was wondering about what kind of relationship the two of them had, absolutely no one would actually say anything out loud. The Palmtop Tiger had said she wasn’t going out with anyone, so she wasn’t going out with anyone. She had said not to speak about such trivial things again, so absolutely no one dared to speak of it. And yet, the newcomer had ended up doing it...
Struck by the nearly explosive tension, no one even moved their chopsticks. All conversation also came to a halt as everyone listened in to see how Taiga would react. If she showed any sign of anger, they’d have to start running away as soon as possible---
“…What a weirdo. Does something like that bother you?”
Finally, the one who calmly replied was Taiga.
Her expression had reverted to her normal pretty face that was like a French doll’s as she spoke in a voice that was unexpectedly quiet and level like usual.
“Then, it’ll be fine with this, right?”
Unfortunately, that was as much of an objection as Ryūji could make. Taiga deftly stretched out her hand, snatched Ryūji’s bentou, and then started noisily shoveling food down her throat…In three seconds flat she had eaten all of his omelette and fried foods.
Then full and puffing out her face, there were some specks of food at the corners of her mouth as she started speaking somewhat indistinctly,
“Sho, now there’sh, no problem…Mine is, an omelette and fried dishes, bentou. Ryūji’s, is a seaweed bentou.”
She returned the now pitiful looking bentou box back to Ryūji. Relieved sighs could be heard here and there within the classroom, and slowly, the sounds of an ordinary afternoon recess began to return. It seemed like they had somehow avoided the Palmtop Tiger’s rampage.
The only one to suffer a casualty was Ryūji.
“That’s…! My bentou is…!”
It was so horrible that, without thinking, he felt like he was going to cry. However, out of nowhere a pair of chopsticks appeared and bestowed him with a single meatball.
“There. Now, Takasu-kun has a meatball bentou.”
With an angelic smile, Ami had shared part of her meal. But, while making that smile,
“Hey, why do you all let Aisaka do whatever she wants? Does she have some kind of hold over you?”
She had hit a sore spot. He wasn’t sure if he would call it a weakness, but he could think of some things concerning himself…With the timing and all, things would always just end up that way…Of course he didn’t say anything like that, but if he remained silent, it would end up badly. The one who responded instead,
“Ryūji, you know, he was my dog in a previous life. Wondering what his master was saying and just wagging his tail was his only response. It’s the joy of being a dog.”
That was Taiga.
With her awesome smile, she seemed overwhelming…He wanted to retort, like ‘Just what are you saying?’, but,
“Now now, even though you two are fated to be together~!”
It was just like Minori to select that moment to mess around with them. Taiga and Ryūji took a simultaneous breath.
They shook their heads in harmony. Ami’s reaction to what happened in front of her,
“…Fu~~h. Such good rapport…”
She just barely narrowed her eyes and was speaking under her breath in an almost singsong manner. He heard it indistinctly so he just might have misheard---Ami-chan, isn’t that interesting~…Or something like that.
Going ‘Fuh’ and smirking, it didn’t seem like Taiga planned to do anything more concerning Ami for the time being. She took her chopsticks and was just about to go back to her bentou when,
“Ohh, Aisaka really eats quite a lot, doesn’t she? Though I do think that’s much better than dieting.”
Perhaps shocked by Kitamura’s words, she unthinkingly dropped her chopsticks.
It didn't matter if she was gaining or losing weight; the words ‘eats quite a lot’ to a girl was the same as the death penalty---Especially if it was coming from her unrequited love.
Ahh…Worn out and completely drained, Ryūji just discreetly watched Taiga as her mouth continued to flap open and shut.
- * *
The chance for Taiga to avoid being labeled as ‘a girl who eats a lot’ (Although no one went so far as to actually say anything like that out loud anyway) came after school, right after the class ending formalities.
“He~y, excuse me, everyone! Please listen for a bit!”
Kitamura’s voice resounded within the noisy classroom, and the people who were preparing to leave turned to look up.
“Okay, as I think you all know, today is when the student council holds its monthly volunteer neighborhood cleanup! Actually, this time, because the normally abundant seniors are going to be preoccupied with preparing for tomorrow's mock exams, the number of participants is going to be extraordinarily low! Everyone, I sincerely hope you’ll listen to my request and participate!”
---Pretending to not hear him, most of them eventually went back to what they were doing, getting ready to leave. Of course, Ryūji was also among that majority. It’s not like he disliked cleaning, but this was a different matter altogether. Because if it was an entire neighborhood, then no matter how much he persevered, he’d never be able to make it perfectly clean. He knew well enough that participating would only make him frustrated.
While this monthly neighborhood volunteer cleanup might have looked like it was simply a way to help people, the seniors who were in a delicate situation really thought of it as a means to get more positive remarks on their recommendation letters, like ‘enthusiastic even with volunteer work’ or ‘acts leader-like’ or in some cases ‘dedicated and extraordinarily participant’, depending on how much they did. That’s why, besides the members of the student council, the majority of participants were always seniors, and then the sports-related clubs would have to take turns sending a few of their members each time. It was basically an event that had nothing to do with first- and second-years who didn’t belong to any of the sports clubs. So no matter how much Kitamura would try to rally them to participate, for anyone to actually voluntarily raise their hand or anything would be---
“All right Takasu! So you’re coming!”
A bizarre phenomenon.
For some unexplainable reason, Ryūji’s right hand was forcefully stretched way up high.
“All right, I’ll be waiting. Change into your jersey and meet up at the front gate! All right, now I can save face with the president…Since I’m not stuck with zero like I had expected~. Well then, I’ve already written your name down, so you can’t escape, okay?”
Holding a pen in one hand, Kitamura looked pleased as he eventually skipped out of the classroom with a jaunty gait.
“W, w, wai…Hey you!”
The one holding and lifting up Ryūji’s right arm after having slipped in next to him completely unnoticed was Taiga. She had taken a firm stance, grabbed his elbow, and held his arm up high with all her might.
“Hey, let go! Just what did you make me do?! If I said I’m going to participate and then don’t go, I’m going to get a demerit for skipping out on an extracurricular activity, you know?!”
Taiga pulled her arm back and in front of Ryūji’s staring eyes, started biting her nails somewhat nervously,
“I’ll take responsibility, okay…I’ll come and participate with you.”
---So to put it simply, because she wanted to participate, she was making him do it as well. While Taiga’s face was flushed pink with embarrassment and she played with her uniform’s ribbon, she whispered in a tiny voice.
“It’s just that I don’t want him thinking of me as simply a big eater…I want him to think that I was forcing myself to eat so I could participate in the neighborhood cleanup, that I was doing it so I’d have a lot of energy…”
“Couldn’t it be that maybe you just want to spend time with Kitamura?”
“…I guess you could say something like that as well.”
“Couldn’t you have participated without dragging me into it?”
“That’s just it, it’s too embarrassing! Just imagine such a situation, geez you’re such a dim-witted guy!”
He was pulling together his resolve as he tried to think of a retort to her harsh comment. Then, feeling someone nudge and poke the back of his gakuran uniform, he turned around, and,
“I’m so glad that Takasu-kun is participating as well!”
Minori was standing right there. She was holding her bag and her jersey.
“This time the girls’ softball club has to participate. As the club captain, I ended up having to do this and I had been thinking that it was going to be so troublesome. We’re comrades, friends!"
Today as well, this energetic girl’s smiling face that dazzled like the sun brightened Ryūji’s heart immediately. Bedazzled and with his temperature steadily rising, Ryūji was pretty much in a daze,
“Is…Is that so…?”
“That’s right. But, to voluntarily participate. Wow, Takasu-kun is such an extraordinary guy! I’m so moved!”
Uwawa, he was being praised…!
Desperately trying with both hands to hide his face, which he was sure was completely red, his eyes swelled up with a seemingly murderous look. It was just embarrassment, though.
“Minorin, I’ve decided to go too. As Ryūji’s associate.”
“Oh really?! All right, let’s go get changed together! I’ll be waiting in the hallway.”
“Okay, I’ll be there soon.”
Side by side, two people watched Minori’s back as she practically bounced out of the classroom,
“…Well then, don’t you have anything to say?”
“…T, thank you…!”
‘Well, as long as you understand’ is what Taiga seemed to be saying as she nodded her head knowingly.
“Although I knew that Minorin would be there, I didn’t have to invite you at all.”
“…I don’t remember being invited, but I do recall being forced to raise my hand.”
Despite whatever they said, the two of them were both in a pretty good mood, and after getting their own jerseys and bags, they left the classroom. They started walking off, Ryūji going towards the boys’ locker room and Taiga and Minori heading towards the girls’ locker room, but,
A flashy and sweet voice brought the three of them to a halt. Ryūji turned around and, without thinking, he felt like adjusting his glasses, though he didn’t actually wear any. Taiga was probably feeling the same way, and he turned his ferociously widened eyes to look at her,
She growled in a low voice. Yet,
“I’m so glad I caught up to you! I decided to do this as well! Because I’ve just recently transferred here, I want to get used to the school events!”
Widely smiling---Ami’s angelic smile wasn’t affected at all by Taiga’s glare.
“Umm…Did Kitamura tell you to participate? I think it’s better if you quit now; it’s not really what I’d call an event.”
Without thinking, Ryūji tried to give her some serious advice, but Ami just prettily shook her head side to side.
“Yūsaku didn’t say anything like that to me, okay? I decided that I wanted to participate all on my own. If I don’t exercise, then I won’t be using up that extra flab, isn’t that right? Minori-chan?”
“Ho, that’s right. That’s dieting, you know.”
Not looking surprised at all, Minori was nodding understandingly.
Looking at Minori out of the corner of her eye, Taiga didn’t look amused and there was a crease in her brow.
“Hm, this way?”
Then Ami deftly extended her arm and wrapped Ryūji’s arm with her own---At least, that’s what it felt like, he thought. Before she really could,
“…The girls’ locker room is over this way.”
Taiga, who was making a gloomy expression, was firmly gripping Ami by the collar from behind with her right hand like a prison warden. Dragging the nearly choking Ami in that manner, Taiga and Minori set off towards the girls’ locker room.
“I, I can walk on my own, Aisaka-san.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine, I’ll take you there, Kawashima-san.”
Standing there without thinking as he watched them bicker deceptively, Ryūji just sighed as he eventually came back to his senses. Well, the boys’ locker room wasn’t in the same direction after all. Pulling himself together, he started walking…As he walked, he brought a hand up to his unusually noisy chest.
The expression Ami had when she looked his way, tilting her head and going ‘Hm, this way?’, it was so unusually sweet, beautiful, and pure…No matter what, it was so cute he felt like he could die. It didn’t depend on what her actual personality was like.
Of course, she being cute was to be expected, since she was a model, but just because he saw something nice, it wouldn’t change the truth. He really did feel a bit happy, that was his honest feeling as a man, but still, it didn’t change reality.
'“All right, everybody! You should already be fully committed! I won’t allow anyone to skip out, you guys~! Let’s get pumped up and do it, all of you!”'
The weather was rather cloudy as they were out beneath a gold-colored sky chockful of clouds.
Passing through the megaphone, a rolling, overtly masculine voice was resounding to those upon the ground. And then from nearby,
“These words touch my heart today, as well. As expected of the president!”
Kitamura, who was also the student council vice-president, was going ‘Ye~ah, let’s go!’ as he continued to clap enthusiastically.
In front of the school gate after school, the nearly twenty students who had gathered were all making similarly uncomfortable expressions while the leader of the cleanup event shouted at them from above…In other words, they were all looking up at the student president. The happy students who were making their way home continued to stream past them continuously, looking over as though amused and saying things like “So they’re doing it again”.
“…W, what is this…?”
Seeing it for the first time, Ami was probably quite shaken up.
“…That’s our school’s student council president. The opposing candidates got zero votes; it’s the charisma of an absolute ruler.”
“E, eh…So then that person is seriously like that…”
“'Seriously' you say?”
“Well, Yūsaku was telling me some things before. Like, that Yūsaku had joined the student council because there was an amazing upperclassman there or something…”
‘“Have you put on your work gloves?! Got your trashbag?! Confirmed your area?!”’
A mild ‘yeah’ was the pitiful response,
‘“You frickin’ idiots--~!”’
Standing in a broad militaristic-looking stance, the student president revealed a white throat while vigorously shouting in an overwhelming voice.
‘“You’re not respecting this neighborhood! If that’s the extent of your willpower, then you scum will be tossed from the ship! Respond with more gusto!”’
'“You’re all too noisy---~!...All right then, this month we’ll be doing the customary neighborhood cleanup like always. Be really careful not to hurt yourselves or anything. If we find you slacking off and eating, I’ll punish you on the spot!...Well, I won’t tell you just how much~.”'
The president, whose lips were curling into a nihilistic smile---Sumire Kanou, a senior, gave a pronounced flick of her beautiful black hair. With her jersey, work gloves, and trashbag, she was making a very diligent looking pose where she stood. She had snow white skin and almond eyes, her abundant ink black hair was well-groomed and smooth, and her lips were crimson even without any lipstick…Like a graceful Yamato Nadeshiko, she had the image of a cool Japanese-styled young lady. But on the inside,
‘“O~kay. Well then, let’s frickin’ go guys. The goal: one full trashbag per person! Because the number of participants is so few, that assignment should be easily doable. Well, though I say assignment, it doesn’t have to be exact or anything, but in any case, make sure you don’t go around behaving sloppily in front of the people outside the school grounds. Frickin’ show the world your volunteer spirit!”
Manly, as if that one word was carved into her soul, she was an expertly commanding female shogun…Scratch that, to put it more bluntly, she was rather like a mob boss or a sumo coach.
“…Somehow, it’s amazing…She’s pretty, but she’s kind of rough…”
Whispering from Ryūji’s side, Ami was captivated as well, seemingly unable to take her eyes off the mob boss whose appearance and actions completely didn’t match. Anyone would react like that their first time. Like ‘yeah, yeah’, Ryūji was nodding his head understandingly,
“But you know, I’ve heard that she’s had the top grades ever since she entered the school and she’s also known as the legendary president who swiftly brought the crumbling student council out of bankruptcy.”
“Takasu-kun, that’s quite detailed.”
“I was just reciting what I heard from Kitamura.”
Looking unusually excited, Kitamura was continuing to respond with applause after each segment of speech came from the beautiful mob boss up on the platform. Ryūji wondered if he was trying to get everyone excited.
“…Does he think so highly of her…?”
Really, Ryūji was thinking that Kitamura had the stronger impression of a ‘leader’, but it seemed that even if he was a ‘subordinate’, he was going to work hard at fulfilling his duties.
However, with the way Kitamura was acting, Ryūji wondered just how Taiga would perceive the situation. She was standing a little bit apart from him next to Minori, but he could easily make out her gloomy and displeased looking face. He wasn’t sure if it was an unconscious or purposeful act, but she was restlessly writing the character for ‘kill’ on the ground with the tip of her shoe.
“Now then, you have one hour starting now! You absolutely cannot be late coming back! We’re not going to call it over until everyone has returned!”
Sumire’s shouts through the megaphone were followed by the sharp sounds of the student council members blowing their whistles, and the twenty or so students made their way past the school gates, going forth out into the world to hunt for trash. Anyway, there was at least one fellow mixed in there whose goal was to get more acquainted with the student council vice-president.
“The range of this cleanup is pretty large, isn’t it…Oh, we found something right away.”
Ryūji had just passed the gate when he spotted an old magazine near the school’s perimeter wall, and he was leaning over just about to grasp it with his gloves,
He was grabbed by the elastic band of his jersey and pulled back up. In the same fashion, he was dragged away. When he turned around jolted by the indecency, the one standing behind him with a stern face was Minori. She was going ‘tut tut’ and wagging her index finger,
“You can’t, Takasu-kun. The area around the school is for the seniors. It’s customary that we as the lowerclassmen have to go out and take care of the more troublesome areas.”
“Yeah! See, just look there!”
In the direction where Minori pointed, there was a plain girl who looked like a senior going “This is such a hassle…” as she tossed the magazine into her trashbag. Perhaps worn out from studying for the exam, she was letting out a really long sigh as she struck her hips like an old woman.
“Now then, the devout second years still have a bit farther to go.”
She smiled---Ahh, he felt like it had been so long since he last saw such a sincere smile. Faced directly with Minori’s smiling face that dazzled and shone like the sun, Ryūji was completely ensnared. Her dimples on both cheeks and the tip of her nose that was lightly flushed by the sun appeared healthy and seriously wonderful. At that very moment, Ryūji felt himself being captivated all over again.
It didn’t help that behind Minori’s back,
“Huh, this piece of trash reminds me of Kawashima-san. It looks like my monomane repertoire’s grown again.”
“Ooh, Aisaka-san, such jokes~! You’re making me laugh! Ah, doesn’t this piece of trash over here look like Aisaka-san? It’s so ridiculously short~.”
The two darkish and bewitching flowers, who viciously competed as they bloomed near one another, seemed to enjoy making mocking comments back and forth…Just watching them made him tired,
“…Taiga, cut it out already. Let’s go, come on.”
Hitting Taiga in the rear with the empty trashbag, he was only trying to pull them apart. However,
“I’ve told you before, don’t touch my butt!...Geez…If you all keep bothering me…”
Seeming extra sensitive, Taiga bared her fangs and then quickly started walking off ahead. It had to have been because she was worried about Kitamura and the student president. Ami also made a displeased expression, turning around to face away from Taiga as she crossed her arms.
Perhaps sensing something as she looked at those two, Minori lowered her voice and whispered, “Hey, hey” to get Ryūji’s attention.
“You know…I was thinking it this afternoon too, but doesn’t it seem like Taiga and Ami are kind of disagreeable? Just maybe.”
It was a remark that made him think ‘You’re worrying about that just now?’, but since he was being asked by Minori, he couldn’t keep from answering.
“Mm, I guess there have been quite a few unfortunate misunderstandings. You could say they got off to a rough and complicated start.”
“Is that so~...Well I guess it can’t be helped.”
The two of them ended up walking side by side at a relaxed pace---Ryūji was so excited he was trembling. At that moment, he was actually walking together with Minori. It felt almost exactly like a date as they ambled leisurely beneath the trees with newly sprouted leaves. If it weren’t for the mass of people in front and behind who were wearing their jerseys, the scene would probably look just like a date. He wondered if a day would come when such a scene would become reality…
“Hm, Taiga and Kawashima. You know, about Kawashima, she’s nothing like I imagined her to be in the beginning, though I don’t mean anything bad when I say that…I want Taiga to be able to get along with everyone, but she has some rather difficult points about her, you know…I wonder if this combination is really as bad as it seems…Relationships between women are complex after all.”
Minori was nodding to herself while making a slightly troubled face. Ryūji was also nodding the same way. Somehow, he was feeling an unusually strong sensation of togetherness as he walked side by side with Minori. If the feeling was genuine, then it would be the first time they had a direct ‘connection’ involving neither Taiga nor Kitamura.
If that was the case, he really needed to nurture it---His eyes turned even sharper than usual as he decided to try going on the offensive, even if only a little.
“W, well since Kushieda is around, I’m not really worried that much about Taiga, you know.”
His voice eventually gave out on him, but yes, he had at least been able to say something normally for the moment.
“That’s the kind of thing that I should be saying. I think that as long as Takasu-kun is around then Taiga should be just fine.”
As always, Ryūji was being misunderstood…but at least, it seemed like Minori held him in relatively high esteem. He could say that she even had good feelings towards him. As they were both smiling, Minori’s and Ryūji’s gazes connected. Then, one more step. Just one more step to becoming much closer. He should say something now---what he ought to say as a man. Ryūji’s eyes became bloodshot as his thoughts seethed, and he tried to clear his throat that felt constricted.
‘More than being around Taiga, I really hope I can be close to Kushieda…’ That’s what he’s going to say. Discreetly licking his dried lips, he casually put his nervously trembling fists into his pockets. With this timing it should sound natural, and if it at least seemed jokish rather than with some weird meaning, then he could still follow up on it. It was now or never---
Bam! He was forcefully pushed aside,
“Ryūji, hey, there’s a problem! Ooh, what should I do?!”
He couldn’t speak. He was able to check himself just at the brink of collapse, but as he looked up at Taiga’s face, he couldn’t get himself to speak.
“Come with me for a bit! Over this way!”
Like that, she practically dragged him into an alleyway.
“Kitamura, you know, he’s been staying next to the student council president the whole time! The whole time, he hasn’t left her side! He’s just happily smiling and barely noticing that I’m there! I mustered up the courage and tried telling him, ‘I was with Ryūji, so I came too’, but just what do you think he said after that?! ‘Ah, is that right? I hadn’t noticed, thank you! You’re really helping!’---That’s it. That’s all he said! Is that the way to speak to a girl who has confessed to you before?! Hey, what do you think?!”
Getting out her complaints in one go without taking a breath, Taiga got even closer to Ryūji.
“So…I knew it, there’s just no hope, is there?! W, what should I do?! Tell me what you think, I won’t get mad so just go ahead and say it!”
“W, what I think and all…If I can speak honestly...”
“…I wish you could have waited…it was going so well with Kushieda…”
“…What’s that you’re saying?”
Close up, Taiga’s expression was calm as she filled up with anger.
“Even though things aren’t going well for me, things are going well for the lowly Ryūji?! Huh?! You’re being really audacious!”
“I, it’s not that big a deal! You don’t need to get angry, do you?!”
“I am angry! No way, I won’t allow such a thing! I told you before didn't I, that until things go well with me and Kitamura, I won’t let you be happy! You…heartless fiend!”
Like that, the tyrannical Taiga quickly shot out of the alleyway,
“Taiga, what happened? You popped up and then suddenly disappeared~.”
She threw herself at Minori, who was just standing idly by, and clingingly coupled arms with her.
“I, I don’t want to be here anymore…It doesn’t matter where, but let’s go far, far away from here with just the two of us!”
“You want to elope? No problem, I’ll make you my bride.”
Minori’s face was absolutely full of compassion and empathy as she gently took hold of Taiga’s small shoulders.
So then just like that, the two of them huddled together and ended up walking off. Not even giving Ryūji a final wave or anything, they seemed to be having a lot of fun.
Moaning regretfully and just standing still, the abandoned Ryūji could only stare at Minori’s back as she got further and further away. Even though he had been trying so hard to make progress---
Being suddenly called out, he turned around in surprise. Perhaps coming out because the objectionable Taiga had left, Ami had come to stand next to him.
“Just now you got jumped by Aisaka-san, didn’t you? I saw it. You weren’t hurt, were you?”
“E…A, nah…I’m used to it.”
“Takasu-kun, how sad. Aisaka-san and Minori-chan both left you, didn’t they, and I have no idea where Yūsaku has gone.”
He just noticed, but the other students who were ambling around them were taking glances at Ami as if she was dazzling. Even though they were staring intently at the rumored beauty, because ‘that Takasu’ was standing next to her, it seemed like no one could come and talk to her. It looked like outside the classroom, the name Ryūji Takasu was still on par with the Palmtop Tiger when it came to striking fear.
A few girls who had some courage went ‘Ami-cha~n’ and waved as they passed by. When Ami smiled and waved back, they became excitedly happy, going ‘kyaa, kyaa’. And yet soon enough Ami turned her back on the girls,
“Well then, as those who were left behind, we should get along! Hey, which way do you want to go?”
She looked up at Ryūji with a dazzling angelic smile.
“U…mm…Couldn’t you just go together with those girls just now?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine, I don’t know those people at all anyway. I’ll go with Takasu-kun. Let’s try going to the edge of the river. That’s within our range of cleaning, isn’t it?”
“…I don’t really mind, but…”
‘Do you really have no choice but to go with me?’, he didn’t even have time to ask such a question before Ami started happily walking off in large strides. And then she pivoted and turned around.
“Come on, or I’ll leave you behind!”
Then just like a scene from a movie, she extended a delicate hand. There was simply no way he was going to take hold of it, and instead he just started walking quickly until he passed by her. It was exactly as if the guy who instilled fear was feeling shy.
- * *
Byo~yo~ing…Caught on the end of the trembling stick was a PET bottle floating on the water’s surface.
“G, got, it…!”
Pulling the empty bottle against the river’s current, Ryūji finally breathed. He shook his arm that was exhausted from being extended as far as he could manage, and then while making sure not to touch it, he finally dropped the bottle into his trashbag.
“Haa…With this, I guess I’m about halfway done…”
“About the same for me. We still have to search a little more, keep it up!”
At the river bank of the class A river that flowed around the edge of town, Ryūji and Ami were being careful not to get their shoes wet as they started walking again along the lower part of the concrete levee. The sky had become slightly thicker with clouds, and down on the ground, the grass that didn’t seem to have anyone to take care of it was growing wherever it wanted, even popping up from cracks in the concrete.
There was a faint grassy smell as well as an odor coming from the not-quite-clean river water. Walking in front of Ami, Ryūji sneaked a sigh. This work was more tiring than he could have imagined. The trashbags that swung from their hands weren’t even close to being filled. Even if they were told that the quota didn’t have to be exact, there was no way they were going to get away with only so much.
Until just recently they had been searching for trash along the upper part of the river bank on the boardwalk, but they were having a hard time finding enough trash so they had eventually dropped down this far. Then,
Splash, barely avoiding a wave coming from the same direction as the wind, Ryūji turned around to face Ami. It seemed that Ami had also been able to safely avoid the wave, but,
“Haa…Enough already…This totally sucks…”
With a gulp, Ryūji didn’t breathe.
The bit of concealed monologue that he had inadvertently heard was tinged with irritation, and Ami’s brow that was deeply affected with a profound wrinkle seemed out of place. However worn out as Ryūji might have felt, Ami must have been at least as tired. There were signs that her normal front was about to give out on her.
It was certainly true that the sky was gloomy and the wind was harsh, and it didn’t help that the work they were doing was boringly dull. Even though it had become quite chilly, it would still take quite some time before they could finish. They weren’t even getting any closer right now. In such a poor situation, even if the person wasn’t like Ami, it would probably be normal to be in a foul mood. And moreover, there was an overly delicate atmosphere with just the two of them. They couldn’t keep up a conversation, things were awkward and unpleasant, and the shy Ryūji couldn’t come up with even one usable joke to lighten the mood. All he could do was try as hard as possible to remain calm so she wouldn’t think negatively.
“A, are you okay?”
“Eh? Yeah! Totally fine~! This is just like we’re exploring, so I’m having fun! I like this kind of thing~!”
Looking up, Ami’s pretty face was fortunately still holding an angelic smile---Yet, that disparity between appearance and her actual feelings made him scared all over again. With the way things were now, he probably would feel better if she had shown her displeasure.
“Hey, you know…Don’t push yourself. If you’re tired, you can take a break. It’s not like you’ll be executed just because you didn’t reach the quota. Something like this should be pretty tough for a girl.”
That was Ryūji’s best possible attempt at getting her to be more relaxed, but,
“Come on, I told you already, I’m really okay!”
In return, Ami just reinforced her front. She made a big show of waving her hand in front of her face, upturning her sparkling Chihuahua-like eyes, and tilting her petite head as she continued to coat her words in honey.
“The whole time I was thinking, you know? It would be really nice if we could have a chance to chat leisurely like this. So…Owah!"
It happened right then.
A mischievous and forceful wind had created a wave more powerful than any of the ones from before along the water surface. Fleeing onto the slope instantly, Ryūji had been able to avoid trouble, but for Ami, who had been acting all sweet while located at the zero mark,
It had been too late to escape---It was unfortunate.
“You okay?! For me to have avoided it alone…What should I…”
It didn’t seem like there was going to be any way to smooth this over, not even with her usual inconstancy. Ami was staring down at the ends of her now dripping wet uniform and jersey; she was just frozen, not saying anything nor showing any emotion.
But, finally, he could see the corners of Ami’s lips begin to slowly waver. It seemed like she was trembling, trying as hard as she could to soften the intense sharpness in her eyes as she looked up.
She was an expert at controlling her emotions. It was slow, but sure enough Ami was putting forth a desperate amount of effort to bring back her angelic smile. Then, as she was fully in the process of pulling herself back together.
Her face froze once again. As Ami continued to drip, at the base of her legs above her shoelaces, some weird sort of blackish dripping things were moving around, shaking, and bouncing…she looked at them for a full three seconds,
“Yaaaaa, gyaaaaaaaa, get them off, get them off!”
Letting out an unbridled scream, Ami collapsed right then and there. At the end of her flailing legs,
“D, don’t move! I said, don’t move! Don’t kick me in the face, I’ll remove the tadpoles! Stop moving around!”
Two, no wait, three tadpoles were calmly hanging on. While Ami was hysterically screaming and barely conscious, he somehow removed her shoes,
Ryūji was then able to return the small tadpoles back to the river.
On the ground facing up, Ami had a petrified look on her face, her breath was faint, and she wasn’t moving. Her hair was miserably disheveled, her legs were carelessly spread, her jersey was wet up to the shin, and needless to say, her socks were drenched with the muddy water as well. This was such an unbecoming appearance for the one called ‘Ami Kawashima-chan’.
Ryūji timidly approached her,
“Y, your shoes…I’ll just leave them here. Okay. They’re a little wet, but at least the tadpoles aren’t there anymore.”
He gently placed the sports shoes near Ami’s feet. Ami shifted her large eyes and looked down at her shoes. Then,
“A, A, A,…”
Ami-chan---He heard her low mutter.
He heard, and then in the next instant.
“I don’t want to do this anymo-----~re!”
Taking her shoes in her white hands, she threw them at the embankment as she angrily cried out.
Without thinking, Ryūji covered his mouth with his hands and didn’t say anything more than that. Her disguise was finally undone…
Ami’s shoulders bobbed as she panted like an animal, and then saying things like “Geez, I can’t stand this anymore”, “No more”, and “Ami-chan is going back, definitely going back”, Ami continued to quickly spout angrily---
When she turned around, their gazes met. It looked like she had finally come back to reality. They stayed silent like that for a few seconds, just staring at one another,
Ami had her clenched hands at her mouth and was desperately trying to give a pure smile.
“Just kidding! It was a joke, a joke! Come on Takasu-kun, such a scary face~!”
You’re the one who’s scary…but there was no way he could say that. Continuing to look back now and then with a laughing smile, Ami was valiantly climbing up the embankment with only her socks on her feet,
“Here we go, here we go…Ah~! There they are! I’m so glad, I found them~!”
Holding the shoes that had been cast aside with both her hands and smiling with her whole face, she yelled with an extremely forced sweetness while waving dramatically. Then she put her shoes on right there,
“Takasu-kun, let’s have a race to the embankment!”
“The loser has to hand over all their collected trash to the winner! That’ll make one full quota! Ready, set, go!”
---Staring as Ami started noisily dashing up the embankment, Ryūji was thinking. Hand over the trash, she says…didn’t she go and leave behind her trashbag, is what he thought.
Left with no choice, he took both of their bags, one in each hand and quickly started scaling the embankment. He didn’t fully comprehend what they were doing, but he just had to go with it in this case.
Ami’s back had disappeared into the greenery and out of his sight some time ago. Now that no one was watching her, he wondered if she was trying to pull together her broken appearance. It would probably be better if he took his time making his way up there. Then,
On top of the embankment, her completely recovered and pretty face quickly peeked out from the other side of the grass.
“Takasu-kun lost! But, I’ll properly help you to search for trash, so you don’t need to worry!”
Speaking with such a bright voice as she looked down at him, it seemed like Ami had recovered her flawlessly smiling face. However,
“…That’s enough, you can stop that.”
“Eh? What do you mean by ‘that’?”
In contrast with her words, she couldn’t hide the expression in her eyes that shook as if disturbed---Because Ami’s eyes were too large. Then again, it was the same for Ryūji who was already too tired to try and coat his intentions.
“…Is there any meaning in this? Going to such lengths just so I’ll like you, just what value is there in that?...I won’t say anything to anyone about it, so you can just give it a rest and go back to how you were a second ago.”
In response to his blunt statement,
“…I wonder, what are you saying? I don’t get what you mean.”
Ami just looked at him blankly with her rounded eyes. Even if she was running on willpower alone, it looked like she planned to keep it up until the bitter end. Even after she had crumbled some time ago, she showed an above ordinary stubbornness. But Ryūji wouldn’t let his own stubbornness lose. After all, he was used to it after dealing with the Palmtop Tiger day in and day out.
“…If you want to say you don’t know, then that’s fine. Do whatever you want. But, I’m the one who really doesn’t understand. Just why did you come out here and try so hard to do such troublesome work? There’s no point even if you do it.”
It wasn’t exactly criticism, but he just had to ask. Because he really thought this kind of work was troublesome, and if it was a part of some plan to build her reputation, then it didn’t seem worth it. Even if she didn’t do something like this, it was already the widespread opinion in class that Ami was a good person.
“…You, don’t understand the point?...You don’t understand. Haa…”
Unexpectedly dropping the smile, she whispered.
Such a clear expression, it made Ryūji stop in his tracks. Without even thinking about what kind of face he was making, he focused his eyes, but the wind kicked up, tugging at Ami’s hair and hiding her face.
“…Surprisingly, it’s not so simple. Takasu-kun…I can’t really make you understand this kind of thing…”
I only meant to play with that midget, but now it’s like I’m out of order---For some reason, it felt like her wispish voice echoed with self-derision.
“…Eh? What do you mean by ‘play’…?”
However, when he asked her that in reply,
“Hm? What? You heard it like that? How strange, must have been your mistake.”
Brushing back her hair, Ami was wearing her same-as-ever angelic smile as she looked down at Ryūji.
“I even said it before, but me being here like this is because I’ve wanted to talk leisurely with Takasu-kun on our own, you know? That, maybe it’s ambiguous like that?”
Sweet words and a pretty smile…That was Ami’s defining and familiar appearance. The usual Ami who never really meant anything no matter what she might say and treated others lightly.
Ryūji sighed, deciding to let the matter drop. No matter what he might say, this Ami wasn’t going to tell him anything at all. If she wanted to keep acting like that, then that was fine; it had nothing to do with him anymore.
Then, Ami suddenly looked to the sky.
The cold drops started falling heavily on Ryūji’s face as well.
“…It’s really coming down…”
On a bench beneath an arbor shelter that was situated along the embankment walkway, Ami was sitting while embracing her slender legs as she muttered sounding almost surprised.
She had gone back to her former self, and although no more than ten minutes could have possibly passed---It wasn’t a situation where they could continue with the trash collection.
Just like Ami had said, it was really coming down outside of the simple styled arbor shelter that was just a roof supported by pillars. It was being bombarded by the sudden downpour.
Massive clouds covered the sky, and although it was still around 4 o’clock, it was unusually dark. The slanting raindrops continued to fall violently onto the soft dirt of the earth, penetrating the ground like bullets. It had only been a few minutes since it started raining, but here and there puddles were gathering and flowing like small streams, and before long the class A river at the bottom of the embankment seemed to turn hazy as if in a mist.
The powerful, roaring wind was making the shelter creak,
“…This shelter might end up getting blown away…”
She tried to laugh, but Ami looked seriously frightened.
“I wonder if we’ll be okay, really…”
“With the rain like this, it should stop if we wait a few minutes, probably.”
Not looking reassured by anything being said by Ryūji, who was standing while leaning against one of the pillars, Ami’s pale face was plastered with her dismally wet hair. This was already beyond a matter of actual or feigned personalities. Even the previously delicate awkwardness had basically disappeared with the appearance of the storm. Just trembling slightly while appearing cold, Ami was looking up worriedly at the stormy sky. The jersey she wore and in fact her whole body must have been completely drenched,
She gave a small sneeze like a baby mouse. It was quite different from the odd sounds of Taiga’s sneezes, and almost reflexively he wanted to remove his jacket so he could drape it over her shoulders. However, Ryūji’s own clothes were just as drenched,
“You must be cold…We have that trashbag we’re not using, want to wear it? All you’d have to do is make a hole for your head.”
“Eh?! I’m not doing something like that!”
His idea was shot down without hesitation. If it was the feigning Ami, then he was sure she would have laughed and accepted.
“…Come on. Wearing a trashbag can’t be that bad.”
“No, absolutely no way. I’m not going to do such a thing! Geez…Unbelievable…”
In a spoiled and nasally voice, Ami turned away suddenly like a rude child.
Almost definitely, the usual Ami wouldn’t have shown her displeasure like that. Just maybe, the guise that had broken once before had become more easily susceptible to being cracked again on occasion. Like for example, when her whole body was thoroughly chilled because of a sudden downpour or something.
“…This has got to be a curse from those tadpoles.”
Trying to alleviate the oppressive silence, he ended up saying something pointless. Ami despondently looked up at Ryūji,
“…Why did I have to be cursed?”
“It’s probably their wrath from having their lives in peril."
“…I thought you rescued them, Takasu-kun.”
“…The truth is, I just pretended to save them, but instead I actually tossed them into the grass over there…”
Looking greatly taken aback, Ami let loose such an exclamation of surprise. Her mouth was partially agape in shock, and her eyes remained wide open looking as if they might spill out,
“…Couldn’t you tell that was a joke? Do I look like the kind of guy who could do something like that?”
“Wh…what’s with that! Geez! For a second you really scared me, because Takasu-kun, you really do seem like a guy who might do that sort of thing!”
She said something kind of rude there.
“Just what do you mean? Sorry for making you think that, but I’m quite a nice guy. Although it’s just me saying that about myself…but seriously, I really love animals; I even own and take excellent care of a parrot that I hatched from an egg.”
“A parrot?...Is that the one that Taiga Aisaka was calling an ugly weird parrot?”
“That Taiga, how could she say such a thing…he’s a good parrot with his own sort of charm.”
“So parrots can be good or bad? What’s his name?"
Ami was silent for only a moment---
“Ahahaha! What the heck!”
She broke out in laughter. She pointed at Ryūji, who sharply narrowed his gaze in confusion not getting what she meant,
“That’s so unusual, a name like that! It’s not even a name really, it’s just the species type, you know! Weird, weird, weird, to~tally weird!"
Brushing aside her dripping hair, she revealed her curved brow. As she lightly clapped, Ami just kept laughing all the more. She must have found the whole thing terribly funny, so much so that she was beating the ground with her feet,
“Inko-chan, you said! What the heck! Takasu-kun, you’re so different from how you look, though not as much as that student president~!”
Facing Ryūji, she was laughing so hard that the corners of her eyes started filling with tears. But then,
Ami’s laughter ended as abruptly as it had started. It was just like she had been hit with a petrification spell. Ami’s stony gaze was directed past Ryūji to somewhere behind him, and her expression had become just like a stone statue. Then,
“What’s wrong?...Wait, hey! Kawashima!"
Without responding to Ryūji at all, Ami took off out from the shelter and into the drizzling rain. Ryūji couldn’t keep up with her behavior that didn’t really seem to make any sense. Bending down as if to hide herself amidst the overgrown grass as she sort of jogged, she got steadily further and further away from him while being pelted by the cold rain. He didn’t understand what was going on, but as there was no reason not to follow her,
Ryūji also jumped out into the steady rain. Then after catching up to her, he was forced to get right behind her as they huddled into the abandoned and run-down bicycle storage area that was a little bit apart from the arbor shelter.
Even though they were now covered by a corrugated iron roof, in comparison to the arbor shelter from just before it was like heaven and earth. It was just as exposed to the wind but without anywhere to sit, and there were rusted bicycles piled up nearby in a disorderly heap.
“What the heck’s the matter?! Why did we come all the way over to this wet place…?”
Her cold hands reached out and around the back of Ryūji’s neck. With the coldness and the scent coming from Ami at such close range, Ryūji couldn’t speak or even breathe.
Applying her full body weight, Ami was holding onto Ryūji tightly. Roughly pulling him down with considerable force like that, she made him crouch down on the spot.
“…Sh, I said!”
In close contact, her body was strangely supple yet so slender it was like she barely existed, and Ami’s skin was so soft that it felt as if the portion that clung to him was melting thoroughly together.
He couldn’t let such a thing happen…Ryūji was seriously desperate, and while his face was completely flushed blood-red, he grasped a pillar trying to resist Ami’s weight and pull away. The smell of being wet with rain was sweet, and looking up dazedly like a drowned man, Ryūji exhaled towards the sky.
“…Just for a little while…let’s hide here like this…”
She just barely spoke in a whisper.
Then Ami balled up even more tightly, and using Ryūji’s body like a shield, she situated herself against him snugly. From a point-blank distance, her shut eyelids were pearl gray and the clear raindrops on her long wet eyelashes seemed to glitter.
“A, ah, ah…Wa, wai…T, this is…”
With an expression that looked as if he had been pricked and was gushing blood, Ryūji stammered, embarrassedly overwhelmed. If such a guy existed who could remain normal when faced with this sort of incredibly sudden contact with such an incredibly pretty girl, Ryūji would like to meet him.
Whispering just barely, Ami discreetly pointed with her finger. While still in a daze, he looked over that way at that moment. Ryūji’s boiling blood instantly chilled and coldly pooled at his feet.
“…T, that guy…”
The man who ran into the arbor shelter they had just come from to avoid the rain brought back an unwelcome memory.
Closing his umbrella and looking about, he looked like a normal college student at first glance---If he wasn’t holding a digital camera while in this downpour, then he probably wouldn’t stand out so much.
Instinctively breaking out in goosebumps, Ryūji stood in place of Ami as he tried to completely hide her with himself somehow.
“The weirdo from yesterday…it’s him. What’s he doing in a place like this? If it’s a coincidence, then that’s just too much…”
“…Do you really think it’s a coincidence?”
He couldn’t reply to her. Because there was no way it was a coincidence.
“He must have come to ambush us at school…”
Feeling a bit creeped out, Ryūji shivered slightly without thinking---It wasn’t just because of the cold.
“How does he know what school you attend? Yesterday, didn’t you say something like he was just a weird fan who you met coincidentally?”
“…Yeah, I did but…”
He felt a bitter hesitation mixed into Ami’s faltering voice. She opened her mouth a number of times but would close it each time, and she was holding her breath while in his arms. She stiffened up like that.
“Go ahead and say it. We’ve already come this far, there’s no need to hide anything.”
When he gently shook her chilled shoulders, her back trembled just a bit. Then Ami slowly started speaking,
“Well, that is…to put it bluntly, he’s, a stalker…I guess.”
In a low voice, she finally spit it out.
After she said it, Ryūji remembered hearing Ami shout the same word before---‘You, stalker!’. During her furious confrontation with Taiga, that had been perhaps the only time that Ami had revealed her emotion.
“How should I say this…Yesterday, I was embarrassed so I couldn’t say it. I really didn’t want to blow things out of proportion…That guy, he’s a well-known troublemaker in the industry. I don’t know how he gets his information, but he often shows up holding his camera, at people’s homes, at their schools, and so on. I don’t know how many people have been targeted besides myself, but he has been prowling around causing trouble for many of the other magazine models as well.”
Ami nodded at Ryūji’s groaning voice then resumed talking.
“The reason I moved here is also the fault of that guy. My mom, she’s also a performer you know. We were told by her office that there was a weird man prowling around our house’s neighborhood…I was the only one to be put into the care of our relatives at their house. Dad’s also busy with work so he couldn’t leave his office in the city. But…where I moved to must have been discovered…”
“Is, is that how it was…?”
“Yeah. I thought there was no choice but to move, but even so…It’s scary. I’m separated from my friends, I have to take a break from modeling until things cool down, and even the office had to take a temporary break. So, there’s no one to watch out for me…Before, I had a manager, so he would take me back and forth by car…Ah man, I can’t believe this…Even after I went to the trouble to move here, that guy followed me…”
That must be scary.
Ryūji was scared enough to feel chilled even though he was a guy, so for Ami, who was the actual target, the fear must have been beyond his comprehension.
He unconsciously held her a bit tighter,
“We’ll keep hiding until that guy gives up and leaves.”
He was a timid guy who couldn’t say something like “I’m going to beat him to a pulp”, but if it was just keeping her hidden, even Ryūji could do it. So like that, the two of them breathed quietly, staying together as they waited for time to pass. But, perhaps waiting for the rain to stop, the man just sat on the bench and began to casually wipe down his wet camera.
The whole time, the relentless rain continued to be carried by the wind and Ryūji’s jersey was becoming drenched and heavy. He was wondering just how long they could last like that when,
“He~y! Takasu-ku~n! Kawashima-sa~n! How strange, we can’t find them anywhere. But with this rain…hmm. Taiga, are you cold?”
“I’m ok. How about Minorin?”
“Fine fine! But, they’ve got to be somewhere. I saw them heading over to the river bank…”
“Maybe because of the rain, they might have turned around midway. Let’s try going back.”
“But if they turned around, wouldn’t we have met them on the way?”
Amidst the rain that just might have gotten even stronger, he heard the unmistakable voices of Minori and Taiga. Not sure if they offered salvation or would just make things worse, he couldn’t really rely on just that pair whose actions he wasn’t able to read. Even so, Ryūji unthinkingly moved to wave at them,
“Hey, those voices, they definitely belong to Taiga and Kushi…Buh!”
He almost burst into laughter. Even considering the current situation.
Because it was too much---Like he had suggested to Ami before, Minori was cheerfully wearing a trashbag with a hole cut in it as a transparent poncho. And then resting on top of Taiga’s head was some sort of small clear container that she was using as a makeshift umbrella,
“By the way Minorin, about the takoyaki from just before, it wasn’t really hot enough. It’s already too late, but it really bugged me. I guess I’m just complaining for future reference.”
So it was actually a takoyaki container…and yet even with such a thing, her small body was being quite well protected from the rain. He wondered if wearing aonori or katsuobushi on her head would work too. Really, that fellow was just too ridiculous…It was no good, his abdomen hurt with the need to laugh…His nervousness had been put on hold.
Looking at his face as he was trying desperately to hold back his laughter,
“…Takasu-kun, for some reason you’re shaking.”
Ami’s lips stiffened sharply as if accusing him. However,
“Sorry…just that…It’s too funny…a takoyaki container umbrella…Buha!”
With the impression he got, he ended up thinking of Taiga as a monster---The image was being thoroughly fleshed out in his mind.
However, it seemed like it wasn’t only Ryūji who was stimulated by her odd appearance. She caught the attention of the male stalker who was within the arbor shelter,
“Found a cute minisized monster!”
He rudely got his camera ready. However, there was no reason that the queen of beasts, the Palmtop Tiger, wouldn’t notice such a movement.
In an instant, Taiga contorted her face, baring her fangs as if out for blood. She quite accurately turned to glare viciously at the arbor shelter from which the voice had emanated.
“You there! I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you’re way too creepy! I’m not going to just forget being called a monster by a suspicious looking person like you!”
She licked her lips once with her red tongue---Taiga’s killing intent that she pulled out whenever she wanted, which would probably be completely unexpected by strangers including this weirdo, was about to burst.
Taking the takoyaki container she had been wearing into her hands and rolling it up, she finished preparing her makeshift weapon. Then firmly taking it with both hands, she held it tightly at her side,
“With this rain, there won’t even be any evidence left behind.”
At the same time that she practically spit out that mutterance, she violently charged forward.
“Eh? Wa, uwa!”
With Taiga not saying anything, firmly grasping her swordlike weapon, moving with remarkable speed, making a face like a hannya mask, and charging forward full of killing intent, it wasn’t all that wrong to call her a scary monster.
“Wh, what the heck is this?!”
The man grabbed his bag in confusion and hurriedly lifted his umbrella before turning his back on Taiga and making a run for it. Taiga was just about to begin the hunt when,
“Who are you, you creep…Wah!”
She slid into the mud. It happened right in front of the dilapidated structure where Ryūji and Ami were hiding. Taiga was just on the verge of falling flat on her face into the mud,
Ryūji jumped out with impeccable timing to just barely catch her by the nape of her neck, and amidst the rain, they froze in that pose looking like he had just caught a wild animal.
While they remained stiff in that stance,
“…I, I thought I already fell completely, so I was holding my breath!”
With Taiga’s expectedly wet hair hanging down to her hips, she was clinging to Ryūji’s arm as she desperately tried to regain her footing. Making an expression like that of a cat just hit by a car, she breathed a drawn-out sigh.
“Don’t go around chasing people you don’t know! And let’s throw this away! Come on!"
Ryūji knocked the makeshift sword/ monster umbrella from her hand,…For some reason, it seemed like the back of her head smelled of katsuobushi. While he was unconsciously staring at the top of Taiga’s head, Minori caught up to them,
“What the heck were you doing, Taiga?! Or more like, who the heck was that man?! Or rather, where the heck have you been, Takasu-kun?!”
With question marks plastering her face, Minori wiped Taiga’s mud-splattered face. When Ami showed up there similarly drenched,
“…Or should I ask, where were you at, Kawashima-san?!”
Looking surprised when she turned around, Minori plucked off shreds of grass that clung to Ami’s shoulder.
A single tear that showed through on Ami’s rain-drenched face rolled down her cheek.
- * *
Readjusting his glasses that had slid down the moment he yelled,
“…You didn’t say even a word about this before. You just said you were tired of modeling, you didn’t like your school, and you couldn’t go back to your house or your parents…”
“It was hard to say. That is, if I had said something, Yūsaku would have been worried.”
Looking at the face of his childhood friend who had matured so prettily, Kitamura was at a rare loss for words.
Calling it a token of gratitude for helping out in the cleanup and reparations for getting drenched in the downpour, Kitamura had invited them all to a fastfood shop that evening. Perhaps due to the earlier worsening of the weather, even though it was only gently raining now, there really weren’t any other customers in the shop.
Ami finished telling Kitamura of her overly melancholic situation before turning her fair face downwards kind of pitiably. Ryūji was just watching for the time being, remaining relatively silent nearby. Minori was facing Ami with a worried look and a wrinkle in her brow, while Taiga---
Perhaps unable to overcome her nervousness at being in the same place as Kitamura, some ketchup spilled from the French fry she was holding. Ryūji didn’t say anything as he pulled out one of the wet wipes that he carried with him to deal with Taiga’s mishaps and deftly wiped her skirt.
It became just about silent at the rarely used round table where they were sitting.
The one to try jumpstarting the conversation was Kitamura.
“Anyway, we should try the police and…”
“I already said I’ve tried contacting them…It seems like there are even some of the others at the office who have tried to file reports, but he doesn’t leave behind any evidence, like clues to his identity or anything…For something like this, the police won’t do a serious investigation…”
“Well then, I’ll catch him myself and hand him over to the police. He’s been prowling around your neighborhood, right? I can talk to the members at your workplace for details, ask for some help,”
“Just stop there, that’s too dangerous. And besides, something like that…If it gets out of hand, it’ll just be troubling. You understand, right? This kind of problem will blow over eventually; just becoming a so-called ‘victim’ is already enough damage. If in addition to that, something were to unexpectedly happen to Yūsaku or anyone else, I wouldn’t be able to handle that responsibility, and anyway my mom…I don’t think my mom’s office would allow it.”
Being told all that, the man trying to uphold justice had to fall silent, but then nodding lightly to himself, he ended up crossing his arms.
“…But, if it’s like this…”
“Mm! I’ve got it!”
The one raising her index finger and suddenly speaking up was Minori. Widening her eyes largely, she started saying the following.
“The reason that the police can’t catch this guy is because they don’t know his identity, right? If that’s the case, then let’s turn this around and go stalk him. Then we can take pictures and video as proof that he’s following and stalking Kawashima-san. We hand that over to the police, then they can figure out who he is and catch him. That should do nicely, right?”
“Kushieda…! That’s it! Wonderful! As expected from the head of the girls’ division! Actually, right now, I wouldn’t even mind handing over the boys’ division to you!”
“Right, right?! Hand it over! We’ll remodel their bodies and turn them into girls, then it’ll be the all girls’ division~!”
“Ahaha, you’re seriously a crazy one~!”
Joking playfully, Kitamura and Minori were holding hands and acting excited, but Ryūji couldn’t help but cut it short…No, it’s not like he wanted to join in as well.
“Wait, wait. What you just said, who’s going to do it?”
“Can’t I just do it?”
Unpretentiously, Minori captivated Ryūji with her dazzling smile as she said that.
“A friend in need is a friend indeed! So I’m going to help as much as I can.”
Going “Yay!”, she struck a peace sign---Truly, Minori was a kind-hearted goddess descended to earth. He had to hold his mouth and his eyes shone almost crazily as Ryūji was moved by the extent of her kindness. It wasn’t that he had gone over the edge, just that he had gotten a little teary-eyed.
“I, I’ll also do what little I can.”
He didn’t have any confidence in his physical strength, but for him to do nothing after the girl he liked had said so much, it would be unforgivable for him as a man to do such a despicable thing. Then, he flicked a glance over at Taiga, whose presence was practically nonexistent.
He was faced with Baron Ashura.
…Ryūji couldn’t be certain, but he could guess what she was feeling. The grimace on her right half was jealousy towards Ami who was being worried about by Kitamura. The excited look on the left half of her face was hope at the prospect of just maybe getting to do something together with Kitamura. The complicated gloom that permeated her whole face was concern for Minori who was declaring her intent to help and also just maybe…a minor possibility, there might have even been some real concern for Ami in there, like a little pinch of spice…Or at least that’s what he wanted to think.
Anyway, it seemed like Taiga would just remain as she was, completely petrified, if he didn’t intercede.
“Of course you’ll be helping out, right? You must have a grudge against that guy. I mean, didn’t he say that? He called you that…”
“…He did say it. He called me a monster.”
Without mentioning the fact that he had been thinking the same thing, Ryūji nodded deeply.
“Then, you have to take him down.”
Keeping silent for the moment, Taiga’s glance that was directed at Ryūji had already become cleansed of any traces of anger or concern at such a trivial matter.
“…That’s right…You’re right…Yeah, I’ll do it. I really can’t stand you, but in this case, we have a common enemy.”
Taiga was facing Ami as she gave a single definite nod.
“For now, we’re all in this together!”
Getting fired up, Taiga had the kind of tension usually involved with starting a speech while facing Kitamura,---however, Ami was making a face that looked steeped in depression, biting her lip without speaking. Noticing this,
“Are you okay?”
Ryūji instinctively asked her, causing Ami to suddenly look up. She quickly put on a smile,
“…Eh, yeah! As long as you’re all going to help me, I’m totally great. I’m seriously thankful, you’re all so dependable!”
Her strangely light words resounded dully within the empty shop.
|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|