| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
“The captain with the fearsome pitching arm, Kushieda Minori!”
“Yeah! The ‘Bullet Home Return’ that dominated the Kantou region isn’t just for show!”
“The proficient cook with the mean expression, Takasu Ryūji!”
“Y, yeah…I can only stick around until 5 o’clock; there’s a limited time offer on chicken today.”
“The one with the strongest name is here to help, Aisaka Taiga!”
“---And last is me, Kitamura Yūsaku! All members present and accounted for!”
Turning around and pointing, Kitamura checked off on each one of them then tightly clenched his fist. Even the ordinarily busy Kitamura was taking a break from club activities today, and it seemed he had even gotten special permission to put his student council duties on hold.
It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and there were no other students left in the classroom. The fading sunlight illuminated the three people sitting around Kitamura like underlings and Ami, who was standing a little bit apart from them.
“Now then”, Kitamura put on a chairman-like appearance as he began speaking in his far carrying voice.
“Starting immediately, we’re going to implement the strategy we laid out yesterday. So Kushieda, Aisaka, and I will be in charge of photographing the stalker. We’ll be using this digital camera, and just in case, we’re each going to take some shots with our cell phones as well. Just in case, Takasu will be sticking around Ami.”
Raising his hand, Ryūji requested Kitamura’s permission before speaking.
“…Wouldn’t it be better if you and I took the pictures while the two girls followed Kawashima around?”
Taiga aside, he felt that the way they had it set up would be too dangerous for Minori. However, Kitamura just overturned Ryūji’s suggestion,
“Not really, because if something were to happen and we get scattered while taking pictures, it would be pretty bad to just leave the girls all by themselves. If we’re discovered while we’re doing this kind of thing, it’s possible that things will get out of hand. In the unlikely event that something does happen, you’ll be there to protect Ami with your fearsome looks.”
“…I kind of understand, but…I seriously don’t have any confidence when it comes to fighting.”
Looking at his fists that had never been directed against another person in his whole life, Ryūji mumbled rather pitifully. However, Ami had moved over next to him and wrapped one of his arms with both of her hands
“It’ll be fine! If it’s Takasu-kun, I really feel I can depend on you! Because I believe that you’ll definitely protect me!”
Surprised by her sudden approach, Ryūji couldn’t even speak. He wasn’t sure how he should get away. Trying to pull at his gently ensnared arm and squirming uncomfortably already felt indecent enough that he ended up blushing. It actually made Taiga’s chillingly piercing stare practically comfortable.
“All right. Then we’re starting. We have no idea where we’re being watched, so once we pass the shoeracks, Takasu and Ami will go first. We’ll take the route we discussed yesterday, and we’ll keep in contact via cell phone.”
On Kitamura’s command, they left the classroom one after the other and started walking down the hallway. Then,
“…You, just what is that?”
Ryūji ended up spotting something strange in Taiga’s collar as she walked in front of him.
“I’m just bringing it as a precaution…It feels so nostalgic, carrying this guy around.”
While Taiga’s lips curled, just a glimpse of something that looked like a wooden stick peeked out through gaps in her hair. Thinking ‘What in the world is it?’, he tried pulling it out just a little for a better look,
“…If you go around waving this thing, it’s going to become a big deal.”
“I get it, that’s why I said it’s just a precaution.”
He gently thrust the handle of the wooden sword that he had accidentally seen back into her jacket collar. Ahh, how nostalgic---that night in spring, he had been nearly killed by that guy…If he looked really closely, he could figure out that there was definitely something at Taiga’s exceptionally well-postured back. It just wasn’t all that noticeable because her back was concealed by her long hair.
“…More important than that, Ryūji...”
Oddly, Taiga had lowered her voice and was staring at him with large eyes. She was still keeping that wooden sword hidden behind her back.
“You’re really a helplessly perverted dog, aren’t you…Just now, making that lovesick face…You’re so unfaithful, I’m ashamed as your master, seriously.”
“Wh,…What are you talking about…?”
Even though he asked her what she was going on about, he was of course fully aware of what she meant. Taiga just let out a big sigh at Ryūji’s face.
“You’re really getting friendly with Kawashima Ami…Well, isn’t that nice? You’re just quickly abandoning Minorin and latching onto some pretty girl who treats you nicely. So you’re that kind of guy. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“That, you…Y, you’re misunderstanding something.”
“I wonder about that. Well, it’s your life. I’m not going to concern myself with your problem with lust.”
“…Just what the heck are you saying?”
Going ‘fu’, she finally gave a malicious smile. She turned away, full of contempt, before trotting off to leave Ryūji behind and, with her long and smoke-like hair swaying, she moved to cling tightly to Minori who was walking a little ahead.
“Hey, if it isn’t Taiga-chan. You’re so cute today as well.”
While Taiga was practically purring and sidling up to her, Minori was touching the tip of the wooden sword, which was just barely hidden by the hem of Taiga’s skirt, in a way that made it look like she was groping Taiga from behind,
“You’re carrying something pretty hard, aren’t you?”
“Can’t be too prepared.”
…Ryūji unthinkingly stared, no...rather, he was put off. Even though Taiga was always calling him a perverted dog, weren’t they the ones being much more perverted?
Furthermore, Taiga was being rather mean with her comments, even for her. What the heck had he done to deserve it? And then she’d run away before he got a chance to retort---
“Takasu-kun, is something the matter?”
“A…No, it’s nothing.”
Before he knew it, Ami had popped up beside him with her smiling face, and it was making him nervous. As they were walking side by side close enough that their shoulders could touch, his anger was slowly flowing away. Instead, he was starting to feel oddly impatient.
Anyway, the girl by the name of Kawashima Ami was suddenly excessively close to him---Reciting the reason why his face felt hot, Ryūji averted his gaze from Ami as he twisted his lips into an upside down V.
As they were leisurely walking about the immediate vicinity,
“…So then, I asked them to let me try on the light pink one. But the shop people, you know, they said the white would definitely suit Ami-chan, that only white would do, then they forced me to wear that knitted one. And then even I was like, maybe white is actually pretty good? That’s what I started feeling, but then when I thought about the knitted one I bought the other day, I think it might have been white, mm, well actually it seemed a little more like light gray than white…Could it have been beige? Maybe it was beige?”
Ami just kept going on and on and on with her story about shopping while she smiled broadly. This was probably the so-called [cute and fashionable girl whose head is so occupied with shopping that she can’t think about anything difficult] appearance.
“Takasu-kun, are you listening?”
“The white or the pink, which one would Takasu-kun choose?”
“…Well, me wearing pink is kind of …”
“That’s not it! I’m talking about for me!”
“Is that so?”
Ahahahaha----hahaha, haha, ha…
Just then, Ryūji came to understand Kitamura’s actual intentions. That fellow who had hopingly asked Taiga to become friends with Ami, there wasn’t anything wrong with his glasses after all.
“I just love shopping for Western-styled clothing.”
Perhaps she was trying to clear yesterday’s events from her memory. Speaking childishly and a bit spoiled, Ami was showing off an angelic smile. However, rather than this present Ami, he felt the unaltered Ami who would exchange vicious glares with Taiga was much better. The Ami who tossed away her shoes that had been ridden with tadpoles onto the river bank while spouting curses was much easier to understand.
Dealing with the pretentious Ami was tedious and kind of chilling, so he ended up feeling like he was looking at something rather dangerous and unpredictable. Because it was a fake face.
Her pretense was just like thin ice---Having fallen through, her honest self must have been drowning in worry, so why would she hide it? Regardless of whether her personality was good or bad (well, it was probably bad), when he considered how she was trying to hide her real self even after it had already been exposed, he ended up wondering why she would go to such lengths to do something so futile.
“Ah, your phone’s ringing.”
Ami’s shell-like fingertip was pointing to his cellphone that had been vibrating in his pocket, possibly for some time. He hastily flipped it open,
‘“Takasu! How’s the situation over there?”’
He answered Kitamura’s hotly spirited voice in a very mundane manner.
“No change. What about on your side?”
‘“We found the guy right away. He’s walking about fifteen meters behind you guys. We’re keeping nearby and tracking him.”’
“Takasu-kun, is that Yūsaku? Switch, switch!”
Ami extended her hand from the side and took the cellphone from Ryūji.
“Hello~, is this Yūsaku? Yeah, I’m fine, Takasu-kun is here, after all! Um, you know, I’m kind of tired of walking…Yeah, okay…Ah, really? Then we’ll do just that!”
Deciding on her own to end the call, she flipped it closed,
“Yūsaku you know, he said to go into a shop. At some place that serves tea, sit at a window seat."
Ami spoke while smiling happily.
“Is there a shop like that near here? Take me there, please.”
“A place that serves tea you say…It’s nearby, can you see that sign just down the street?”
Even though he felt it would be hopelessly unbearable to go for tea at a café with Ami, he couldn’t do anything about it if those were Kitamura’s orders. Ryūji pointed out the round sign that was primarily decked out in green just a bit in front of them.
“Ah, if it isn’t a Starbucks! So there was one around here, that’s great, it’s been a long time since I drank a latte!
“Does it really look like a Starbucks? That’s a…”
As they got progressively closer, Ami’s head became progressively tilted with suspicion. Certainly, the sign looked just like that of the North American coffee chain. The round shape, the green bordering, the somewhat indistinguishable humanoid image---
“Th, this is…”
---But that image was of the old man who owned the shop.
“Sudou Coffee Bar…We usually call it Sudoba…”
Sounding the bell that would probably be considered uncommon nowadays, Ryūji and Ami walked into Sudoba. Nevertheless, he guessed the inside was designed to resemble the original Starbucks. The place was self-service with the college girl employees sitting on comfortable looking sofas. Yet it wasn’t like the shop was all that empty.
“Ehh…Sudoba…It’s got a pretty good atmosphere…”
Scanning the room, Ami was nodding while looking intrigued. Getting up from a seat by the window was a middle-aged man,
“Ohh! If it isn’t Mirano-chan’s kid!”
He called out to Ryūji familiarly. Heartbroken over his divorce this spring, Inage-san was a regular at Bishamonten Kuni.
“Uwa~, what’s this?! Today you brought along another pretty lady…Did you break up with that small scary girl? Come on, you broke up, didn’t you? Well it’s fine, a second marriage…Or rather, a new girlfriend…”
“That’s not it, you’ve got it all wrong. Kawashima, go ahead and sit next to him since there’s space. I’ll go get some drinks.”
“How cute~”, “You're such a pretty girl~”, “You kind of resemble that actress, Anna Kawashima~”, “Yeah~”, “You must get that often~”…Turning his back on their light-hearted banter, Ryūji went to the counter.
“Welcome to Sudobucks!”
Even the way the employed college girl (she was wearing a green apron over a black polo shirt) pronounced the shop’s name was standardized. From the menu that was pretty normal considering they went so far to plagiarize, Ryūji ordered American coffee then returned to the seat where Ami was waiting.
“You’re okay with coffee, right?”
“Yeah. This place just might be pretty comfortable…I almost feel like doing my homework.”
With her body sinking into the sofa, it seemed like Ami had completely become Sudobucks’ prisoner. That’s right, that’s right, everyone in this town loves Sudoba. It was clear that even if they were to wait a hundred years, an original Starbucks wasn’t going to pop up around here.
“We can even get you some cake. It’s handmade by my daughter.”
“…Cake…Cake is…I really want to eat, but…”
Resisting temptation, Ami stubbornly shook her head back and forth. Perhaps unconsciously, her hands were on her stomach. He wondered if it was the result of Minori’s pinch the other day. Without offering any further encouragement, Ryūji took out his cell and called Kitamura.
“Hey, Kawashima and I are at Sudoba now.”
‘“Ah, we confirmed your entrance, roger! Sudoba is quite a good shop.”’
Yes yes, he nodded as a fellow local.
‘“That stalker guy is still following you, staring at the window. He’s hiding in the entrance of the building across from the intersection. Just sit tight for a little while.”’
When he shut his phone, Ami immediately asked him about their conversation.
“So, what did Yūsaku say?”
“That man, he’s hiding by the building across from here. We’re supposed to wait here for a little while.”
“…Geh. Creepy…So he’s definitely watching us.”
Just as Ami started to hide herself behind the curtain, she immediately snapped back to her original posture, going “Ah, that’s right”.
“If I hide like this, there’s no point then, is there?”
“Right, right, if he doesn’t take some pictures then we won’t be able to get our shots either.”
“…I know, but…It’s unpleasant…creepy…”
Ami cast her eyes downwards while twisting her pretty face somewhat.
“Well, it really is kind of creepy. He’s sneakily taking pictures of you for some unknown purpose.”
“That much is true, but the really creepy stuff isn’t limited to just that. Some time ago, that guy put some pictures he had taken secretly into our mailbox…That was seriously creepy.”
“Y, your mailbox?! That means he went as far as your front door! That’s…”
Waving her hand as if saying “No, that’s not it” at the now speechless Ryūji, Ami scrunched her face in distress even more.
“That he could get to my house is unnerving of course, but the pictures themselves were just as much of a problem in my opinion. They were from when I was out shopping while on my way home from work, and well…I was making villain-like faces, that was my reaction. No matter how I looked at them, I had the face of a bully. Seeing that made me feel seriously sick…Like, this is really me?! Am I really this awful?! That’s what I felt.”
Ryūji was inadvertently thinking that it wasn’t such a problem since she was beautiful after all.
“Horrible, it was seriously too despicable...That face. I really didn’t like it. I hated it…I didn’t want something like that to be seen.”
It looked like Ami, who was speaking while contorting her lips as if spitting, sincerely couldn’t allow such a thing. However, although it might be bad for Ryūji to say it, he wouldn’t be outclassed when it came to that kind of a worry.
“If you’re going to talk like that, then look, just look at me. Kawashima, when you first saw me, you must have been thinking 'delinquent,' right? It’s not just that I look like I have a bad character, but strangers walking down the road even talk about me behind my back. You still have it easy, because in any case people call you cute and the like when they look at you.”
“Well then, Takasu-kun can also try putting on a cute face.”
“How would I do that?”
“Try this. While seriously believing ‘I am cute~! So very cute~!’, do this.”
She brought both hands up to her face with her index fingers extended, narrowed her eyes with a gentle smile, and tilted her petite head prettily. Thinking to himself, ‘Do it, don’t regret it now’, Ryūji tried to pump himself up,
Following her example, he tried smiling.
Ami coughed up the coffee she had been in the middle of drinking. Looking distressed for a while, she continued to cough vigorously,
“…~,…Wh,…Geh…Ta…Taka…, cough, cough!”
“…I know exactly what you want to say. Actually, I already knew even beforehand.”
Desperately holding her mouth with the handkerchief she had grabbed, Ami was on the verge of tears. Her face had turned red from coughing, she was leaning against the table for support, and she seemed to be having trouble breathing, but she nevertheless was somehow able to point at Ryūji,
“S, scary…Cough…It’s almost…a horror attraction!”
“Okay, I already said I knew that!”
Her reaction was pretty much what he expected, but still, he really felt hurt. He wasn’t saying this because he was hurt, but,
“…I just want to tell you, but you were doing the same kind of thing, you know. You might have cute looks, but essentially, the way you act scary and almost horrifying is just about the same.”
“Haa~, thought I was going to die! No way Takasu-kun, just how was that anything like me at all?!”
Kahaha…Considering how she laughed amusedly and called him ‘that’, he was unable to stop with only that much.
“It’s the same. I don’t want to say it, but when you changed all of a sudden yesterday, it was ten minutes of horror. Not the part where Kawashima suddenly got angry, but afterwards, when you acted like you were perfectly fine.”
As expected, he didn’t mention that he knew about her true character from the first time they met, but---No, he might just have said too much already, but it was already too late to take everything back. Now that he had said this much, he wasn’t going to stop until he had said everything he needed to say.
“You should cut the act. Everything will quickly be exposed. I don’t know if you think that act you put on is cute or something, but if you were to see it, it’s not something you’d feel good about."
He ended up going that far in his speech,
He had said too much after all, probably---He finally looked at Ami’s expression.
Ami remained smiling,…with an artificial, angelically gentle smile, she was staring at Ryūji. Without showing any signs of emotional instability, she was forcing her whole face into a smile.
“Is this about yesterday? What?---That stuff you’re saying, it’s as simple as breathing for me. I’m not going to back down if it’s just this, you know?”
Ryūji wasn’t even sure whether the look she was directing straight at him was cold or hot. There was only one thing he was sure of: no matter what he tried to say or what words he used, nothing would reach this girl past her iron mask.
“You know, I can’t get along without this face. I know that myself the best.”
He didn’t know how to respond. However, it didn’t look like Ami was really expecting any sort of response. She continued speaking while still smiling.
“Whether or not there’s any meaning or value, that kind of thing and how things are remain two separate matters. I’m pretty sure there wasn’t any yesterday. No meaning or value. What happened was…Maybe I was just feeling negative because of that annoying midget? That midget’s face when she’s sticking near Takasu-kun, it’s too amusing. The only reason I mention it is because it makes me want to act recklessly like that…The tadpoles were outside my expectations though.”
“…Sorry, I kind of…I don’t really understand, but…Did I say too much?”
“Hmm? What are you talking about? Was Takasu-kun speaking to me about something? I don’t remember, not~ at~ all.”
As Ami’s eyes turned wide as if she was mystified, Ryūji held his breath for a bit. She was going to stubbornly continue hiding her real self, this girl.
“Come on, what’s with that face? You don’t need to think so hard. This, you know, it’s strategy. It’s a strategy where saying weird things makes people think about me…There’s really no meaning in it.”
“…Seriously, I just don’t get you.”
When Ryūji said that, Ami cutely tilted her head and laughed some more as if satisfied.
“Fine fine, it’s okay if you don’t. Come on, I’m an airhead after all.”
If it’s fine not to understand…If that’s the case, then he seriously wouldn’t think about it anymore. Ryūji shrugged and looking at the two-sided self-proclaimed airhead, he pretended to drink his coffee.
Eventually, he estimated at least ten minutes must have passed without them really having a conversation. Ryūji’s cell phone shook in vibrating mode.
‘“Hello, Takasu? We’ve got a bit of a problem. It looks like that guy wasn’t able to take any good pictures of Ami from where he was, so he gave up and started reading manga while waiting for you guys to leave the shop. It was no good having you guys go in there; could you go ahead and leave?”’
Explaining the situation to Ami, they quickly put away their trays before leaving Sudoba. It seemed like Kitamura and the others had confirmed their exit from somewhere nearby.
‘“Sorry. So just like we originally planned, travel northwest along the highway and head to the park.”’
“Roger…Kawashima, let’s walk this way.”
Side by side with Ami, Ryūji was just about to start casually walking again,
‘“Also---I have one more unfortunate thing to report. We’ve lost Kushieda.”’
He instinctively stopped walking.
The one who thought this up? All ready? She left before they even did anything?
After Ryūji unthinkingly yelled out in surprise, Ami looked at him with her eyes widened…No good, if he didn’t pretend things were okay, the stalker guy might become suspicious.
‘“She got a message from her work about an emergency, someone got a cold and they needed help. She might have been in danger of being fired because the guy who hired her was crying that if Kushieda didn’t come, it would be his neck, so while the guy was crying, she left the battlefield…Kushieda said, let’s meet again, and also that she was really sorry…We lost such a good soldier…”’
Ryūji gulpingly held his breath. Minori had left the front lines, so then in other words that meant,
“…T, then, right now, it’s just you and Taiga by yourselves…”
‘“Aisaka is doing fine.”’
“Le, let me speak with Taiga for a moment, it’s an emergency!”
A second later,
Breathing that seemed to be on the verge of tears without saying anything was flooding the phone. It was Taiga.
“Ta, Taiga…Are you okay?!”
She didn’t seem okay---Ryūji violently scratched his head. To be all alone with Kitamura, that wasn’t a situation that Taiga could handle right now. Even though she would normally just end up petrified from being nearby, now they were walking together alone…He wouldn’t be surprised if Taiga was on the verge of death.
“Hey, pull yourself together! Are you guys talking?! Is there a problem?!”
Suddenly the call got cut short.
Thinking "What the heck", Ryūji just looked blankly at his phone. Clumsy in even normal situations, Taiga was alone with Kitamura too nervous to even speak, and then while they’re following the stalker, the phone suddenly cuts out…His worry, it was infinite.
“Hey, what’s wrong? Wasn’t that Yūsaku and the others just now? Bad reception?”
“Y, yeah…For some reason it just cut out all of a sudden…”
“Why don’t you try calling back from over here?”
Nodding at Ami’s reasonable advice, he tried calling back, but all he heard was, “The phone you are trying to reach is currently not available…”. He tried once more with no change, so with a sigh he put the phone into his pocket.
“Can’t get through? To Yūsaku and the others?”
“A, anyway, Kushieda left, and it seems like Taiga’s not doing so well…What the heck’s going on, seriously…Maybe I’ll try calling again. No wait, maybe we’re still out of range for reception…”
He noticed Ami suddenly stare up at him.
Ami didn’t say a word.
Different from the look of fearing the stalking man, it was more like a gaze that was trying to search Ryūji’s inner self. Such a clear yet thoroughly serene look made it hard for him to remain calm---
“Wh, what is it?”
With a breath and a faint smile, she relinquished him from that stare. He felt like he had been saved.
“It’s just that I was thinking. Takasu-kun, you really seem quite kind. Especially when it comes to that kid.”
Before he could ask her who she meant by that kid, his phone vibrated in his pocket. It looked like they had finally gotten some reception as he pressed the talk button,
He instinctively pressed the phone against his ear with all his might. Wondering just what happened on the other end of the line, he could hear Taiga’s sobbing voice.
“Hey, what’s wrong?!”
‘“Ki, Kitamura has…~”’
“Did something happen to Kitamura?!”
At those words, Ami instantly turned to look up at Ryūji’s face.
‘“Kitamura fell into a ditch!”’
‘“Just now, we were shaken off at a crosswalk, and then when he ran hastily to catch up, he ended up falling into a ditch in the gutter…Kitamura got all messed up and he said to leave him behind…!”’
‘“And, and then, I was told to go find a good spot and he made me take the digital camera…~…Now, I’m all alone…!”’
While Ryūji was thinking this was ridiculous, he could hear on the other end just faintly…Aisaka~, be careful~…That faraway voice definitely belonged to Kitamura.
‘“…Ooh, just what the heck am I doing this sort of thing for, I don’t even know…”’
“D, don’t cry! Umm, that’s right…Y, yeah…Anyway, ummm.”
Halting his steps reflexively, he held his breath. Just now, Taiga had screamed.
‘“…Oh,…There was a sign…”’
Hearing her calm voice, he started to relax for the moment thinking everything was okay, but,
‘“I fell into a ditch too. Today is just, horrible…My whole body’s messy, the camera’s messy too…The plan’s a failure, I’m ending the transmission.”’
“Eh…Ehh?! Taiga?! Hey, Taiga!...She, she hung up…”
---What the heck?
Ryūji was struck speechless, just staring at the phone after the call had ended. Just what did she mean by a ditch? Were there even any around? Was it that easy to fall into one? A ditch, she said…A ditch…
“What’s wrong with Yūsaku and the others?! Did something happen?!"
Even if he didn’t really get it, he had to try explaining it to her nevertheless. Resolutely, Ryūji turned to Ami who was looking up at him worriedly.
“…They were annihilated. Kitamura and Taiga both fell into a ditch.”
“…Huh? A, a ditch?”
They stood there blankly looking at one another. It hadn’t even been an hour since they started and now the two who were remaining didn’t have any place to go anymore. '
Ami’s shoulders trembled. At almost the exact same time, Ryūji reflexively turned around.
The stalker guy who had shaken off Kitamura and Taiga was standing only a few meters away. He most likely hadn’t even considered the possibility that he had been marked earlier; his face looked calm as he held a cell phone in one hand, and he was making a face like he was just going through his mail---But the camera flash indicator on his phone continued to glow. He was probably taking video.
“L, let’s go…”
Furrowing her brow, Ami dropped her earlier expression and started moving forward swiftly. Somewhat confused, Ryūji also started running with her, naively thinking that just maybe they wouldn’t be followed, but,
“Wa…~, what the heck, this guy…”
Unabashedly, that man was running after them while holding up his cell phone camera.
Since there weren’t any other people around, that guy probably thought that if it was just Ryūji, even if something were to happen he could handle it.
While they were running, Ryūji started thinking. Why was it that in normal situations he was always considered terrifying, but now when he needed it, his glare was having no effect? Now he was even being treated lightly like this? When he tried looking over his shoulder, he got his answer. Dazedly, the man was looking at his phone’s screen while probably only concerned with recording Ami, so he likely wrote off Ryūji as just some brat---That might have been true, but---That guy was looking down on him. If only he could have glared with the harsh eyes he had inherited from his father (a yakuza), maybe the situation could have improved.
“What do we do, he’s still following us!”
At Ami’s nearly hysteric voice, Ryūji's chest tightened. If they didn’t deal with this somehow, then they wouldn’t be able to return to a normal peaceful life.
“Umm…The closest policebox from here is…Ah, damn, he’s right behind us! If we can just make it to a policebox!”
Ami’s pitiful voice trembled as she was on the verge of tears.
“Why do I have to go through all this?! It’s all that guy’s fault things are so messed up! Yūsaku might have even gotten hurt…Geez, what are we supposed to do now?!”
If only it had been Kitamura who still remained, he probably would have charged right in and taken care of things. He was the kind of idiot who might fall into ditches, but his bravery and sense of justice were genuine. So he probably would have made sure not to allow a situation where a girl would cry like this---At least, if only that had been the case.
Ryūji at the very least tried to redouble his efforts, wanting to take Ami’s hand as she ran. However, it seemed she was oblivious to his attempt as she ran desperately, and Ryūji couldn’t even catch her balled up hand. While he couldn’t catch her and couldn’t protect her, the trembling in Ami’s voice continued to become more and more pronounced.
“Because of that insignificant creep, I went so far as to take a break from work, move, and transfer schools…! And yet, I still have to put up with the same stuff after all! What the heck…If it’s like this, then in the end I’m just running away again. No matter where I try to go, I’ll just be chased down again…What the heck am I supposed to do?!”
With her agitation steadily increasing, Ami’s voice started getting louder, becoming shriller as if she was about to snap. Her voice that should have been trembling on the verge of tears seemed to suddenly be overtaken by anger.
“Hey, that guy can hear you!...If you get too excited…”
“That’s just it, isn’t it irritating?!”
Snarlingly, Ami’s voice snapped.
“It’s that creep’s fault, that I’m irritated, that I’m stressed, and that I end up eating pastries and other things, you know?! And now I’m even flabby?! If it’s like this, I might seriously have to quit modeling…What the heck’s up with that?! Huh?! No way~! That’s too much, isn’t it?! But this fleshiness…This sort of…My stomach…is flabby?!”
Looking at her from the corner of his eye, Ryūji muffled a yelp and held his breath. Her expression that had been tearful until just recently had changed; her lips upturned, the blood vessels in her temple pulsed, both her eyes narrowed, her nose crinkled, and she bared her fangs like the Chihuahua she really was…Ami’s real nature, the very thing itself.
“That brute…Damn it…Is Ami-chan going to lose to that detestable creep?!”
It appeared. Ami-chan appeared.
“For me, for Ami-chan to, lose, to that weirdo, and be, all messed up…! Ah~…Damn~…That brute~…How irritating~…Ami-chan is so pissed…”
“Ka, Kawashima…Hey, wait…”
“Takasu-kun, you said it before, right…To stop with the act, you told me that just a moment ago. I get it. I’ll stop. Ami-chan will stop already. I’ll stop, I’ll stop, I, will, stop! I’ll live with this bad-natured look.”
“Wai, hey, that’s…not what I…”
“Shut up! That midget, Taiga Aisaka didn’t lose to that guy! Ami-chan isn’t going to just keep on suffering this endlessly! Even if he’s a guy, I’ll teach him a lesson! As an actress’s daughter---don’t take me lightly!”
Next to the speechless Ryūji, Ami suddenly did an about-face. When he wondered about her turning around,
Aiming at the man who was chasing after them, Ami went all out and started a fierce forward dash. With Ami brandishing her school bag in her hand and twisting her face to resemble that of a demon,
It wasn’t surprising that the man would start to flee. The hunter and the hunted had switched roles all of a sudden,
“Stop right there, you--------~!”
Chasing after the man who was desperate to get away, Ami continued to heckle him heavily. Of course, Ryūji had no choice but to run after her,
“Idiot! Stop it! Calm down! I might look like this, but I seriously think fighting is wrong!”
However, it seemed like she was too far gone to hear anything Ryūji was saying. Seeing the man escape into the park,
She took a shortcut by jumping the shrubbery with a magnificent fawn-like leap and got ahead of him, and as the finisher,
She flung her bag. The rectangular bag twirled in midair as it flew a short distance,
It hit the running man’s legs. Dropping his bag, the man dove face first into the sandpit.
Ami immediately picked up the cellphone the man had dropped,
Still looking like a demon while catching her breath, she didn’t say anything, but there was a cracking sound as she started breaking the phone right in half.
Filled with fear, the man pulled back as Ami threw the two remaining pieces onto the ground next to him. Then she continued,
“Haa…You still have it, don’t you…Images of Ami-chan…Hand it over…The digital…camera…Hey! Hurry up and hand it over!”
“…It’s, it’s over there…”
The man trembled as he pointed to the contents of his bag that had spilled out all over the ground. There certainly was a latest model digital camera lying over there, and Ami stooped down and picked it up. Examining it for a while and trying out various buttons, Ami was probably trying to clear the data as she fiddled with it, but,
“S, stop it! You’re going to break it!”
The man who must have not fully considered the situation sounded like he was getting irritated. While breathing raggedly, Ami held the camera by the strap,
Spinning it around and around, she finally used the momentum to slam the camera into a concrete bench.
While the man’s wail resounded, the camera was nevertheless state of the art, after all. It wouldn’t break from just one or two collisions (well, Ryūji wondered if the insides were holding up), but,
“Ei! Ei! Ei!...Ya!”
Being cruelly bashed over and over, it finally made a clear cracking sound as Ami subjected it to treatment it shouldn’t have to endure. But she just kept beating it like that any number of times,
“There! Take! That! I’ll break it…Break…Shatter into pieces…I, will, destroy, itttt~!
---She had probably been building up a lot of stress. She continued to vandalize the camera repeatedly like that while holding onto the strap until it completely lost any resemblance to an actual camera. Half buried in the sandpit, the man was silently crying. Faced with such a hellish scene, Ryūji didn’t even know what to say.
“U~, u~, my camera is…”
“Now then…I wonder, what should I break next…? For some reason, Ami-chan’s starting enjoy this? Ehh?”
Continuously stomping all over the remains of the wrecked digital camera with her feet, Ami cruelly smirked and laughed.
“Hey, can I break this? Is it all right if Ami-chan breaks everything? You listening? Why don’t you answer? Should I break you too, just like this?”
“Please, please forgive me already!”
Kneeling in the sandpit, the man raised both of his trembling hands and clasped them together.
“…How about if I promise not to hang around Ami-chan anymore?”
“I’ve had it with the vows!”
Becoming unusually child-like, the man’s tearful voice was echoing unsightly.
“After you’ve shown such a demon-like appearance, I’m already over and done with you. I don’t consider Ami-chan my angel anymore! A liar, you’re seriously a demon! You’re completely black! You’re such a fraud, and I don’t want to have anything to do with you anymore! The cute angelic Ami-chan, there really never was anyone like that~! Ami-cha~n! Or rather I should say, why are you together with such a frightening delinquent, though I only just now noticed~?!”
“Are you talking about me when you say delinquent…?”
It seemed like, even more than having his cellphone or his camera broken, it was having his dream broken that was the most difficult thing to bear. Without putting up any sort of fight, he just kept speaking and crying shamefully.---Like for example, he wasn’t the ‘seriously’ dangerous kind of fellow who would brandish a knife over his head, so Ami was really lucky for that. So then, the man’s final words were as follows.
“You, your personality is horrible!”
“What are you talking about?”
With a cold reply, Ami pulled out a hand-mirror from her uniform’s pocket as if she had just remembered. Then gazing at herself and smiling laughingly, she struck a cutesy pose.
“Ami-chan is just cute like this Toradora vol02 heart.png. Personality or whatever doesn’t matter Toradora vol02 heart.png.”
- * *
---She had maintained a show of strength while they left the park and as far as the first street corner.
“Come on, go ahead and sit! Right there, just move that newspaper!"
After having practically dragged her along, he was trying to get Ami to sit on a cushion, but,
“My, my fingers won’t let go~.”
Ami spoke in a crying voice and looked up at Ryūji. Her fingers that were gripping Ryūji’s arm had stiffened up, and now she seemed unable to remove them by herself.
“Ease up, it’s fine if you do it slowly.”
They were in the 2DK Takasu residence that was being gently lit by the setting sun. Sitting on the warm tatami mat, Ami desperately concentrated on calming her breathing while closing her eyes.
It was a good thing that they were able to break the stalker’s fascination, but---They had been walking along the sidewalk when, as they turned the corner, Ami suddenly fell to her knees. She explained, “That…That was so scary!”
Her body had trembled and her eyes had become teary before her nervousness made her completely stiffen up, so she had to hold onto Ryūji as she walked since she couldn’t even stand on her own. She was in a sorry condition that she couldn’t handle alone, where even her parched lips had started to tremble.
Once they made it out of the park, the Takasu residence was nearby. So lending her his support, he had taken her to his house.
“Yasuko, that idiot, where did she go?”
Having made Ami sit down on the cushion in the living room and now standing in the kitchen, Ryūji looked troubled as he scanned the silent household. He seriously hadn’t thought there would be no one around. If he had known that it would be this way, he would have called a taxi and sent Ami home. To bring a crying girl to his empty house, that kind of thing wasn’t like Ryūji at all. Even if it was a girl who wasn’t crying, it would probably still be impossible. Taiga? She was a special case.
Anyway, trying to calm Ami down, he put a little honey into some milk he had heated on the stove and brought it over to her.
“There’s plenty more if you want seconds. If you don’t like sweet things, then tea or coffee…Well, you just drank coffee a little while ago, didn’t you?”
“…Don’t worry, this is fine…”
Taking a sip, Ami finally gave one long sigh.
“It’s delicious…Hey, can I add some more sugar?”
“I’ve only got honey, if that’s okay.”
She nodded, and he carefully poured some honey into the cup she was holding. As he was stirring the milk with a spoon, Ami’s lips finally shifted into a faint smile.
“…How unexpected. Takasu-kun, do you drink this kind of stuff?”
“No, not really. But Taiga likes to drink this sort of thing.”
After he accidentally said that, Ryūji noticed Ami was looking up at him.
“…Taiga. Takasu-kun, you always call Taiga Aisaka by her first name, don’t you?”
“I just say it because it’s too strange to act differently…”
It wasn’t really an excuse; that is, there wasn’t any reason to try and come up with an excuse---It was more of a preface.
“We happen to live next to one another, and she lives alone, and with just my mother and me, it’s practically like living alone, so…Well, some way or another…Things like helping with chores…Eating meals together...It’s kind of like we’ve become siblings…”
“…Fuu. Is that so?”
He wasn’t sure if she really understood or not, but Ami didn’t ask anymore about it,
“This is seriously tasty. I’ll have to try this at my house next time.”
Holding the cup of hot milk flavored with honey in both hands, she continued to take her time drinking it in small sips.
“How are you feeling?”
Simply swiveling her eyes upwards at his questioning voice, she shyly smiled while keeping the cup to her lips. Then, she suddenly turned off to the side,
“Ah man…I’m so embarrassed! Even after I had thoroughly decided! Or so I had thought at least…After all, I still ended up falling apart and trembling.”
“I think that’s only natural. You know, I, the moment you started running at him, I was pretty much trembling already. Seriously, you were really lucky that he didn’t do anything violent.”
Ami finally turned around and placed the now empty cup onto the dining table. Her face was tinted orange by light from the setting sun, and her light brown eyes were similarly turned a transparent amber.
“I can hardly believe it myself...It would have killed my mom if she found out about me doing something so risky. Just maybe, it might have been Taiga Aisaka’s influence? Yesterday when we were at the river bank, I saw her easily chase away that stalker creep…So, I quickly became embarrassed about how I had been so frightened. Somehow…It kind of felt like I was losing to her or something…”
“…Taiga’s not really what I would call normal, so I don’t think you should be using her as your standard.”
“The Palmtop Tiger. Right? I heard from Maya-chan and the others…Fufu, it’s too perfect, that name. Maybe if I compete with the Palmtop Tiger, even I could strengthen myself a bit.”
“…Kawashima, you’re already a tough enough girl to begin with.”
“Me, tough? Haha, I’m just twisted. I’ll even say it myself, but Ami-chan is a seriously twisted person, black to the core, an ill-mannered girl---Takasu-kun probably also thinks so, after yesterday…Maybe even earlier than that. I probably can’t change your opinion anymore anyway.”
Shrugging her shoulders, Ami smiled, but it wasn’t the same as the façade she would usually wear. Her eyes were lively with a hint of arrogance, her mouth had a slight twist that might have seemed cruel, and there was no trace of that angelic purity. Instead, she was sly and merciless, seeming really bad as her expression was thoroughly embedded with a pride that didn’t care about anyone, and yet,…it was beautiful. Just as strong as his desire to criticize her was a feeling of attraction---
“Ah…I had forgotten. About those two who had fallen into ditches.”
“If Yūsaku’s there, they’ll be fine.”
That’s not necessarily true. But looking at Ami’s expression, even after he had finally remembered about those two, his worry was slowly vanishing.
Her smiling face eventually began to stiffen, and Ami calmly held her breath. It seemed like she was dealing with an indistinct pain.
“…That girl, she’s a good kid, isn’t she?”
“By that girl…Do you mean Taiga?”
Without answering him, Ami hung her head.
“…Like with that stalker guy from just now…It’s easy to become liked by a guy like that. Since I’m made out to be cute in the pictures and on television, most people would come to like me…Because, come on, Ami-chan is super cute.”
She said the last part jokingly, but Ryūji didn’t feel like laughing. Seeing the stiffness of Ami’s face as she stopped speaking, he just couldn’t bring himself to laugh.
“…In the same way, it’s just as easy to be hated. You say that the Ami-chan you guys normally see isn’t really me,…that I should be my natural self. But if I do that, you’ll all come to hate me.”
Without thinking about it, Ryūji had turned away from her eyes that were full of self-derision. She looked pitiful and he couldn’t bear to watch---if he were to tell her something like that, she’d probably feel even more hurt.
“…Come on, don’t say such a thing.”
“But it’s true. It’s like with that guy just now. It’s difficult to like me when I’m being myself. That’s all. So that girl…I’m jealous of Taiga Aisaka. She doesn’t hide her feelings even a little. And despite her recklessness, Takasu-kun doesn’t hate her at all. That’s kind of,…no, that’s really vexing. Because I wanted to see her feeling vexed, I tried to steal Takasu-kun from her, but I totally wasn’t able to do it. That was a first. Why was that? I wondered. Ami-chan is cuter, so why? How was Ami-chan not better? Isn’t such a pattern impossible? Isn’t it unacceptable? So like that…she’s different from me?…I wondered…I guess I was feeling jealous of her.”
Ryūji inconspicuously sighed.
So Ami was feeling jealous of Taiga like this. Taiga was jealous of Ami, to the point where she had even huddled down and sobbed all alone. They each coveted what the other one possessed. It was probably because they felt that way that they couldn’t get along with one another. Their feelings would always be in conflict, so to have a kind and cuddly relationship like the one Taiga and Minori shared, such a thing would be absolutely impossible. There was really no helping that. Definitely.
However, there was only one thing that he wanted to say on behalf of Taiga. It was regarding the part that Taiga, who had been described as ‘not hiding her feelings’, hadn’t made known to anyone besides Ryūji and was desperately trying to change.
“…Kawashima, you have Kitamura, don’t you?”
“That guy, he really worries about you and treats you dearly. I’m sure he’d accept you for who you are; he even went so far as to fall into a ditch for you, after all.”
“…You’re right. But…Yūsaku is a no-go.”
A bit of her hair shifted for that moment, hiding Ami’s face from Ryūji.
“Yūsaku already has ‘one girl he really likes’ after all.”
His thinking stopped.
Ryūji suddenly remembered who Kitamura had confessed to almost immediately after being admitted to the school---Taiga. However, Kitamura had clearly told Taiga that they should just remain friends. Regardless of whether or not Taiga accepted that, there didn’t seem to be any indication that she was the girl he liked. At least, not presently. So then who was it? If it was someone close, then Minori? Or maybe Maya? Or possibly---
Startled, his heart jumped.
Bending down like a cat, Ami had silently brought her face up close. He could smell milk on her breath, and unable to even look her in the face, he tried crawling backwards. However, his back almost immediately ran into the wall.
Ami didn’t move any closer.
Instead of getting closer, she seemed to be slowly drawing him in with her moist amber eyes---
“…Takasu-kun, if I, showed you the real me…what would you do?”
“W, what, you say.”
“…Would you, fall for me?”
The world fell silent.
Ryūji’s leg inadvertently hit the dining table, and amidst the silence, the empty cup rolled onto the tatami mat.
The distance between their two faces, all that separated them was five centimeters.
Leaving it as a joke at the last moment, Ami’s lips finally upturned into a smile.
“---No~t, I was joking. Did I make your heart race?”
…Or at least, it should have been.
To consider it all a joke, it seemed like only the two who were directly involved would accept that. At the sound of several filled plastic bags being dropped onto tatami mat, Ryūji nearly jumped.
Turning around reflexively, Ami ended up on top of the lower half of Ryūji’s body.
Reflexively facing the same way, Ryūji was holding her waist calmly.
“…Yacchan…Could this have been on purpose?...That is…When I went shopping and while Kitamura-kun and Taiga-chan had fallen into ditches…So then…Umm…A~h, what should I do?!”
In a pose resembling Munch’s The Scream, Yasuko had both her hands against her natural face and was bending her body restlessly back and forth.
Behind her in the entrance hall drenched with muddy water, Kitamura looked horrible as he pushed his twisted glasses up the bridge of his nose and was standing using a wooden sword as a crutch.
The similarly drenched Taiga---
Taiga was being carried on Kitamura’s back, and with only that, she fell silent and just had her eyes wide open.
In the corner of the room unheeded by anyone, Inko-chan who had unexpectedly seen everything was lightly shedding feathers from all over his body.
|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|