| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
"Hey Takasu, Ami's got a motorcycle and she told me to go shopping. While the girls are cleaning up, if you sit on the back, then we..."
Watching Ryūji as he looked up, Kitamura's handsome glasses-clad face stiffened momentarily.
In Ryūji's right hand was the 'Takasu stick'. In his left was a spray bottle of cleaner. At his waist was a dry rag, and beside him, he had a bucket and a wet rag. Ryūji was wearing rubber gloves and on all fours while in the middle of intensely polishing the bottom of the System Kitchen's foreign-made sink in perfect form, as if he were at home.
Getting off his hands so he could reply to Kitamura properly, he removed his gloves,
"What was that? What did you say just now?"
"Ah, no... never mind. So you're still... You're really into this cleaning, aren't ya?"
"Ah, well, it's something worth doing."
Sighing, Ryūji knelt on the floor Japanese-style as he took another glance around the area. His bloodshot eyes glinting dangerously, and ferociously licked his lips, but that was only because his lips were dry.
The villa was even more wonderful than he had originally imagined. It was a two-story building. On the first floor, there was a living room that was easily over twenty tatami mats in size and had a fireplace. Next to that was the dining room from which there was a clear view of the beach, and even the kitchen that was separated by a counter looked larger than six tatami mats and had a table. He had also heard that the second floor had five bedrooms. Furthermore, there were full bathrooms here and there on both floors.
"That Ami, she told us the place was a 5LDK, but... this is ridiculous; the living room alone is probably bigger than my house."
"Ami's house when she was living in my neighborhood was even bigger than this place and I bet her apartment in the city is even more so... I can't even wrap my mind around it. How should I put it... I guess you could say she's an elite."
"An elite, huh..."
Bringing their hands to their faces like old ladies, the two guys somehow ended up gazing towards the high ceiling. Like in the houses that appeared on foreign dramas, a fan was spinning round and round above their heads. It really felt like they were in another world... Neither Ryūji nor Kitamura could figure out what purpose the fan served. They were unconsciously sighing and acting rather absentminded when,
"Okay Yūsaku, here's the key. So? Is Takasu-kun going shopping with you?"
The elite had suddenly popped her head in through the doorway. Wondering What's this about shopping?, only Ryūji was confused by the question.
"Ah no, it looks like Takasu's in the middle of a cleaning fit, so I'm going by myself."
"Ehh? That won't work. There's no basket attached and it's not a scooter so you can't put stuff at your feet. Are you planning on tying it all down with cord? Because we don't even have any, so unless there's someone to carry the stuff, I'm telling you it's impossible."
"Well then, will you go?"
"If I'm not here, then there won't be anyone left who's familiar with this villa, right?"
Ohh, now I see... Finally catching up with the situation, Ryūji raised his hand to offer his suggestion.
"Take Taiga. That girl can't clean anyway, so even if she stayed behind, she wouldn't be any help. He~y, Taiga~!"
"What, what's with the shouting?!"
He was surprised. Taiga had been surprisingly close by.
She might have been cleaning the floor, or maybe she had just been sitting there, or perhaps she had sensed Kitamura's presence and was stealthily making her way closer. Whatever the reason, she was on all fours, looking out with her head protruding from between Ami's long legs.
"What the heck you?! Don't poke your head in weird places!"
Disregarding Ami's yelling and acting like a regular customer poking her face into a shop to ask, "You still open?", Taiga held onto the back of Ami's knees and stared only at Ryūji, making sure not to look towards Kitamura.
"Hey, we need someone to go shopping with Kitamura, so I was thinking you could go."
Following up Ryūji's suggestion, Kitamura held the keys he had gotten from Ami near his face and jingled them.
"How about it, won't you go with me? You know that mountain we walked down earlier, I bet it'll feel pretty nice to ride up it on a motorcycle."
Suddenly stiffening up, Taiga pursed her lips into a small triangle. Her round face tinged pink and her eyes narrowed, turning in on themselves. It was the expression Taiga would show when she was nervous or afraid. That's right, that's right, Ryūji nodded to himself. Riding along with Kitamura on a seaside tour... She probably hadn't even imagined of a situation like that, even in her dreams. What a nice assist. By happenstance, he had ended up helping Taiga after all. But oh well, since it just turned out like this coincidentally, there was no...
"I, I won't go."
Ryūji, who had been inebriated by his own goodwill, unthinkingly turned around looking like a demon. It wasn't that he was mad, but rather, he was just surprised. A good assist, a good chance, why hadn't she taken advantage of it?
Unaware of what Ryūji was thinking, Taiga pressed her face against the back of Ami's knees and nervously hid her face like the elder daughter of a poor family watching her younger brother who was aiming to join the Giants and her slightly paranoid father from behind a tree,
"I'm scared of motorcycles, so...I won't go."
"...Hey what are you..."
Perhaps unconsciously, she had been rubbing Ami's behind. Running away from Ami who had shifted herself in annoyance, she now stood near the wall, fidgeting,
"I bet Minorin will go, so I'll go get her."
Calling out "Mi~no~ri~n~", she ended up escaping down the hall.
Not only did she just discard her own opportunity, did she now plan on doing the same with his chance to talk with Minori? What is she doing? Ryūji thought, and quickly got to his feet and chased after Taiga. Catching her by the elbow and pulling her back,
"Wait a second you! What the heck are you thinking?!"
He made sure to speak quietly enough that Kitamura and Ami wouldn't be able to hear them from the kitchen as he started questioning her, but,
She elbowed Ryūji sharply in the gut, making him unable to speak as he fell to his knees. Taiga looked down on him with an extremely icy glare, like a frozen corpse of a saber-toothed tiger found in the deepest reaches of the ice after thousands of years,
"I've got an idea. Unlike you, I work in an organized and logical manner."
"...Even though you were just too shy. I saw the whole...Oo!"
"...A mosquito. There was a mosquito, y'know."
After taking that slap to the mouth, he couldn't ask any more questions.
"Shopping? I'll go, I'll go!"...After volunteering, Minori carelessly tossed her mop aside and hopped on the motorcycle, and departed for the station-front supermarket together with Kitamura. She was yelling out something like, "Let's fly like the wind!" as they drove off.
Near the entryway on the wooden deck where they had just seen the two off, Taiga said in a low voice,
"Got it? From now until the time Minorin gets back, we're going to look for a place where we can pull off our prearranged plan. Like for example, in the attic or climbing up to the window of Minorin's room from outside. Search out all the places in this villa that can be used to hide, places to surprise Minorin. Since you're a dog, it should be easy for you."
Pretending he didn't hear the extraneous bad-mouthing, Ryūji nodded.
"...Okay, I got it. But, it'll be troublesome if we're seen by Ami. Now that I think about it, just where did she go?"
When he realized Ami wasn't there anymore, he looked around but saw no sign of her. Taiga just "Hmphed" and shrugged,
"Dunno. Anyway, if she catches us, then we'll just have to make sure she doesn't figure out what we're doing."
She prodded Ryūji from behind as if to tell him to hurry up. Considering that she had declared herself "organized and logical", what she had said just now was rather haphazard, but it wasn't like there was really any other way to do it. With her pushing him along, they went back inside,
"You, go check out the second floor. Starting with the room closest to the stairs, it goes Kitamura's, yours, mine, Minorin's, and then the stupid Chihuahua's. Earlier, that idiot said she was changing the sheets or something."
"Got it. So you've got the first floor. There are cockroaches, so be careful."
Leaving behind Taiga, who was making a complicated expression, Ryūji ascended the stairs to the second floor. It'll be fine if it's Taiga, since it's not like she'd lose to roaches.
Walking carelessly along the broad wooden floor, he was astounded by the wide hallway and the doors to the bedrooms that lined the south side. He got the feeling that they had been much more carefully constructed than those of some pitiful pension or petit hotel.
What with Taiga's place and Ami's house, there seemed to be an awful lot of rich people in the world... While thinking about his own relatively snug house, Ryūji stepped lightly and peeked into Minori's room. He was supposed to sneak inside and check whether or not it would be possible to rap on the window from the outside. If time permitted, they even planned on climbing into the attic.
Basically, Taiga and Ryūji were going to give Minori quite a fright. Of course he thought it was pathetic, but if they didn't make sure to scare her today and tomorrow, then the knight making his appearance the following evening wouldn't be very effective at all. And then, they'd be stuck with no way to escape that future with all the prostrating and puppies. It really was incredibly egotistical, but when it comes to unrequited love, people are nothing if not egotistical. In the first place, they would come up with all sorts of fantasies on their own as well as convenient misunderstandings... Well, even if he tried to defend his actions, his feelings of guilt weren't going to just conveniently go away.
He was aware that entering her room like this was kind of stalker-like. But, he was pretty sure she hadn't unpacked yet and he wasn't going to be touching her stuff, so it wouldn't really be a big deal... Debating with himself, he made his way down the hall when,
"...Huh? What's this here?"
Opposite all the bedroom doors on the south side stood two unidentified doors along the stairs. Ryūji tried opening one of them carefully, but then he just shrugged his shoulders. He hadn't checked before, but it was just a bathroom. I'll come back to clean you later, so be prepared, pointing at the toilet, Ryūji thus delayed its sentence.
So that must mean this is the shower, opening the door, he decided to take a peek.
"Hm?...Geez, what the heck?"
He hadn't turned on the light, but the changing area plus washing machine room was brightly lit. It wasn't like Ryūji would be responsible for the utilities cost, but he wasn't the kind of guy who would allow such frivolous waste. However, although he wanted to turn off the light, he had no idea where the switch was. It was probably somewhere beyond the partially opened sliding glass door. He stepped inside and looked around. He saw a sink and a bathtub that was surrounded by a shower curtain. There was a switch on the wall next to the glass door.
Huh? he thought for a moment. It seemed kind of damp for some reason... But that can't be, rationalizing away his feeling of unease, and went ahead and flipped off the light switch.
"Oh sorry!... Huh?"
A girl had screamed. Reflexively switching the light back on, Ryūji tilted his head. Just who...
"Oh geez, so it's you, Takasu-kun? Would you mind not entering the girls' bath?"
...On the other side of the shower curtain.
...The sound of the faucet being turned, the sound of the dripping shower.
...The hanging moisture.
...That voice, it belonged to Ami.
"A, s, s, s, sorry~! I didn't notice... Ah~!"
"...Hm, fufu...Toradora vol02 heart.png"
From the other side of the closed shower curtain, a white arm suddenly extended outwards. Desperately turning away, he tried to escape, but that wet hand somehow retained a tight grip on Ryūji's arm. Pulled with unbelievable force, Ryūji futilely struggled by grabbing at the tiles in an attempt to get away.
"Wha, wha, what the heck are you doing...~?!"
Ami's voice was just like a kitten's as it shrilly saturated the shower room.
"Takasu-kun, you're quite bold, aren't you? I had no idea... So you came, to fulfill your desire?"
"It's not like that! I didn't come here on purpose! I just didn't notice!"
"Come now... There's no need for excuses, is there? No one's around to see... It's just the two of us, all alone..."
"Are you stupid?!"
From within the curtained shower, there came a stifled laughter. Ami was just like a demon. With Ryūji firmly ensnared in her trap, her murmuring voice continued to echo as if it were a paralysis incantation.
"Aren't you glad...? I'll keep this a secret from everybody... From Yūsaku and the jealous tiger.... Even Minori-chan, it'll be a secret..."
The curtain swayed. Through the thin fabric, he could see her silhouette slowly stand up. Wait a second, please wait, Ryūji was practically on the verge of death as he desperately covered his eyes with one arm in wild confusion.
"W, w, what are you thinking, you?!"
"It's fine... If it's what Takasu-kun wants..."
"I don't want it, I don't!"
"Really?... Hey, are you serious?... You really, don't want it...?"
Ryūji had desperately averted his gaze from the suddenly flung open curtain, turning his whole face away as he had voicelessly screamed and fell on his backside, and looking down on him,
Puffing up her cheeks, the demon started laughing hysterically. So then,
Laughing boisterously at the idiot who was stuck on the ground sitting with his legs outstretched, she sounded like a machine gun as she mercilessly pelted him with ridicule.
Standing in the bathtub that was coated in bubbles, Ami's body contorted as she cackled evilly. Dancing joyfully and gleefully with tears forming in her eyes, she pointed at the pitiful-looking Ryūji and writhed in laughter,
"Oh~ man~! Ta~ ka~ su~ ku~ n?! I wonder, just what were you expecting?! Look at your face... Kyahahaha! Hee, how funny~! It's too much~! Ahahahaha!"
Wearing a t-shirt and jeans and holding a sponge in one hand, Ami seemed to be enjoying herself as she pounded the wall repeatedly.
"You...J, just what were you doing...?"
"Clean, ing, the, tub Toradora vol02 heart.png. Since Ryūji loves cleaning so much, I suppose I could let you take my place if you want~Toradora vol02 heart.png"
"Ah, Ryūji! How was the second floor? I found the ladder that leads to the attic... What is it?"
Practically catatonic with shock, mortification, and embarrassment, he had fled down the stairs, and after running into Taiga on the stair landing, he started trying to communicate by frantically gesturing with his whole body to tell her about what Ami had perpetrated against him. With his wild sanpaku eyes rather teary and bloodshot, he was relatively certain that if he had approached anyone other than Taiga, he would have been arrested, indicted, convicted, and then put to work.
"Ehh? Fufu...that stupid Chihuahua did? Just like that? She acted like she was showering? You...were teased? Ryūji was? So she pretended to be naked and tried seducing you?"
How he managed to get his point across so well was a mystery even to himself, but while pinching his earlobe, Ryūji firmly nodded to tell her she was spot on.
"...Anyway, how did the rest of the plan go? Did you make sure to check out Minorin's room properly?"
He thoroughly shook his head side to side.
At Taiga's instantaneous and extreme beratement, the ever-delicate Ryūji retreated sadly against the wall, subconsciously bringing his hand to the cell phone in his back pocket... If he called home now, maybe Yasuko would pick up and let him talk with Inko-chan...
"Don't go looking for comfort! What a seriously useless guy, how could you let yourself be made fun of by that stupid Chihuahua?! Geez, fine, I get it. I'll go check the room out for myself, and while I'm at it, I'll have a word with that dumb girl."
He didn't know whether or not just a word would be sufficient, but right now, Ryūji felt like leaving everything to Taiga. Yeah, you tell her, whether it's one word or a thousand, a complaint or a curse, please tell that demon off. Pathetic? He didn't care. Ryūji's pride and chivalry had already been cruelly decimated.
Ascending the stairs with a decidedly sharp expression on her face, Taiga shouted, "Hey! Bakachi~!" quite loudly. To Ryūji who was waiting on the ground floor, it sounded very promising.
Next, he heard the sound of the sliding door being opened, followed by a shriek, then there seemed to be some sort of scuffle, and finally...silence.
For a while, that unpleasant silence lingered on, and wondering if something might have happened, Ryūji started to get worried when,
"...I, I can't believe you, geez, what the heck were you thinking, seriously..."
Complaining profusely as she descended the stairs, Ami appeared. Looking sweatier than before and perhaps irritated, she practically shoved Ryūji aside from his place at the bottom of the stairs, a sweet scent wafting from her wet hair at the same time.
And then there was Taiga who had come down afterwards,
"W, what happened?!"
For some reason her whole body was lightly shaking, and on top of that, there on her face she had a red mark that was distinctively hand-shaped. Like a cat that had been run over by a car, her expression remained frozen and totally wide-eyed, and then,
"...The stupid Chihuahua, was really taking a bath..."
"You don't need to say any more than that!"
As Ami turned around snappingly, Ryūji wondered what had happened between the two of them, but it was too difficult for him to ask. There was only one thing he was sure of - Taiga was now cross-eyed.
"Ta, Taiga...? Pull yourself together, just what did you end up seeing?"
"Ryūji, you know...about Bakachi, it's like poof!"
Poofing open her right hand near her right breast,
And poofing open her left hand near her left breast, Taiga then finally brought her hands down to the lower half of her body, balling them up and then exaggeratedly flinging them both open again.
"...~Poof~!... You know."
Ami jumped, practically flying through the air towards them,
"I said stop that already!"
She landed a chop to Taiga's head. Of course, under normal circumstances this wasn't something the Palmtop Tiger would just let slide, but Taiga was rather out of it, tottering over to the phone stand and picking up a pad of paper and a pencil,
"Ryūji, you know...about Bakachi, right here it's like this... And surprisingly, this is like that... Here it's like, poof~!"
"Don't go around drawing other people's naked bodies!"
The picture, which was oddly realistic because of, rather than in spite of the fact it sucked so bad, was taken away and ripped apart.
After that, it was a good thirty minutes or so before Taiga turned back to normal.
It was probably about an hour later. Shortly after he heard the sound of a motorcycle braking outside,
"We're back~! He~y, Takasu-ku~n!"
Ryūji looked up from polishing the silverware like a faithful dog. Just now, Minori had definitely called out to him.
When he ran down the long hallway in slippers and got to the entranceway through which she had called,
"Sorry sorry, but could you help me carry this stuff?"
"Woah, you guys really bought a lot, didn't you?!"
"I guess so, but we need enough for the five of us for dinner tonight, three meals tomorrow, and maybe even breakfast the day after tomorrow. And then there's Oolong tea and seasoning and other things."
"We can't leave any stuff behind though."
"It'll be fine as long as we eat everything. Ooh."
What Minori was dragging along the wood deck towards the entranceway were four large shopping bags full of food. Hearing the clink of something fragile hitting the ground, Ryūji rushed to take the bags off Minori's hands.
"Don't drag them. Geez, what the heck is Kitamura doing?"
"He's putting away the bike. Sorry, I'll carry this one. So what are Taiga and Amin up to?"
"Kawashima was watching television, but she went ballistic over how bad the reception was, so now she's on the phone with her parents. Taiga is...possibly in the bathroom. Anyway, let's take all this to the kitchen."
With Minori nodding in agreement, he was partly happy and partly embarrassed, since it felt like they were newlyweds. Dehehe... To hide his slackening face, Ryūji walked ahead as he carried the heavy baggage to the kitchen. However, he couldn't just let himself idly succumb to transient pleasure. It was okay though, because he definitely hadn't forgotten his primary goal.
Of course, everything was already prepared. After all, it wasn't like all Taiga did was peep into Ami's bathroom. Confirming the minor creaking coming from above, Ryūji calmly estimated the distance... About there maybe?
"Ah, please put the food and stuff right there for now, would you? We have to separate the refrigerated items from the non-refrigerated ones."
He nonchalantly brought Minori to a halt before the kitchen entrance. Squatting in the hallway, Minori began rummaging through the bag.
"Let's see... Sauce is kept at room temperature, right? This curry roux...room temperature, probably. What about you, onion, which are you?"
Kneeling opposite her, Ryūji pretended to be digging around in another bag as he stared at Minori's remarkedly smooth down-turned face, noticing that the area where her shiny hair parted was somewhat reddened from being in the sun and her upper lip was thin and somewhat pouty. Seriously, so cute... No, wait. No, this isn't the time for that.
His throat had become dry due to nervousness, so he casually cleared it,
"Ku, Kushieda. Does this go in the fridge? I wonder, maybe it's written on here somewhere?"
"Hm? Let me see it. Umm..."
He handed the can of tomato puree (which obviously didn't need to go in the fridge) to Minori and got her to read the small print. As she read the words, her large shining eyes narrowed, and then,
She gave a sudden convulsive shriek.
"Hm? What's the matter?"
Looking up, Ryūji tried acting surprised, but he sounded rather nonchalant as he asked her.
"N, n, nonono, nn...."
As if she had turned into Junji Inagawa, Minori's eyes were wide open, her face was stiff, and she kept turning about frantically, switching back and forth between looking at Ryūji's face and looking over her shoulder.
"N, nonono, ju...just now, something, behind me... It, it was, uwah... What is it?!"
She kept glancing about like she was searching for something, and forcefully pushing aside her bangs as if she wanted to say she couldn't believe her eyes, she looked at Ryūji's face one more time.
"Maybe it was your imagination, there's nothing there, you know?"
"Is something wrong?"
"...No... It's...nothing... I, think. Must have been...my mistake. That's right... Yeah, that~ must~ be~ it~..."
Singsongily trying to convince herself even while her face remained stiff, she went and smacked herself a bit before she lowered her gaze back down towards the can.
Once more. Just like before, the same thing was happening again. Of course Ryūji saw what was going on.
A panel in the ceiling had been pushed aside, and hanging from the darkness on the other side of the gap, fresh seaweed that they'd collected just moments ago from the beach descended towards the back of Minori's neck. The round, puffed up cluster of seaweed was on its way towards the back neckline of the defenseless Minori's hoodie. Finally, a limp end touched her skin. Naturally, the whole rig was "Powered by Taiga@the attic." By the way, about the "poofy" ball of seaweed, "This is the floating imitation ghost, Bakachi No. 1"...or so Taiga had told him. It wasn't like he didn't think about putting a stop to the whole thing.
Minori's face froze in a grimace. Very, very slowly, she turned around. Of course, Bakachi No. 1 was safely recalled right away, leaving absolutely no trace behind.
"What's the matter, Kushieda?"
I'm sorry... Even as he thought that, Ryūji faced her straight on with a questioning expression. Minori rather confusedly pointed in the wrong direction, her eyes showing her utter bewilderment,
"J, just now, I'm sure, definitely, something touched me... It was like, slippery, or rather, slimy... It was just like...seaweed? Kind of..."
Well, that's because it really is seaweed...
"...A corpse's hair that's like seaweed... It's like the story about the ghost who got wrapped up in seaweed and died... Was it a sea otter? Wrapped up in seaweed, it must be a sea otter, right? The corpse of a sea otter?... A sea otter whose pouch is jammed full of dead scallops?!"
There it is, Ryūji sighed. As expected of Minori, she had a limitless knack for taking something weird and blowing it insanely out of proportion. Before long, she was stiffly clenching her front teeth and trembling fearfully,
"I, it's wet...the spot where I was touched is wet! This smell is..."
Sniff, after touching the residue left behind on her neck by the seaweed, Minori sniffed her hand,
"Gyah~! I knew it, it smells like seaweeeeeed~!"
Total bullseye, in fact.
"It's the sea otter's corpse~! It's the stench of seaweeeeeed~~!"
Extending her arm as far out as possible like she had touched something nasty, Minori ended up running down the hall as if her life depended on it. For her to become that scared from something so trivial... Ryūji almost felt like giving thanks to the heavens for such a blessing as he calmly watched her run off.
Then a bit later,
"...I kind of, feel guilty..."
Minori's footsteps had receded. Pushing the ceiling panel far aside, the one who peered out with her fair face was, of course, Taiga. The dust was making her nose run as she looked down at Ryūji,
"You're going to go to hell for doing this, you know."
Her words were like something an astrologist might say.
"...But what about you, you're the actual perpetrator."
"You're the primary offender though. Anyway, let's get rid of Bakachi No. 1. Do you think I can jump down from here?"
"Such a reckless... Don't even think about it, it's too dangerous."
Saying "Don't worry, don't worry" as she pushed the panel aside even more, Taiga's face receded into the darkness, replaced soon after by her toes.
"Using the ladder again to get down would be too troublesome."
"Hey, wait a...Are you serious? Don't fall, okay?"
"Yeah right, I'm not that much of a klutz."
She was going to fall. Judging by her pattern of falling, it was almost a certainty.
Fully believing that, Ryūji positioned himself directly below her as she prepared to drop down and held out his arms, ready and waiting to catch her if necessary. Swinging her bare feet as she looked down to estimate the distance to the floor, Taiga finally started to slowly slide the bottom half of her body through the opening in the ceiling when,
What did she say just now?... Before he even had a chance to ask, Taiga suddenly slipped, dropping a few dozen centimeters. Catching her by her bare feet in the nick of time, Ryūji had kept her from falling all the way to the floor.
"U, u, ooh... This is probably...bad... My hands are slipping!"
Taiga was precariously hanging on by the pits of her arms with no other support. As Taiga flailed her legs futilely, her voice was tinged with worry.
"Ah, up, down, I probably can't make it either way..."
"Now look, I told you, didn't I?! I'll hold onto you, so just go ahead and let go!"
"N, no way!"
"I bet you you're looking at my panties, you perverted dog! Trying to look at underwear even at a time like this, you're unbelievable!"
"You're the one who's unbelievable! I didn't have even the 'P' from panties in mind!"
Although Ryūji finally got a hold of her, Taiga was trying to kick him with her legs, smacking him in the face with her bare feet, and just when he was considering yanking her down,
"Ooh! The seaweed ghost really did appear~~!"
"Seaweed spirit~? What's that?"
"It might have been Tetsuo Ishidate's spirit~~!"
"Eh~? Who's that~? One of Minori-chan's relatives?"
"Or else it might have been a sea otter ghost~~!"
"Sea otter gift~? That sounds rather cute, doesn't it~?"
Ryūji's face suddenly went pale. It wasn't that his extremely steepened sanpaku eyes were looking at the two incoming girls with thoughts of turning them into seaweed wraps or anything like that; rather, he looked the way he did because he was in such a frantic state that he could feel his heart wanting to leap out of his chest.
"Uwah, oh nonononono...!"
The two approaching were obviously Minori and Ami. Taiga, who probably heard them talking, started flailing her legs even more violently. She was desperately trying to make her way back up into the ceiling. Even while her flurry of stomps struck at his face, Ryūji supported Taiga's bare feet with both hands, desperately trying with all his might to push her back up to the attic. However,
In her frantic confusion, Taiga dropped her flashlight, which ended up hitting Ryūji clean in the nose. Just as he collapsed in pain, Taiga managed to pull herself up into the attic and quickly put the ceiling panel back into place.
"Eh~, so where's this spirit of Tetsu, hm? All I see is Takasu-kun sitting here... Actually, Takasu-kun, what are you doing...?"
"Huh~, how weird~... Takasu-kun, what's wrong?"
"Um, it's not really..."
The moment he turned around to tell them it was nothing,
Seemingly inhuman screams of terror echoed forth from both Minori and Ami simultaneously. Wondering what in the world they were going on about, Ryūji unconcernedly brought his hand up to his still-hurting nose,
He was shocked too when he felt a warm viscous fluid. Looking at his hand, he saw that it was stickily covered in deep red, the result of his heavy nosebleed. Maybe this was divine punishment for earlier... Although for the sake of correctness, what had handed out the punishment was Taiga's flashlight. Unable to give any sort of explanation, he rushed wordlessly to the kitchen and washed his hands and face,
"What happened to Takasu-kun all of a sudden?! Was it the work of the seaweed ghost?!"
As Minori asked while worriedly giving Ryūji a playful chop to the back of his neck, he couldn't even reply. Frantically bringing the bleed to a trickle, he held his nose and turned his face upwards. Ami was peering at Ryūji's face while looking amazed,
"Anyway, here's a tissue! You know, I wonder, how in the world could this have happened?! Ah, could it possibly be, maybe you were overstimulated by what happened earlier 'that time'?"
Seriously pretending that he hadn't heard Ami murmur an inappropriate "Fufu" Toradora vol02 heart.png,
"No, that's not it. I just picked my nose too much."
"What are you, an elementary school kid or something!"
Seeming as if she'd suffered a blow to her pride, Ami executed a flawless tsukkomi, which then caused Ryūji to feel rather embarrassed. So then, curling up tightly so that Minori couldn't see, he gently pressed the tissue to his nose while thinking, Ah, I hate myself... I'm the worst...the worst...
"Hey, what's going on, why's everyone together?"
Kitamura asked in a clear voice.
"Ah~, the seaweed made Takasu-kun's nose ble...Oh my gosh, what happened to you~~?!"
At Minori's sudden surprised shout, Ami and Ryūji both turned around and looked at Kitamura. The sight left them at a loss for words.
"Hey, this isn't a situation where you should be laughing, is it?!"
"Well, I was just about done putting the bike away in the shed, which was rather cramped, when I tried to push aside some of the heavy machinery...and I kind of got myself pinned."
Laughing and dripping black oil from all over his body, Kitamura's glasses had become sunglasses, and there were splotches of blood oozing out from slight cuts in various places including his face and elbows. His appearance utterly trumped the impact of Ryūji's nosebleed.
"Ah, I can't believe it! Are you okay, Yūsaku?!"
Taking back the tissues from Ryūji's hands, Ami went over to the much worse-off-looking Kitamura. After that,
"...What's with the commotion? What in the world happened?"
The last one to show up was Taiga. Glancing at Kitamura who looked like an oil-soaked bird and Ryūji with his doubly plugged nostrils, Taiga furrowed her brow,
And let loose an extraordinary sneeze. However.
"Ah~... Oh nononono... Did something happen to Taiga too?!"
"Ehh? Ah, nah, just...Kachoo~! I was cleaning...Bachoo! And, there was so much dust, so my nose is a bit...Choo~!...Uwah~...Cchoo~!...Haa..."
While sniffling pitifully, Taiga rubbed at her reddened eyes. All over her hair, her clothes, her hands, and even her legs, Taiga's whole body was thickly covered in dustballs. Probably because she didn't have her flashlight, she must have been forced to crawl around blindly in the attic. Sending dust flying through the air every time she moved even a little bit, she kept making a scene like a page from a girls' comic every time she sneezed, except instead of flowers she was surrounded by dust balls.
"...You guys are weird! Every one of you, you're a~ll weird!"
Ami very clearly declared, taking the tissue box from Kitamura to Taiga whose nose was dripping. Don't worry, you're plenty weird yourself, he might have been thinking, but there was no way he could say that with things as they were.
With all the commotion—like playing in the sea as soon as they arrived, performing major cleanup, going shopping, making Bakachi No. 1, or being attacked by Bakachi No. 1—they'd all gotten caught up in the moment, and so none of them had eaten anything for lunch by the time 4pm rolled around.
"...What a beautiful sunset..."
Standing by himself in the kitchen that he had personally scrubbed sparkling clean, Ryūji pointedly stared outside the window as if trying to escape from the reality in front of him. By the way, his nosebleed had stopped completely, he had changed out of his t-shirt that had reeked of the beach, and he seemed to be enjoying the pleasant sea breeze as he stood near the open window. Ahh... This is a really nice spot.
The shining rays of the sun were starting to fade, and through the window, he had a clear view of the water that glimmered with a splendid orange hue in the distant horizon. He could also hear the sound of the crashing waves and the wind outside, as well as the occasional cry of some seagulls.
To Ryūji, who lived in a town that was fairly well-populated even if it couldn't be called a city, this place was just like another world. It had the kind of atmosphere where a guy would want to invite a girl he liked to go out for a walk, talking about the future together while taking a leisurely stroll on the beach and listening to the sound of the waves... But then, a shrill cry invaded Ryūji's thoughts and dragged him back to the real world.
"I said let go! You damned midget~!"
"No way! I can't handle spicy stuff! This roux is no good!"
"You're so noisy. If you're going to act this selfishly, then shouldn't you have gone along to do the shopping?! This roux is fine! I actually prefer spicy things! Here, Takasu-kun, catch!"
Receiving the box of roux from Ami, he just realized he'd been dragged into quite a mess when,
Ryūji's face twisted in pain. In an acrobatic display, Taiga had leaped up and latched onto one of Ryūji's arms, catching him somewhere between his waist and thigh with her bare feet in a crab-scissors and getting on top of him.
And following up, she shook him in the same way a giant monkey might shake a tree, so vigorously that he was worried she might dislocate his arm.
"What the heck?! What do you think you're doing?! And why did you climb on me?!"
"Ryūji, you can make a delicious meal even without the roux, right?! You've done it before, haven't you?! Frying with flour and adding in spices, you know how to do all that, don't you?! So then, just do the same thing tonight, because this roux is no good!"
Without waiting for Ryūji to respond, Ami muttered "So selfish" before trying to yank Taiga off,
"Using premade roux is the simplest way, and it'll taste good too!"
"Ryūji's cooking tastes much, much better though~!"
With them practically yelling into his ears, his arm being yanked, and being shaken about against his will, Ryūji eventually got to his knees. He pulled Taiga off of him with one hand, then pushed Ami aside with one hand,
"...Fine! I get it already!... But Taiga, since I don't have my prized spice collection, I can't bring out the same flavor as usual."
Fufu, Ami laughed derisively, as if to say 'Hah, see that!'.
"But, still... It's because you dislike spicy food, right? So I'll just separate a portion especially for you, and I'll season it with lots of milk and ketchup to make yours sweet."
While Taiga was still a bit displeased, she had at least stopped yelling, but taking her place,
"You're spoiling her!"
This time, Ami puffed out her cheeks. Furrowing her brow and narrowing her eyes, she had her hands on her hips like a little kid.
"Geez Takasu-kun, once again, you're giving special treatment only to Aisaka-san! If you keep this up, aren't other girls going to end up disliking you?"
And yet as she spoke, she had still retained her usual goody-goody pose up until then. Even her anger was just part of the act. However, suddenly twisting her lips and smirking wryly with just half her face, Ami's eyes were starting to fill with the negative feelings that still lingered just beneath the surface. Lowering her voice to the utmost level, she was probably inaudible even to Taiga.
"...Even Minori-chan might end up disliking you, y'know~?"
What did you say? While he had frozen up completely and she was close enough that he could feel her breath on his ear, Ryūji was struck by her extended attack that sounded just like a snippet of a song.
"Ah, I knew it, you're blanching. Fu~h..."
Ami's teasing eyes were wreaking havoc on Ryūji's well-being. Her lips were pulled ever so slightly into a smile,
"Takasu-kun, if you keep acting this way, maybe I'll tell Minori-chan about 'that'... Like 'Takasu-kun peeked at me in the shower'..."
"Y, you weren't actually taking a shower though!"
"...Fufu. Maybe so, but that can't be confirmed anymore, now can it?"
Flipping her hair, Ami pulled away. With a devilish smile on her fair face, she certainly looked beautiful on the outside at least, but there was something definitely warped about it, because it was a blackness inside her that in the end managed to seep to the surface. In any case, Ryūji wasn't able to say another word. Why did she suddenly... She, in other words, could she have picked up on his feelings for Minori?
Between the two uncomfortably tense individuals, Taiga settled into place,
"...What was that about Minorin?"
She looked back and forth between Ryūji and Ami, peering into their faces suspiciously. Ami, who had on her normal angelic smile, said "Nothing~" while Ryūji just gulped. And there was one more person present amongst them,
"Did you call? Did you call for me?"
In the cramped space between Taiga and Ami, Minori was standing there... Just how long has she been here? Smiling innocently, her pure eyes sparkled as she looked warmly at her friends. Somehow, it seemed like she hadn't picked up on what Ami had said just moments ago. Ryūji discreetly licked his dried lips.
"Hm? Minorin, are you feeling okay now?"
"Yeah, I feel a lot better now that I've rested on a bed for a while, so I thought I'd come help out in the kitchen. Hehehe, I also want to see the rumored 'Divine Blade of Takasu', you know? According to one report, I've heard that Takasu-kun can completely dice an onion in ten seconds?"
Ah, in the face of Minori's smile, Ryūji felt like prostrating himself before her. Because he and Taiga had used Bakachi No. 1 to scare her, she'd been resting the whole time up until now. And yet, in this place where the actual perpetrator, the primary offender, and even the model for Bakachi No. 1 were gathered, she was kindly bestowing a smile that was lovelier than anyone else's.
"10 seconds is probably impossible...But,"
Even while desperately looking away from her blinding brilliance, he wanted to live up to Minori's expectations as much as he possibly could. He expertly grabbed three onions in one hand,
"15 seconds should be enough."
"Oh~! You really said it! Well then, please let me observe your skills. Can I help you somehow? I guess Takasu-kun will be the boss for tonight's cooking, right?"
It wasn't the onions, which he had yet to slice with the knife, that caused him to tear up. "Can I help?" Those simple words had done it. That line that would make him happy pretty much regardless of who said it, the person he wanted to hear it from the most had actually said those words to him. Turning around without thinking,
"...Hm? What's with that look?"
He ended up staring straight at Taiga. Of course, she had absolutely no intention of helping as she sat down with a plop onto a chair, playing with some yogurt that was out on the table like she really wanted to eat it, at least until Ami tried to confiscate it. Actually, in a certain sense that wasn't the same as with Minori, he would have really liked to hear her offering to help, but... Oh whatever. Might as well make the best of it.
"A, alright then Kushieda... Why don't you skin the potatoes."
"O~kay~. I wonder, is there no peeler? How many should I prepare?"
It happened just after Minori had thrust her hand into the bag and pulled out a couple of small potatoes with her delicate fingers.
"Ah, I feel so refreshed!"
A sudden pitter-pattering of bare feet hitting the floor approached the kitchen,
"Oh, have you already started preparing dinner? I know I'm completely hopeless at cooking, but you could have called on me to help set the table at least!"
Kitamura, who had taken a shower first to wash off the sand and smelled freshly of soap, clapped Ryūji on the shoulder. However.
"...H, hey! Your clothes..."
"Whew, it's so hot...Oops! Ah, my bad, so the girls were here?"
Taiga, who had turned around at the sound of Kitamura's voice, let go of the yogurt. Falling backwards in her chair, hitting the back of her head against the wall, and falling to the floor, Taiga looked like she had swallowed a lethal poison as her face wildly fluctuated, flushing red, blue, and then white as she searched for a place to hide, sticking near the wall until she finally hid herself behind Ami, whom she had just been arguing with up until only a moment ago. Not yet taking notice of the situation, Ami was twisting herself about in annoyance,
"What the heck are you doing all of a su...Hah?!"
Then she noticed. As if she couldn't believe her eyes, Ami blinked in confusion for a while before directing a scrutinizing gaze at her childhood friend, and then after a certain point where it seemed she'd had enough,
"Yūsaku!!! Have you gone crazy?!
Is what she said. Ryūji sympathized quite readily with her reaction. However, laughing with a "Tehehe", Kitamura just shook his wet head without a single sign of embarrasment,
"I accidentally left my change of clothes in my room. So, I was on my way to get changed now."
"Then why did you have to stop by here first?!"
"Well, that's because I saw Takasu."
"Are you an idiot?!"
"Hahaha, who could have guessed you girls would be here too"... Laughing like that, this guy who's the class representative/student council vice-president/softball club captain, just what is he trying to conceal...No wait, he's actually not concealing enough. Showing off a naturally wild style as he only covered the most necessary parts of his lower body with a single towel, he was standing with a steady stance. Even from Ryūji's male perspective, his physique that had been tempered with athleticism was enviably slender and yet firm as well... Now wasn't the time to be saying such things. As it was, he was even more exposed than when he was wearing trunks at the pool. If you were to look at him from behind, it seemed likely that his rear would actually be visible.
"Ta, Taiga, pull it together!"
And Taiga, who had been in the perfect position to see this foolish guy from behind, had suffered a meltdown. The light had completely gone out of her eyes, and she had assumed a sitting fetal position as she continued to stare at the wall. It seemed she had seen it, his "open-source" rear. He couldn't help thinking that she was really prone to seeing others in the nude.
"Are you some sort of exhibitionist or something? Horrible~"
With the familiarity of a childhood friend, Ami directed a cold gaze at Kitamura's naked body, however,
"Fufufu... I, Kushieda, am not so disinclined to taking on an exhibitionist..."
Whispering in an almost growling tone, Minori lifted her down-turned face,
"You narcissus from above! Give me a nude shot!"
Leaping just like a grasshopper or something, she dove towards the floor. And so, sliding with her shoulder against the floor, she tumbled over like she was break-dancing towards the feet of the near-naked Kitamura,
"What the heck, get away, cut it out!"
"It's too late to be saying that now! You've already gone this far looking like that, hmm?! How are you going to say 'No' or 'Cut it out' as if you're so innocent, huh~?! Follow the rural customs when you're in the countryside, go get nude in a nudist's colony, this is a surprise shot, you freak!"
She whipped her cellphone out of her pocket and vigorously aimed the camera at Kitamura. It wasn't clear whether or not she actually took a photo, but the wide stance, the exposed rear, and the rapid-fire harassment, they wouldn't forget any of it.
"S, suddenly this seems really embarrassing!"
Hit by a severely delayed bout of self-consciousness, Kitamura finally prepared to retreat out of the kitchen. Right at that moment,
In the exact moment the towel, that had been preserving decency, fell to the floor, Ryūji leaped forward to prevent the girls' eyes from being soiled. With that last ditch dive, he miraculously covered Kitamura's nether regions with a plate,
"...Something just now, some sort of afterimage was...Something like...Black...?"
Grimacing, Minori seemed to have noticed something from the inner corner of her eye. Sitting firmly on the floor Japanese-style, she tilted her head.
"It, it's the seaweed ghost. Maybe."
While doing his utmost to conceal the nudity, Ryūji gave a silent prayer. Forget, let's all just forget. And so, he turned to Minori,
"Kushieda, I can handle things from here, so why don't you go rest in the living room for a while? We'll make sure to call you when the curry's done, okay?"
"...Really?... I guess I'll do just that then...For some reason, the seaweed spirit's afterimage is stuck in my head... Or it's burnt into my retina or something, I'm not quite sure..."
Minori made her way out of the kitchen with uncertain footsteps. As soon as he had finished watching her leave, Ryūji's eyes turned brutally fierce as if he were a demon,
"Geez you, you're seriously horrible! The worst!"
He smacked Kitamura's bare bottom with the plate (It would be fine for Taiga to use this plate afterwards).
"Did you come on this trip just so you could pull something like this?! Even if you plan to run for student council president in the next election, I won't vote for you!"
"I'm reflecting on what I did though!"
Ryūji kicked the guy he had even called his best friend out of the kitchen and towards the second floor where the bedrooms were. Seriously, what's with this guy; he really wanted to show this situation to Mayu and Nanako and the other female Kitamura supporters. He'd really like to let them know that their 'fun to tease but lovable Maruo-kun' had done such a foolhardy thing like this. Hey, isn't that right, Noto, Haruta He inadvertantly recalled the smiles of his friends who weren't here right now. Phantasmic visions of those guys whirled about him, whispering. Yeah, that's right, Takasu... It's really weird that that guy is so popular... It's totally incomprehensible... That guy is also a fool... No, that guy is such a fool... Ah, that's right, that's right, just like in this case.
"...Geez, damnit, that guy..."
Even as he prepared the trashbag in order to get back to peeling the onions that he had put on hold earlier, his malice had yet to fade. He had finally gotten the chance to be next to Minori in the kitchen, yet he would have never guessed that Kitamura of all people would get in the way like that.
"Ah~~, Minori-chan is so pitiable~~"
The one who had murmured in a happy tone that lacked even a hint of pity was Ami. Turning around in a fit of anger,
"...Kawashima, get over here and help. Your childhood friend's bungling has cost us a pair of hands, after all."
Gesturing with his chin, he indicated the potatoes that Minori had left unpeeled, but,
The time lapse preceding her response had been practically nonexistent.
Ami's face momentarily twisted, in a way that made him want to tell her she really didn't need to make such a face. Ami practically spit as she prefaced with a "You've gotta be kidding" before facing him with a faint smile,
"Why should Ami-chan have to?"
As it was, he couldn't choose just one term to faithfully describe her personality from the myriad of characteristics such as "selfish", "tyrannical", "narrow-minded", "arrogant" and so on. Why does Ami-chan have to cook? Why do I, the beautiful and cute Ami-chan, have to do anything with potatoes? Why oh why would Ami-chan, who is rich, elite, and a model, have to be an assistant for someone like you?
Ryūji knew exactly what Ami wanted to actually say, and so he just nodded.
"...Fine then, go take some barley tea to Kushieda."
"Eh~? But I was going to stay here and watch Takasu-kun cook...Upuh!"
As soon as he deftly sliced the onion in half, Ami, who had been looking in her bag, quickly turned her face away.
"...F, fine, I got it! I'll go take the barley tea then!... It's like I'm being chased out or something... I just can't stand it..."
Her eyes immediately going red, Ami made her way out of the kitchen with a cup in one hand even while looking disgruntled. That just left Ryūji and Taiga alone in the kitchen, but,
"Hey, are you alright?"
Taiga still remained near the wall, her shoulders visibly heaving as she wheezed. The shock of seeing Kitamura's rear end must have been enormous. And she likely hadn't forgotten the trauma of seeing Ami either. Without thinking, he extended his hand to grab her arm and help her stand, but,
"...Hey you, this isn't the time to be worrying about other people."
Shaking off his grasp, Taiga unsteadily got to her feet using the wall for support.
"I'm seriously fine... I'll just override this trauma with an even stronger trauma... Yacchan's big breasts, Yacchan's big breasts, Yacchan's big breasts.... Ohh~..."
"Don't go making someone's parent out to be traumatizing."
In any case, Taiga finally gave a single shake of her head, and her breathing seemed to have returned to normal. Glaring up at Ryūji's eyes while he worriedly peered at her face, she said only one thing.
"You dim-witted dog."
"Haa~", sighing in a seemingly exaggerated way, Taiga had gone right back to speaking hostilely.
"I'm completely stunned. Today of all days, how could you have passed up this chance to cook with Minorin after all we went through? And it was basically your one and only chance to show off your skills."
"Even if that's true, there's really no helping it, right? Since it wasn't my fault. It was all because of Kitamura."
"There you go blaming other people again! This is why dogs merely crawl! It's like you don't realize what a predicament this is, not at all!"
Flipping her hair, Taiga scrunched up her face as if deeply depressed, and expressing an even greater degree of pity, she stared straight at Ryūji.
"W, what do you mean, predicament?"
"Because on this trip, right now, it's not going well at all, don't you see? Only going halfway with scaring her, and then not even making any further appeals. Seriously, you haven't been putting in nearly enough effort in getting closer to Minorin at all. I almost can't believe it."
"...Come on, don't say that. Besides, didn't we succeed in scaring her earlier? You know, with that thing. The Bakachi No. 1."
"But, the plan isn't moving forward at all. You can't possibly think that just that alone was enough, can you?"
"...It's not like I'm thinking that, but,"
Cruelly clicking her tongue and shrugging her shoulders, Taiga interrupted him as if to say that listening to Ryūji's vague reply would be worthless to her.
"Don't make pointless excuses. I'm cooperating; I'd do practically anything if it meant destroying that dog-filled future. But, I just can't go so far as to manipulate Minorin's heart. That part's all up to you. To put it bluntly, up until now, I still haven't seen you showing even the tiniest bit of effort."
After listening to all that, he couldn't think of a single thing he could say in return. Looking down at the onion he had left cut in two and forgotten, Ryūji remained silent thinking, She's absolutely right.
"Ah geez, what an irritating face... From now on, you should try putting your blood, sweat, and tears into turning things around, don't you think? I'm just cooperating by doing what I can. And right now, when it comes to cooperation, I can really only do something like this..."
As she continued muttering, she carefully opened the freezer. And then what she took out was the thing they had hidden just in case they might want to use it again, the Bakachi No. 1. Also known as the seaweed spirit.
"...It's repetitive, but we don't have any other options, so I guess it's better than nothing."
With her bare hands, she tore off the long thread they had used to dangle the whole thing from the ceiling. Then, sticking the seaweed onto one end of the broom that had been left standing in the kitchen corner, she continued speaking.
"There. Now it's the prickly thrusting imitation ghost, Bakachi No. 2."
"...Huh, how simplistic."
Taiga was looking to one side of the kitchen at the dirt-sweeping window, an opening that was really meant for getting rid of rubbish but apparently also led directly to the wood deck. Peering about carefully like a cat,
"If I go through here, I can make my way along the deck until I'm just outside the living room. Then since Minorin's sitting on the window-side of the sofa, I should be able to discreetly open the window and surprise her with this thing right here...Of course, you'll have to pretend like I'm actually still inside."
"Pretend you say, but just how...?"
"At least handle that much on your own, sheesh."
Removing her slippers and silencing her footsteps, Taiga was just about to make her way outside when...
Clatter, roll, roll... She had knocked over a bowl. The two of them froze momentarily, sticking to the wall and not breathing, but it seemed like no one else had noticed. Picking the bowl up carefully, Taiga put it back where it belonged and then sneakily made her way out to the wood deck via the sweepout window.
So, if he was supposed to pretend as if Taiga was still nearby, then...something like this maybe?
"...Oh! That's a rather good approach, Taiga! You're surprisingly skilled at this!"
Chop, chop, chop, chop... While quite skillfully handling the kitchen knife to finely dice the onion himself, Ryūji pretended to chat in a loud voice. Hopefully, it was enough so that everyone could hear him loud and clear.
"Hey, would you mind getting me that bowl over there? Oh! Thank you! Okay then, take care of the carrots next! Oh, nice! You do it rather well, don't you Taiga!"
This farce of a one-man play sounded completely unbelievable. But, it was what he had to do, for now at least. Even as Ryūji's face turned stiff, he continued to frantically raise his voice.
"Alright then Taiga! Next, let's..."
Then it happened.
"Gyaaa~aa~ah!..." A horrific scream emanated from the living room. The second after he looked up and thought, Alright,
"...I really did it. The whole thing went almost too perfectly...!"
Taiga sneakily slipped back inside via the sweepout window at the side of the kitchen. Closing the window carefully, they high-fived without making a sound.
"It was just Minorin sitting on the sofa, so I simply tapped her on the shoulder with this guy here from the other side of the curtain outside!"
Giving a thumbs up and nodding to one another, they both carefully picked up things like a knife or carrots to take with them,
"That scream just now, what happened?!"
"Minorin, are you ok?"
And pretended to rush over. They made a lot of noise as they ran over to the living room. When they arrived, they saw Minori lying prone on the floor with her limbs outstretched,
"Minori-chan, what's the matter?! Pull it together!"
"Kushieda, get a hold of yourself!"
Ami and the now clothed Kitamura were both tending to Minori. She looked distressingly stiff, and for some reason, she was pointing at Kitamura,
"I, i, i, it appeared... It really came out... A spirit possessing Kitamura... Kitamura's doppelganger did...!"
Somehow, it had turned into a story about Kitamura's doppelganger. And then seeming to lose most of her strength, Minori became visibly covered in goosebumps and started shivering uncontrollably. Perhaps overstimulated past the blanching point, her face actually flushed pink instead.
As the actual perpetrator, Taiga very timidly moved closer. Taiga should be experiencing the same pangs of guilt that Ryūji was feeling. Sitting down gently beside Minori,
"Ta, Taiga i...is it really you...?"
She wiped away the perspiration from Minori's forehead, seeming extremely regretful.
"...Taiga... Be careful... There's some sort of malicious intent hanging about this mansion...Oooh~."
"I, is that so...?"
Taiga's eyes shifted dubiously. That's right, that's right, as the inflictor of said "malicious intent", Taiga must be feeling quite horrible right now. As for Ryūji, he couldn't even look Minori straight in the eyes as he was feeling a sharp pain in his chest.
"Mi, Minorin, I wonder if there's anything I can do for you..."
"...The curry... Is the curry done yet?"
"Not even Ryūji can finish cooking in less than five minutes, Minorin..."
"I see... In that case...Be sure to make mine an extra-extra spicy one please... I'll take...one that'll really send this fear flying if you don't mind..."
Gently caressing Taiga's cheek with a trembling hand, Minori eventually used up the last of her strength and closed her eyes. Giving a firm nod, Taiga reassuringly whispered "I'll definitely make it for you". If it was for Minori's sake, it seemed like Taiga would even resolutely toss aside her selfishness about having a specially prepared dish.
Ryūji had likewise come to a firm decision. If making a spicy curry could alleviate these fierce pangs of guilt, then he'd go to any lengths to make it spicy for her, no matter what.
And so, Ryūji transformed into a cooking devil.
Making the food dance freely in the air with skilled handling of the frying pan to where Ami, who had peeked in, was rendered speechless, Ryūji used some of Ami's father's liquor to flambe various fruits for dessert, then switching pans, he started making a simple Takasu-styled chutney,
"Is there anything I can do to help?"
To Kitamura, the former village chief of the nudist colony who had asked just now, he gave the order, "Wash the rice! Wash it like your life depends on it!",
"...Taiga. You understand, right?!"
With a glint in his eyes that was like the edge of a sharp Yakuza blade, he directed his gaze at Taiga. It's not like he was trying to collect on an overdue loan by selling Taiga off somewhere; it's just that he was pressing her to make a decision.
"Yeah. You don't have your spice collection with you, so for right now, you have to use this instead..."
Taiga had nodded. She held in her hands a red spice that came attached with the roux and had a label that read: "Seasoning for extra spiciness * Shockingly HOT (Because it is extremely spicy, please adjust flavor using only very minute quantities. This is a warning that product may also cause harm to consumer's health)". If it was Minori's wish, then there was no helping it... With a resolute expression, she tore the package of spice completely open. For Taiga who had never tasted anything more than mildly spicy, this was an adventure, no wait, she was just being completely reckless and foolhardy.
Shake, shake, shake... Into the pot it went, where it would take about fifteen minutes to cook. And then, saying "I found this. It's from last year, but maybe we can use it anyway?", Ami took the pack of curry and chili pepper that she had discovered lying in the kitchen drawer and without a second thought tossed that in too, resetting the fifteen minutes they'd have to wait for the dish to finish.
And thus according to Ryūji's unspoken plan to avoid overcooking and yield something akin to the school-served curry, the potatoes were still in round pieces and the onions were still recognizable when the simple curry filled with lots of carrots and lightly browned pork was finished.
"...Even if I try to put it in a single word like 'spicy', or for example 'salty', the wasabi will make your nose burn, the chili peppers will burn your tongue, it'll burn your throat...And I think you'll experience a wide variety of spiciness even beyond that. I sampled tonight's curry earlier, and I have to say it's got an extreme taste that knocked me straight in the head. I stuck to Kushieda's request, but even so, I tried to make it simply, along the lines of villa-type cuisine."
With a helping of rice and curry on each of their plates, they were all seated around the dining room table, and the other members were gazing steadily at Ryūji's lips as he continued his exposition because they were swollen, practically throbbing.
For such roe-lips to be caused by just a taste, they wondered then just what further potential might lie in wait. At the quiet dining table where the sound of the waves continued to resound, a spicy aroma was already wafting through the air.
"...So anyway, prepare yourselves and dig in. Itadakimasu!"
"Itadakimas~su!" they echoed back, and everyone took a spoon in hand, opened their mouths and quickly took a mouthful. A silence prevailed over the table for merely a second.
"...Hm? Isn't it rather mild?"
Was Minori's response.
"Yeah, yeah, but it's okay in a normal sense."
"The pork, I've got a fatty part..."
"Yeah, not bad, not bad! As expected of Takasu!"
Spoke the nudist.
It took about three seconds; that was how long until the general consensus of "What the heck" turned into voiceless screams.
Just as everyone was about to take their second bite, they all suddenly stopped moving their spoons,
"T...there, there it is! This stuff really does have a kick to it!"
"H, h, ho~~t!! Water, water, I need water!"
"Hot~, oww~, it's spicy~, gah~ I spilt my water!"
"Ah~...*cough*, *cough*, it, my throat...*cough*!"
While watching the others all continue to writhe in pain, Ryūji discreetly turned his focus on Minori. "Yeah! There it is! What a kick! I really felt it! Ooh, there it is again!" ...Minori was really hyped as she shoveled the curry down her throat in a manly fashion. Then, noticing Ryūji's gaze,
"Ta, Takasu-kun! You're the best! It's super spicy, it's so good! Spicy, great, first-rate! I'm seriously happy! This totally exceeded my expectations; it totally blew my fear and sadness away!"
She gave him a thumbs up. His mouth felt like it was being burned away by the flames of purgatory, but deep down inside, he couldn't help but feel a gradual surge of happiness and embarrassment.
"Ah, well... It's because you said you'd like for it to be spicy..."
"Eh~, so you actually made it spicy like this just for me?! Oh my, I'm deeply moved! Well then, it looks like I'll have to take seconds!"
Laughing and smiling even as her face flushed red from the spiciness, Minori showed Ryūji her plate that had been cleared clean. Going "Uwah~!" on the inside, he was practically dissolving in euphoria. If doing this sort of thing could yield such bliss, he would make this every single day of his life ...Of course, he couldn't say such a thing, and so without saying a word, Ryūji took Minori's plate and proceeded to dish out a second helping for her.
|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|