| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
After the shockingly spicy curry dinner,
“All right then, you can leave the clean-up to me!”
The only one in high spirits, Minori stacked up the empty plates and took them to the kitchen. On the other hand, the others were all lying around immobilized, mentally tottering back and forth between ‘It was spicy but still good’ and ‘It was good but still spicy’, as despite the throbbing pain of their lips and mouths, they couldn’t help but have seconds, and now with their full bellies, swollen lips, and utter fatigue, it didn’t seem possible to even stand up.
However, it just wouldn’t be right to make Minori handle clearing the table by herself. Ryūji finally stood up as well to go help her, but then Taiga grabbed onto the end of his T-shirt.
“Hm? What is it?”
“…I think, I might have eaten too much spicy food all at once. I'd like some medicine for my stomach…”
“Does your stomach hurt?”
Furrowing her brow, she looked as if she couldn’t quite tell how she felt herself as she rubbed her stomach and tilted her head.
“I don’t have any stomach medicine on me. Kawashima, did you bring any?”
“Ehh, I don’t think so…I only have aspirin for headaches.”
Thinking ‘Hm, what are we supposed to do?’, Ryūji was pressing his hand against Taiga’s forehead to make sure she didn’t have a fever when Kitamura stood up.
“I brought some. I’ve got painkillers, digestion medicine, and mixed types, so come to my room. You can read the labels and decide which one fits.”
Playing with the lace on the end of her sleeve even though Kitamura had been kind enough to say all that, Taiga was fidgeting like a weather-forecasting cat by pawing her face and the back of her ear. Thinking ‘This really isn’t the time to be acting shy, now is it?’, Ryūji grabbed her by her elbow and forced her to stand,
“Come on, go with him.”
Ryūji gave her small back a slight shove. Even though it looked like Taiga might fall over from that push, she somehow got her legs moving and followed after Kitamura, and so the two of them walked out of the living room. Without thinking, he was keeping a worried eye on her rear as she left,
“You really spaced out.”
He had noticed Ami’s approach much too late. Having silently drawn closer, Ami was already leaning herself slightly over the table right in front of Ryūji’s eyes before he knew it,
“If Takasu-kun’s going to worry so much about that girl, you should’ve gone too.”
While her large eyes slightly narrowed in a seemingly malicious manner, her rosy lips were completely caught up in a smile that hinted that she actually found something quite entertaining.
“…What’s wrong with my worrying about Taiga?”
“Ooh, you got defensive.”
“If someone else had gotten a stomachache, whether it were Kitamura, Kushieda, or even you, I’d worry just the same.”
“Ehh~, is that true? Well then, Ami-chan thinks~, she too might~, have a stomachache~.”
While making her Chihuahua-like eyes water, Ami sat down with a flop next to Ryūji,
Without even giving him a chance to actually fall for the lie, she bluntly dropped the whole smiling thing and stuck out her tongue a bit, shrugging her shoulders. Just what in the world is this girl thinking---Already fed up with being teased, Ryūji merely stared back at Ami’s cool and pretty face.
Probably completely aware of Ryūji’s exasperation, Ami reapplied her angelic smile, her lips pursed and eyes widened. Those eyes of hers were twinkling brightly like stardust. Yet even though her appearance was almost unbelievably beautiful, beneath the table she was just like a neighborhood delinquent. Sitting squarely with one long leg crossed over the other knee, her open thighs were a show of poor manners as she continuously swiveled her ankle. It seemed like she wasn’t even going to try hiding it.
Ahh, Ryūji thought looking up towards the ceiling, feeling sympathetic for all the Ami-chan fans throughout the country, and yet, he involuntarily smiled.
“…How should I put it, I’m not bored watching you.”
“That, is that a compliment?”
“It’s something of a complicated, fine line I guess…”
It’s what he seriously thought. That is, that she’s a strange one all right.
At first glance, she was an incomparably jewel-like beauty. However, in truth, she was a wickedly malicious woman. But nevertheless,
“A fine line? Eh? Me…Complicated?...What’s that supposed to mean…To say that I’m complicated…”
Next to Ryūji making a serious face and tilting her head, that expression of hers by itself was somehow endearing. So normal it was surprising, or just surprisingly normal might be a better way to put it. Or maybe he should say that it made him rethink his opinion, reaffirming that even she was just like any other sixteen or seventeen year old girl.
Such a girl who, no matter how you looked at her, just didn’t seem to match up with her appearances was quite the oddity, Ryūji thought. But, it wasn’t as if he disliked that about her.
“…What is it~, you’ve just been staring at me the whole time. Hmm~, could it be you’re bewitched? Mm, that’s okay, it’s fine, I know it can’t be helped, since I’m so very cute after all…”
Yep yep, totally understandable, she of course nodded with a smugly pleased look on her face. But surprisingly, a strangely child-like smile gradually bloomed like a light coating on Ami’s pleased face.
“Oh, I know! Hey, hey, Takasu-kun, you know, we could go to the beach and---“
She was trying to say something when,
“Oops, I forgot some of the dishes, didn’t I?”
The two of them heard some casual footsteps. Humming to herself, Minori had returned to the dining room from the kitchen. In high spirits and not directing any criticism at Ami and Ryūji who were simply chatting away without lending a hand, she stacked up the plates and cups that she had left behind on the table and tried to carry them all in both hands,
“…That’s dangerous, so just take the cups only.”
From beside her, Ryūji took the plates off her hands.
“Ah, you’re going to help me? You don’t have to Takasu-kun, since you took care of the cooking, I’ll handle clearing the table.”
“It’s ok, I’ll help.”
Holding the plates in one hand, he hastily wiped the edges of the table with a cleaning cloth. He turned about, considering making Ami help out as well, but,
“I’m really horrible at kitchen work, you know, so rather than be a bother, I’ll take my leave now.”
Lightly smiling while murmuring her excuse, Ami quickly got up from her seat. Leaving without any chance to be stopped, it was amazing how fast her retreat was. So she really hates cleaning that much, huh. But, it was a lucky break that he’d get to work with Minori, just the two of them. For now at least, he was rather grateful for Ami’s queen-like tendencies.
“Is this really ok? Weren’t you in the middle of chatting with Ami-chan?”
Ryūji responded to Minori’s concern by waving his hand as if to say it wasn’t important, and the two of them headed to the kitchen.
Minori had cleaned the kitchen thoroughly, with everything from the pans to the knives so well cleaned and organized that even Ryūji had to acknowledge it. And, as he was glancing around in amazement, Minori took the plates off Ryūji’s hands and before he could even say “Ah, I’ll take care of it”,
“Alright, washing complete!”
She had finished in the blink of an eye. Of course, he had no complaints with the level of her skill as she quickly set the dish in the rack to dry.
“…Huh, you’ve got quite the technique, don’t you?”
“Hehe, I guess so? I’m always stuck doing the tough cleaning at my part-time job, you know, and I always wanted to try and finish as quickly as possible!...So I’d run around with that in mind, and I eventually got rather good at doing this sort of stuff.”
And so, he had discovered another one of Minori’s good points. That is, he meant the loveliness of her smiling face as she was being praised that was somewhat shy and embarrassed but also heart-wrenching and just a bit proud. Seriously honest and straight-forward, he wished that he could have been born as someone like her. He admired her unpretentious purity from the bottom of his heart. If only he were like Minori, then the circumstances or the face he had been born with wouldn’t matter, and rather than constantly torturing himself in anxiety, he probably would have grown up straight and unwavering, just like a bamboo shoot. That’s right, if only everyone in the world was like Minori, then things like war and disaster would likely vanish. And so happily, everyone would live while full of laughter just like her.
Without noticing the shining look in Ryūji’s eyes and continuing to laugh with her eyes drawn to a line, Minori suddenly looked up with an ‘Oh yeah’ expression.
“I’ll give Takasu-kun something nice.”
Opening the fridge and sticking her face in, she pulled out a couple pieces of jam cake. They were the same ones that they had all gotten a piece of after dinner, but,
“There were just two left over, you know. I thought we might have a sumo competition later, like a battle royale with no holds barred or something, but…hehe, this’ll be our little secret, so let’s eat them together. Vanilla or green tea, which would you like?”
Smiling widely, Minori handed one of them over to Ryūji. Then, glancing about the area,
“It would be bad if we’re spotted by Taiga. She’s a glutton after all. Takasu-kun, we’ll have to eat it all in one bite.”
Having decided to down the rather large cake in one go, she tore off the wrapper. Wait wait, that’s absolutely impossible, Ryūji meant to stop her,
“…You can get to the deck from over there, so let’s eat them out there.”
He pointed to the dust chute that Taiga had just gone through earlier with the Bakachi No. 2. To Minori, who went “Ehh?” with her eyes wide open, he responded “Shh” while making the shushing pose. Opening the door silently, he was still in his slippers so the sand felt rough as he went out onto the wooden deck.
For a moment, he closed his eyes against a strong sea breeze that practically pushed him back…When he looked out, he saw the cover of night draped in the sky over the ocean. With only the stars and the moon pallidly illuminating the breaking waves, the sound of the crashing sea in the chilling darkness was more actively peaceful than utter silence.
“Watch your step.”
Walking silently towards the sea and away from the living room, they eventually sat down on the deck with their legs stretched out facing the sea. Even forgetting about uncovering the jam cake, Minori simply looked out towards the night-time sea.
“…Huh…It’s rather dark out here, isn’t it…Wait, could that be, reflected moonlight?”
They could see a path of shining white reflecting off the ocean surface near the coast where she was pointing. Ryūji noticed the slow moving celestial body shining in the sky, but “It’s a UFO” was of course not something he’d say. He was fully aware after all. That it was merely a man-made satellite.
As if disturbed by the silence, Ryūji busied himself with unwrapping the jam cake,
“It…It’s quite beautiful out here, isn’t it?”
He took a bite. Of course, he barely registered how it tasted or anything---By some stroke of luck, the two of them had ended up discreetly out of sight. Minori’s hair fluttered in the sea breeze, and the steady moonlight illuminated her profile against the darkness,
Nervous, his shoulders trembled. Becoming entranced by Minori in this night-time setting, he was having trouble keeping his gaze away from her, as if she were drawing him in.
“The green tea type, is it good?”
“What type did you have before?”
“Which one’s better?”
“…The green tea.”
Two bites, three bites, he frantically bit into his ice cream jam cake. Things had gotten this far through natural happenstance, but he had no idea what he was supposed to do from here. Could this possibly be a ‘chance’? But, just what sort of chance was it then? In a situation like this, just what in the world did people talk about?
“H, hey, Ku, Kushieda, you know, I was wondering,”
“D, do you have, a boyfriend?”
---Now he’d gone and done it. He instantly regretted it. Too impatient, he’d accidentally overstepped the boundary. He’d actually gone and said something like that.
Minori didn’t say anything. As if she hadn’t heard him, she simply remained silent. This sort of silence is the worst. Minori Kushieda, I beg you, please hurry up and dispel this weird atmosphere with one of your usual random outbursts. Please, just act like that question just now didn’t even happen.
Don’t just remain silent like that while we’re practically sinking into the silence like this, please.
If even one more second passed like that, he seriously thought he was going to die---
“Hey, Takasu-kun. That seaweed ghost earlier, do you think it’s still hanging around here?”
“He~~y! Seaweed ghost~! Where do you hail from?”
He involuntarily spat out his jam cake, but that was okay. There it was, her fool-like speech. Nice, very nice, with that usual strangeness, with the exact type of weird outburst I was thinking of, you’ve canceled out my faux pas…Meeting Minori’s gaze, Ryūji definitely felt his heart stop for a moment. As if his life was actually ending.
“Takasu-kun, have you ever seen a ghost?”
Minori was staring directly into Ryūji’s eyes. Despite the absurdity of the question, her eyes were serious and unflinching, yet her gaze still seemed gentle and unusually fragile.
“What…Well, no, but…”
“You know, I really believe that ghosts exist.”
She nodded 'yes yes' to herself, but she followed up with a strongly emphasized “However”.
“However, to be honest, I’ve never seen one, so you know those spirit mediums, those so-called “people who’ve witnessed ghosts”? Truthfully, I don’t believe in them at all. There’s no reason to think they can really see anything, and it’s not like there are people who can actually communicate with ghosts. Those people who say they can are all just cons in it for the money, is what I believe.”
Without understanding where she was going with this, Ryūji unthinkingly stared at Minori’s face in profile. As Minori faced the darkened sea, staring intensely as if looking for something that Ryūji wasn’t aware of, she breathed ever so lightly as she kept searching.
“…And, I think there’s something else that's almost the same. You know, I believe that someday I’ll find someone I deeply love, and we’ll start dating, get married, and live happily ever after. But, realistically, I’ve never felt it happen with anyone.”
Shifting her feet gently back and forth while facing the ocean, Minori was tracing a curve of white with her tiptoes in the corner of Ryūji’s vision.
“It’s only natural that, as early as middle school or high school, there are people who become attracted to one another, start dating, lose interest, and break up, forming ordinary relationships. There’s real love, they say…Those people seem quite far away to me. Aren’t there a lot of people who say “I can really sense something” or “I saw it”? The type claiming “Ah, my shoulders feel heavy, there are so many of them right over there, just look right there”. So it seems like the same sort of thing. Just as much as I’ll want to doubt them, thinking ‘Do they really see ghosts?’, I’ll end up thinking ‘Are they really in love?’. I just don’t see it. As much as I believe, it continuously eludes me. I’ve never experienced any of it for myself, y’know. These things that other people speak of as simply natural, they’ve never happened to me. And so that’s why, I just can’t believe in such things. I’m left on the outside…I want to believe, but I’ve kind of given up. The most I can do is enviously watch ‘the ones who can see’ with my finger in my mouth, cheering them on from the sidelines. Just that, is a connection, I guess…What a bunch of lies! It’s all a delusion! A figment of your imagination!...is what I want to shout because I still can’t shake my doubt. So, the answer to the question earlier, is “I don’t”.”
Spitting all that out in one go, she looked concerned over whether or not Ryūji understood what she was saying as she turned back again to look at his face.
“…Takasu-kun, can you, see ghosts?”
Slowly, he licked his lips.
Making sure not to get overexcited or tremble, Ryūji cautiously started speaking.
“…I’ve never seen one, but I guess I…believe they exist.”
“So you’re the same as me?”
He shook his side to side.
“I’m someone who ‘wants to see’. I would even go to a haunted area and peer into the darkness…It seems like you’re someone who simply believes. It’s not the same. Because you actually get really scared, right? So in a way, isn’t it more like you think they don’t exist? But because you sense something, it scares you, right?”
Minori was oddly silent, even forgetting to blink as she continued to stare at Ryūji. Desperately trying to figure out why he had started arguing, he finally thought of something. He hadn’t wanted to hear Minori say such a thing. That such a person---in other words, someone to love---would never appear, was something he absolutely didn’t want to hear her say. Ryūji, who hoped to someday have a mutual relationship with Minori, took her earlier words like a death sentence, as something he wished she wouldn’t say.
Right now, even if Minori hadn’t said it outright, he was painfully aware that she wasn’t in love with him. Hearing her speech, it wasn’t like he wouldn’t be feeling hurt on the inside. But, instead of crying in pain, he wanted to hang onto the possibility that, in the future, he might become someone for her.
And so, because he wanted to know just why Minori, who was an ordinarily cute and apparently normal girl who could chat with all the guys, would be thinking things like that, he simply had no choice.
“…So, it might be something else. Even for people who sense spirits, actually seeing them might not be such a standard thing.”
“Seeing a ghost would no doubt surprise some people quite a bit, right? Even if they saw it, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to rationalize it away as ‘simply impossible’. Like the people who, even if they see it at first, when they don’t see it the next time, they’ll wonder if it wasn’t just an illusion or a dream. And also, there should be those who started out like you thinking that it was absolutely impossible to see such things who ended up seeing it and had their perspectives changed, right? In other words, how should I put it…I doubt that would be considered ordinary by any means. I think it was because they continued thinking, ‘I want to see’ and put in an extreme amount of effort, and so they finally saw it for themselves. Therefore, you don’t need to so firmly believe that you won’t ever experience those things in your life, right? And you don’t need to think, ‘It’s all a lie’ without giving it a second thought…I, that is, how should I say it…”
Ryūji noticed Minori holding her breath while her eyes were wide open and staring at him. While he couldn’t figure out what she was thinking, he got the feeling that she had at least received his message.
So, he was able to say these words.
“…I, hope that someday, you’ll be able, to see a spirit. I hope you’ll want to see it. I kind of feel bad saying this to you since you get scared easily, but…a spirit who wants to be seen by you, just might exist, somewhere in the world…That’s kind of what I think at least.”
Without regret, he was able to voice his thoughts.
“…So you see…A lot of weird things happened today, right? Attempts to get your attention, like ‘look at me’, ‘I’m right here’, ‘find me’...was what some spirit was saying.”
Or rather, it was me…Of course, he didn’t go so far as to say that part out loud.
A moment later, Minori unexpectedly closed her mouth. She gazed up towards the night sky, and seemingly perplexed by something, she suddenly hesitated and didn’t say anything.
“…Why exactly, did you tell me all that?”
Whispering only in his heart, ‘for me, that ghost is you’, Ryūji averted his gaze from Minori’s profile. The blackness of her eyes as she gazed at the night sky had become too much, making him feel like he was melting away. Taking a somewhat deep breath right next to him and giving just the slightest hint of a smile, she replied.
“You know, for some reason today, I kept thinking that I was being jumped by a ghost. And yet, I didn’t see anything. Then, just now, I saw something. A UFO---or a satellite that looked kind of like a UFO. And at first, I thought ‘Ah’, but then I realized, of course that’s not it…So in the end, I didn’t see it, even though it felt so close by…or something…And so, I don't know why, but I just felt like talking to Takasu-kun about it.”
Well, that was how he responded, but Ryūji had also had that thought. That is, that the shining object that passed by in the night sky looked just like a UFO. Also, he knew what it was that had surprised Minori. It was his own feelings of love.
It wasn’t a mystery of the world like spirits or UFO’s were. He was right at Minori’s side. That much should be apparent to anyone who'd look.
Letting the wind blow past as he sat next to Minori, Ryūji just watched the shifting black sea and thought to himself. If Minori could see it, that alone would make him happy, is what he was thinking. As long as she took notice, even if she were to suddenly tire of him and toss him aside, that would be much better than if she never noticed his feelings at all.
He had just finished washing his hands after relieving himself and was opening the bathroom door.
“Hm?...Taiga, is that you…?”
It was 1 a.m.
Perhaps it was because they had gotten up early or maybe it had been all the commotion, but everyone had ended up going to bed early, and the late night atmosphere was relatively peaceful. The small face that peeked out just slightly beyond one of the doors was faintly illuminated by the bathroom light.
“What’s the matter? Can’t sleep?”
Keeping his voice down, he gently closed the bathroom door so as not to wake everyone. Taiga slipped out of her room stealthily just like a cat, and without putting on her slippers, she made her way over to him barefoot.
“…It’s because, I recognized Ryūji’s footsteps.”
“…That’s quite a feat, almost superhuman.”
Her long hair was in a braided style for sleep, and wiping her nose with the sleeve of the summer-styled cotton pajamas that she often wore at home, Taiga nodded. It seemed like a rather childish action, but she didn’t seem sleepy as her large cat-like eyes were wide open. Because he had gotten up to go to the bathroom, Ryūji’s eyes felt quite clear as well,
“…Should we head down?”
He said as he pointed to the stairs, and Taiga replied, “Yeah”.
“…We have to think about tomorrow, and I mean, really think.”
“Yeah, that’s right…We can’t just keep relying on Bakachi No.1 and No.2.”
While whispering back and forth, the two of them descended the stairs with muted footsteps. Passing through the hallway and entering the dark living room, they only turned on a small table lamp before sitting down on the sofa.
With the sound of the waves barely resounding amidst the quiet darkness and the gentle light of the lamp illuminating only the table, they could each only see the outline of the other’s face. Ryūji tried to adjust the lamp so it would shed even a bit more light their way,
“Oh…This is quite an expensive lamp…”
He took notice of its elaborate craftsmanship. Overall the glass had a light pink matte finish, while the minor trimmings were made of purple glass. It was made so that, passing through the ground glass, the mild flame-like light of the bulb would create a gentle enveloping warmth. The design followed the typical art nouveau style, depicting a dragonfly hovering amidst a scene of forest flowers. He wondered if it might possibly be the work of a super famous designer such as Lalique or Galle, but he couldn’t tell for sure.
However, right in front of Ryūji’s eyes as he continued staring in amazement, an impolite finger slowly intruded,
“What is it, this disgusting thing?”
Taiga mindlessly rubbed the delicate dragonfly carving. The art just didn’t match her taste, or maybe he should say that for someone like her who didn’t appreciate elegance, art nouveau may as well have been Hell Teacher Nube or some other random thing.
Such a simpleton…Unthinkingly, he was staring at Taiga’s pretty fairy-like face when,
“Maybe I’ll eat some of the leftover curry.”
She said. “Gotta warm it up”, she continued. “Ha~h”, Ryūji sighed,
“…Stop right there, it’s one in the morning, y'know? Do you want to get another stomachache?...Actually, are you even feeling okay right now?”
“I’m fine. My stomach was feeling weird as soon as dinner started, so I didn’t get seconds and what I ate wasn't enough.”
“I didn’t notice that you didn’t have seconds…That’s unusual. You really must have been feeling awful, huh.”
“Yeah. When I got the medicine from Kitamura, he stayed beside me the whole time as I took it, you know, saying things like “Do you have enough water?” “Did you make sure to take two?” “How do you feel, is it working?”…I got really nervous and left quickly. Then just a little while ago, I took a short nap and now it doesn’t hurt anymore.”
“I can’t believe you got a stomachache…”
“…By the way, where were you while I was taking the medicine? I didn’t see you anywhere.”
I was with Minori---For some reason, he didn’t want to tell her that. While he wasn’t sure why he felt that way himself, his throat constricted, and looking at the outline of Taiga’s peach-like face that was pallidly lit, for some reason, Ryūji, for some seriously unknown reason,
“I was cleaning my room.”
He lied. In the glow of the lamp, he could see Taiga’s long eyelashes tremble ever so slightly. Her eyes shimmered as she turned somewhat suddenly, though seemingly without much interest, to look at the darkness through the window.
“…I’ll go warm up some curry for you.”
For some reason---Before Taiga could catch him with her gaze, Ryūji quickly stood up from the sofa.
Gently illuminated by the art nouveau-styled glass lamp, the living room currently reeked of curry.
“…Ah, I ate so much~…”
“Looks like I did too…”
By the time he realized it, there were two cleared plates sitting in front of him---horrifyingly, the deliciousness of the slightly fermented curry was already beyond the limits of refined taste.
Taking the dishes to the kitchen, he quickly washed them and picking up a glass of barley tea to bring with him, he returned to the living room to find,
“Hey…Don’t sleep there, okay?”
The belly-stuffed tiger stretched languidly out on the sofa. Wiggling her bare toes, she opened her mouth wide and yawned,
“Hah…I’m not sleeping. Didn’t I tell you we were going to discuss our plans for tomorrow? I’m just feeling…a bit tense…and tired... that's all. Even though it’s only been one day.”
“…You know, you do look really sleepy…”
Every single time in the past, Taiga had followed the same rapid descent into the lifestyle of a cow that involved stuffing herself, lying down, then promptly falling asleep; so Ryūji, who had constantly witnessed her three-step combo, didn’t find her declaration of “I’m not sleeping” very convincing. And yet, every time she pulled that move, he ended up on the floor himself, drooling away. Whenever he saw the sleeping Taiga’s happily vapid expression, it seemed like his body would immediately weaken. It was almost as if her body radiated some sort of aura that could hypnotize people into falling asleep with her.
“…If you sleep in a place like this, just think about what Kawashima will say…”
“…The stupid Chihuahua…?”
…Sitting on the floor, leaning against the sofa that Taiga was stretched out on, and resting in a position where his forehead was close to Taiga’s stomach, his head was warming up and his vision was blurring…it happened all of a sudden…
“…Are you asleep?”
Pulling himself upright, Ryūji shook himself awake. Not good, at this rate I'll end up falling asleep myself.
“Taiga, don’t sleep. Sit up properly.”
Placing his hand behind her head, he pulled her outstretched form into an upright position. Limp as she was, Taiga started to ball up,
“It’s cold…so cold…”
“Ahhh, that tickles! Hey, cut it out…!”
As Ryūji sat on the sofa with one knee up trying to awaken Taiga, she pressed her head against his thigh below his knee, kind of like a nuzzling cat. But,
Very suddenly, she jumped up in surprise. Her eyes that were nearly closed immediately opened wide.
“That was your crotch…!”
“You were moving all on your own!”
Nooooo~~…With her glaring at him distastefully like that, Ryūji might very well have enjoyed smacking her on the head.
“Geez…Well, now I’m wide awake…I wish I could peel off my face, disinfect it, and then put it back on.”
Yawning once again even while claiming she was wide awake, Taiga finally sat up properly next to Ryūji on the sofa. And then, when she decided to say something,
“Anyway, there’s at least one thing I’m sure of…Trips are tiring.”
“What a thing to say now.”
Defenselessly raising her arms to stretch, Taiga looked up to the ceiling,
“I guess, the whole thing’s been kind of stressful…I thought that I’d be happier, being with Kitamura from morning until night, but…it seems like I’m a lot more nervous than happy.”
“Well, I can see what you mean…He even showed up naked all of a sudden after all.”
“…Don’t you feel the same? It’s not like Minorin showed up in the nude, but you’re still tired, right?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Though he couldn’t tell Taiga about it, that peaceful time between the two of them had been nice enough, but---it’s not like it hadn’t worn him out. With all the sudden stress he put his heart through today, he wondered how many years he’d shaved off his life.
“…You know, I had imagined that being married would be something really pleasant, but actually, it must be rough…It would be just you and your loved one, two people alone together a lot of the time, right?…I feel like I’d die young if it was like that constantly.”
Taiga unwound her braided hair, making it gently jump in the darkness. Then playing with the ends of her hair, she untangled it in the dark by running her fair hands down between the strands again and again. Quietly, “Now I see why Mom and Dad got divorced,” she added. Right now Taiga was defenseless, so much so that her still painful scars were out in the open.
Suddenly looking at Ryūji, who was listening without saying a word, Taiga gave a small haughty laugh.
“And to think, when I’m with you, it’s not a problem at all though…It looks like I’ve already been infected by that cramped 2DK residence.”
“…How rude. What the heck are you saying?”
“Just look. Even though we’re in such a large room, don’t you think we look foolish? It feels like a normal six-tatami room, with the way we’re sticking so close like this.”
“Ah…I see. The feel of a six-tatami room, huh.”
Listening to what Taiga said, Ryūji somehow understood. It made sense now that she’d said it. It wasn’t like there was only one sofa, and if they wanted to talk, they could have sat at the table; but instead, they were sloppily huddling together like this without even extending their legs and talking with almost zero distance between them. Even though their bare ankles were touching, he had only realized it just now.
However, Taiga didn’t show any sign of being particularly bothered by the situation, as she didn’t say “Get off!” or “Get away!” or anything of that sort. Well, it was late at night after all, so it was really the best distance for chatting quietly. And it’s not like Ryūji felt any great desire to pull away either.
“…Well, being with the one you like really is fun. It’s just, these are extraordinary circumstances. I don’t think I’d be able to stand it either if it was like this every day.”
Giving a small sneeze, Taiga leaned forward. When he reached out to hold a tissue in her face for her, she remained sitting like that and heartily blew her nose.
Next thing they knew, the two of them were only some ten centimeters apart. Their feet touching, nothing but the sound of the waves echoed in the night. When a pubescent pair, a young boy and girl were in such a situation, it would be only normal to expect something more to happen, but---
“I need another tissue. I’m not done yet.”
“Oh, must be quite a bit.”
“It's a cold.”
Looking at Taiga’s profile, which nevertheless formed an elegant outline even while she was blowing her nose, Ryūji felt strangely at ease. He was finally able to take a break from the noisy and unfamiliar surroundings; it was almost as if he were back at home. This was in spite of the fact that as a pretty girl and, more importantly, as the Palmtop Tiger, Taiga was an exotic creature who for all intents and purposes should have been far removed from the realm of “restful”.
“…Nnh…Or maybe I have allergies…”
“Did you bring any cold medicine?”
“No…Ooh~, if Kitamura sees me with my nose running…”
While they were speaking back and forth in short bursts, Ryūji unthinkingly started yawning as well. Covering his open mouth with the palm of his hand, he started drifting in thought.
As long as he was with Taiga like this, it didn’t really seem to matter whether they were in a celebrity’s mansion or the second floor of his rented house. To put it another way, they ended up bringing about the same familiar atmosphere. He could almost imagine that Inko-chan’s cage was right nearby or that Yasuko was on her way home while staggering drunk. Just listen now, “m’ack” he could hear her speak in her sweet slurred speech as her high heels clattered with drunken footsteps. Being together with Taiga, that was the atmosphere he felt.
He thought it was rather strange, but it definitely wasn’t a bad sensation. Actually, you could even say that she brought a feeling of security, kind of like a good luck charm---Though he said ‘security’, Taiga was still a fierce individual of course.
While he was wondering what Taiga herself was thinking, she rubbed her eyes somewhat sleepily,
“Hey Ryūji. You know, I thought…just now, about that dream…might not be so…”
“Hm? Are you talking about the warning dream?”
As soon as he turned around to face her, Taiga clammed up. Then, averting her gaze slightly,
“…Actually, umm. Never mind about that…More importantly, what should we do for tomorrow? Another Bakachi type would just be falling into a set pattern.”
For some reason, he worried a bit about what she had been trying to say, but they still had to come up with plans for tomorrow. Once again pulling himself upright, Ryūji corrected his posture and started thinking.
“Ah, you’re right…Didn’t she say she wanted to go play in the sea or something tomorrow?”
“The sea’s bright and cheery; plus there’s no place to hide, so there’s really not much we can do.”
“Seems like it…I wonder what we should do…”
“Things that would scare Minorin…”
They had both tilted their heads at the same angle, thinking, when,
“---What do you mean by, things that would scare Kushieda?”
The sudden interjecting voice echoed in the dark.
Without saying a word, the two of them practically leaped, tumbling from the sofa onto the rug. Spooked, they huddled down at the foot of the sofa, trying to somehow hide themselves,
“Wh, what the heck was that?”
They were caught firmly by the shoulder. They were practically yanked up. The glasses-clad face staring them down was---the nudist, Kitamura. It was too late to escape.
“You guys…If you came down here because you were thirsty, what are you doing scheming?...It smells like curry in here.”
“W, we’re not scheming anything…”
“Well then, what about making Kushieda freak out like that today? That offense must have been entirely your doing, right?
As he was perfectly correct, both Ryūji or Taiga were at a loss for words. Feeling awkward and agitated, they looked at one another with stiff expressions, unable to explain. Their silence was, of course, no different from an outright confession of “Yes, we were the ones who did it”,
Adjusting his glasses, Kitamura sighed in near disbelief.
“Why in the world did you do it…Don’t you have any sympathy for Kushieda?”
As might be expected, his tone carried the strictness of a class representative. Feeling chastised, Ryūji unconsciously took to the proper kneeling form next to the sofa with both hands on his knees and was desperately trying to figure out what to say,
“Th, that’s…This is Minorin’s present, that’s right.”
Taiga, who was sitting next to him in exactly the same position, started making up an excuse in desperation.
“Yeah. Even though it might not seem like it, Minorin actually loves horror even more than eating three square meals a day…I’m saying this as her friend, so there’s no mistake about it. Being surprised like that and acting scared is her favorite thing in the world. So, I’m scaring her and letting her make some nice summer memories…”
Just as soon as he thought to himself ‘Who in the world would actually fall for that story?’,
He got his answer.
That is, it was this guy standing before him, the one smacking his hands together as his glasses glinted.
“I see~, so it was like that now was it? No wonder her eyes shimmered rather ravenously considering she was supposed to be scared.”
That was probably Kitamura’s imagination, but if that’s what he thought, then it worked out in their favor. Vigorously nodding in agreement, both Ryūji and Taiga sincerely hoped that Kitamura would just accept the idea of ‘see nothing, say nothing, hear nothing’ and let them go, but,
“All right, I get it. If that’s the case, then let me help out too.”
Are we screwed?---Ryūji thought to himself in despair.
“If we all work together, then tomorrow we’ll really be able to surprise her, won’t we?”
Exchanging a look, Ryūji and Taiga asked each other “What now? What do we do?”, but regardless of their worries or cursing, Kitamura was way too into it already. Then he seemed to think of something,
“That’s right, let’s call Ami too.”
“Yeah. After all, she knows this place rather well, and besides, think about it. Ami would definitely love doing this sort of thing, that's for sure. And she’d pout if she was the only one left out of all this. I’ll go get her right now.”
They didn’t have enough time to think of a way to stop him, so Kitamura ended up going upstairs to fetch Ami. As soon as his back escaped their sight, the two of them collapsed, leaning against one another,
“Wh, what the heck do we do about this Taiga?! We’re getting further and further away from the original plan!”
“There’s nothing we can do to change this, so asking that now is useless! If it’s going to be like this, we’ll just have to follow along.”
“Even if you say to just go along with it---“
[Everyone made sure to scare her], [Minori was frightened], [Ryūji, the knight, appeared], [Everyone was in on it together], [The fearful Minori got angry], [But, Takasu and Aisaka said…]…If that’s how things go, is there any reason to believe that it would somehow bring them drastically closer together? Causing fear and spreading lies, wouldn’t that only serve to make her despise me? Additionally, that Ami’s bound to join in on the whole thing. If it’s her, she’ll get a kick out of it, or else, to continue in her provocations towards Taiga, she might even go and wreck everything.
However, licking her lips, Taiga seemed to have made up her mind as she stared into the darkness.
“There’s no helping it…Since it’s come to this, we’ll just have to revise our plans. You, just make sure to protect Minorin for now. Then, after everything’s out in the open, tell her this: “I told them to stop. I was worried, so I was trying to protect you”.
“Th, that…Do you honestly think she'd buy that?! How the heck's that supposed to work?!”
“You’ll have to make it work! We don’t have anything else!...You don’t want it either, right? That dog-filled future!”
In the dark, Taiga’s eyes glowed. Before Ryūji could even nod, they heard Ami cry out “I’m sleeeepy!” in an irritated voice followed by two people’s footsteps making their way towards the living room.
---Are…you guys stupid? Don’t you have anything better to do? I’m so sleepy…Geez.
Is what Ami said immediately after being dragged downstairs by Kitamura.
She had already given up the cutesy act, and because she was tired and in a bad mood, her true ill-tempered nature was unfortunately obvious,
“Now now, you don’t need to say all that.”
“Don’t touch me, you pest!”
When her childhood friend attempted to console her with a pat on the back, she pushed him back with a cold glare. Despite the way Ami was acting, Taiga pulled up close to her,
“If you help out, I’ll let you play with your dear Ryūji for three days and nights.”
Taiga grabbed Ryūji’s face with both hands and pulled it right in front of Ami. “Why are you making me do this?”, Ryūji’s eyes seemed to ask critically of Taiga as he turned to look at her, but,
“…If you don’t, then she’s going to blab about everything to Minorin.”
Hearing her quick and quiet words of discretion, he had nothing he could say. After all, she was almost certainly right.
“Look Bakachi, if you prefer, I’ll even give you the nude version.”
Right in front of Ami, Taiga boldly lifted up Ryūji’s T-shirt, revealing his sexy black nipples, but,
“…Do not want.”
Pushed aside roughly by Ami, who had looked away, Ryūji collapsed onto the sofa. Somehow, this hurt his feelings quite a bit. Taiga on the other hand wasn’t discouraged in the slightest,
“No no no, Bakachi has to join us; I really want to do this with her! Hey hey, let’s do it, let’s do it together!”
“Au, au, au, au…”
Nuzzling like a cat against Ami’s stomach as she sat cross-legged on the sofa, Taiga stuck to her and swayed her. While Ami’s eyes were still half-closed with want of sleep, she didn’t seem to even have the strength left to stop it and continued to be shaken against her will. Then even while rocking her back and forth and seeming to fawn on Ami as treating her like a child, every once in a while,
“…150 continuous sessions of monomane…”
Taiga would look up and pepper in some whispered threats. Before long, Ami’s eyes were all the way open.
“Hey hey yeah!...Humiliation…Let’s do it, let’s do it!...Leak it onto the net…Yeah yeah!…You’ll never hear the end of it…”
As expected, Ami seemed to be wide awake now, and right after she grasped Taiga’s head and yanked her off,
“Okay already! I get it! I said I understand, geez!...And I get motion sickness really easily, so cut it out already…”
Roughly ruffling her head in irritation, she glared at Taiga and Kitamura. She took a moment to glare at Ryūji as well.
“…So, you’re scaring Minori-chan to entertain her…Why does Ami-chan have to do something like that now…Ah geez, how annoying…Hey Yūsaku, get me something to write on.”
After making use of her childhood friend, Ami took a ballpoint pen and started sketching what looked like a map onto a piece of paper.
“…Right here is the villa we’re in currently. Over here is the cove that you saw when we were at the beach.”
“…What horrible handwriting…”
After glaring somewhat gloomily at Taiga who had muttered that, Ami started again.
“Here, the rock wall rises straight up, and there’s a cave you can get into. Two, maybe three people at most would be able to walk side by side in it…Well, it eventually widens out, but the light doesn’t reach all the way in and the footing isn’t very good, especially since the water from the sea pours in, so if you were doing a test of courage with a pocket flashlight…It would be quite easy to scare someone there, don’t you think?”
Ohh…In the dimly lit living room, there was a quiet round of applause.
“As expected of Ami, she’s one of the locals.”
“When it comes to scheming, I guess there’s no one who can match up to Kawashima.”
“…Don’t call me a ‘local’, it feels like you’re badmouthing me or something…”
Grasping her shoulder as Ami glared at the guys,
“Well done! If you come to my house, I’ll let you do something with our pet parrot!”
Taiga patted her on the back.
“Hey you, when you say ‘my’, you’re actually talking about my house and my pet…”
“…What exactly do you mean by 'something' Aisaka…?”
“…Ah, are you talking about that ugly parrot? I don’t want to have anything to do with that thing…”
While scrunching up her face in annoyance, for just an instant Ami stared at Ryūji’s face. She had the eyes of someone thinking about something totally unrelated to what her surrounding friends were going on about---Just like a girl who wasn’t really familiar with this sort of ordinary setting.
After discussing the plans about the cave and the test of courage for nearly an hour, Ami and Kitamura had each gone back to their respective rooms. As for Ryūji and Taiga,
“…Geez you, you should at least be able to go to the toilet on your own…”
“But, it’s dark.”
Forced to escort Taiga to the bathroom, he went up the stairs just behind her. Afterwards, parting in front of Ryūji’s room, Ryūji went inside his dark bedroom alone.
“…Well then, guess I’ll sleep…”
Just like the sound of the waves, the drowsiness was washing in and out. Pulling up the sheets that were already devoid of all previous warmth, he had just laid himself down on the bed once again, but---then,
“!...What the heck!”
Forgetting to keep his voice down, he jumped up. After he had happened to touch the pillow, he felt something tangle up in his hand. It was thin, long, and like thread…And also, it seemed, kind of slimy?
In any case, he tried turning on the light, and once the light reached his eyes that had gotten accustomed to the dark,
Unnerved, he reflexively tensed.
Numerous strands of long hair were sticking to the travel towel that he had laid out on his pillow. It’s not like they were everywhere, but it looked as if some woman had been sleeping there, leaving quite a few of them behind. And then when he looked at his hand that had touched the pillow, there were…some slick strands hanging from it. Feeling physically ill, he was nearly overcome by an urge to vomit. Practically leaping away from the bed, he took out a tissue and started scrubbing at his hand.
Clearly, the hair was too long to be Ryūji’s. Also, they hadn’t been there when he had gotten out of bed earlier---Well, when he had woken up earlier, he hadn’t actually turned on the light though.
So then, just when did they appear?
Of course no one was there to answer his stream of questions for him, and so with the feeling of unease at his back, Ryūji involuntarily held his breath. There was the sound of the waves outside his window…The sound of the wind… …Well, this wasn’t a big deal. It really wasn't anything to worry about at all. It must have been there to begin with. I must have accidentally brought along one of Yasuko’s towels by mistake. It’s Yasuko’s hair. This sliminess…must be, my drool, or something. There's no other reasonable explanation.
Pretending to remain calm, Ryūji started backing out of his room carefully. Just maybe, the hair could have come from Taiga. He had no idea how she could have done it, but it was still possible that Taiga was behind this somehow. It’s really not a big deal, he kept telling himself over and over as he walked out quickly, practically running. He ended up in front of Taiga’s room, which was right next to his. Without even knocking, he opened up the door,
“Ta, Taiga, in my room, did you…huh…?”
The lights were on in the room, and Taiga was standing. She hadn’t even gone to bed.
“Hey, do you…know anything about this…?”
Nonchalantly hiding behind Ryūji’s back, Taiga was pointing at one of her one-piece dresses that had been tossed aside on the floor unfolded.
“…Aren’t those the clothes you changed out of? I keep telling you to hang them properly.”
“That’s not it…Those, I haven’t worn them yet. I planned on wearing them tomorrow and they were supposed to be folded and inside my bag…”
“…C, couldn’t you be mistaken…?”
“…That's what I thought too, but when I went to pick them up…they were warm. As if someone had just taken them off…So then…that…”
Taiga grabbed onto the end of Ryūji’s t-shirt with a tight grip. Feeling like his heart was in a vice, Ryūji couldn’t move even a single step. On the floor around the discarded dress, wet-looking footsteps had been left behind. And, rather than water, it was a viscous fluid that made up the footprints.
“I, in my room, there’s something weird going on too…It’s like, someone already, slept in my bed…And they left behind slime on my pillow…”
A silence descended upon the room. Like a basso continuo, only the repeating sound of the undulating waves carried on---
Suddenly, the window jolted.
It was probably just the wind, he had thought, but then Taiga crumpled. Even forgetting to lend her a hand, Ryūji became unresponsive.
I feel it---A presence. Some sort of presence. Like a cat that would turn around to stare at seemingly empty space, Taiga looked all about nervously, desperately clinging to the wall for support,
“N, no way…This is…really weird…L, let's go to someone else's room…”
She grabbed and pulled at Ryūji’s arm. And then, she tried to head to the hallway through the still open doorway, but ‘Bam!’, the door was closed from the outside.
Taiga collapsed. Even Ryūji who was watching felt his lower body give out, and he couldn’t stand anymore. Crawling to be near one another, the two of them huddled near the wall,
“Th, th, thi, this is, a dream, right?! That’s gotta be it, a dream, right Ryūji!”
“Yeah, this must be a dream; after that dream with the puppies and the doghouse, this must be a continuation!”
“If we just close our eyes, we’ll wake up any second!”
“Let’s wake up!”
---They desperately closed their eyes. They felt that something really weird would happen if they opened their eyes as their bodies continued to tremble uncontrollably.
|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|