| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
Taiga turned her head after replying. Couldn't you be a bit more honest with yourself? Ryuuji could only helplessly look at the side of her cheek.
It was a few days after the Takasu dining table had reverted back to being used by only mother and son. As autumn encroached day by day, the temperature this morning was particularly chilly.
"Anyway... Brrr~ It's cold~"
The autumn breeze blew over Taiga's hair, causing her to shut her eyes and scrunch her shoulders. Ryuuji had to button the top button of his gakuran jacket, which was usually unbuttoned, and inserted his hands into the pockets. The fallen leaves added a new texture to the path. Soaked by a small drizzle during dawn, the leaves stuck to the tarmac road. Under the scent of the wet fallen leaves, the moment the breeze stopped blowing, one could feel the warmth of the sun on their skin, causing one to breathe deeply. It was only now that one would feel cold, but once it reached noon, the sun would become warm again due to the remaining summer heat.
Ryuuji quickened his pace, walking shoulder to shoulder with Taiga ahead. Matching her footsteps, their shadows, which contrasted in length, were now side by side.
"It's not that cold as long as there's no breeze... Well, I have an idea of the whole picture, but how do you plan on taking care of Kawashima? The normal methods wouldn't work, would they?"
"I've already prepared the 'bait', something very good. Though for Bakachi's sake, it's a bit of a waste."
Taiga held up her shopping bag, and showed Ryuuji a small, elegantly wrapped box inside.
"Oh, is that the dessert from that restaurant yesterday?"
"Yup. I'm gonna brutally increase her calories. Since it's from a famous store, she'll definitely like it... If I give her this, and then 'ask her for a favour'... Ugh! Just thinking of having to ask that Bakachi for a favour makes me wanna puke!"
"Okay, okay... hohoho..."
While comforting Taiga, Ryuuji couldn't conceal the fact that his mouth was forming a grin. Taiga's brows went up, and then she swung her cloth bag toward Ryuuji's butt.
"What're you laughing at!? You look disgusting! Why're you grinning stupidly like Bakachi!? You droopy dog!"
"Who you calling a droopy dog!? And when was I laughing!? Hohoho..."
"You are laughing right now!"
Can't help it, really. Who asked you to be so dishonest with yourself? After she said "Yeah, whatever", Ryuuji waited to see how long she would put up her stubborn resistance; it was impossible not to find it funny. Concealing his ever-widening grin, Ryuuji dodged Taiga's attacks with her bag while moving forward in a dreamy way on the road filled with the scent of fallen leaves. Taiga fumed as she yelled,
"Forget it! You definitely were laughing! You were laughing at me! Who cares about that!? That's right! I wouldn't care! It's too stupid to ask that Bakachi for any favours! I give up!"
Taiga stormed past Ryuuji. This time, it was his turn to chase her.
"Hang on! I wasn't laughing at you at all! My bad, I was just joking! So stop being so stubborn and ask Kawashima nicely, since the show's going to start tomorrow."
Taiga stopped suddenly, and glanced at Ryuuji with her eyes opened wide as she muttered,
"Oh yeah... it's tomorrow..."
"You see? Even I'm feeling very nervous about it. How time flies, it starts tomorrow indeed."
They were about to be late for class, and yet they're still lamenting about how time flies by so quickly. That's right, the school festival will begin tomorrow. As they were busy rehearsing everyday, the festival has come upon them before they even knew it. After all, there's still a lot that needed to be done... from rehearsing, making of props, and selecting costumes. Besides, they still need to set up the all-important stage after classes.
"We don't have much time, so you can't really say 'whatever' to it anymore. If you want your dad to see your crucial appearance tomorrow, you've got to get Kawashima to help."
"I already said it's no big deal..."
Taiga began walking forward again, her voice becoming softer and softer. Ryuuji knew Taiga didn't really think it wasn't a big deal. Taiga's "no big deal" actually meant "really big deal", and was also a "really big deal" for Ryuuji - He had already decided to improve Taiga's relationship with her father, no matter what.
"Your dad's been working hard as well. Since that day, he'd pick you up every night to have dinner in some restaurant, and then bring you home. Now he's even planning on dressing up as a high-school student to attend some useless public school festival."
"I already said I don't care. Do you think I could forget everything that's happened and believe him just because of these minor things? Umm... I only said I'm fine just spending some time with him. Besides, the restaurant last night was quite good..."
Ryuuji didn't say anything else, and simply looked at Taiga. Getting Taiga to agree to "spend time" with her father was a massive improvement from kicking him in the nuts. Seems like the effort Taiga's dad put in didn't go to waste, thank goodness... Ryuuji really wanted to applaud the both of them.
But the amount of effort that geezer was willing make just to win back Taiga's trust was truly amazing. For a man with such an occupation and status to be willing to brave the weather just to have dinner with his daughter, the time spent with her just seemed so much more important.
One night, a section of the road between Taiga's apartment block and Ryuuji's house was under public works and was off limit for cars, Taiga's father sent a phone message to Ryuuji, "Could you please come and pick Taiga up? Since the car couldn't come in. Good thing I asked for your number before!" ... This father was so protective of his daughter that he wasn't willing to let her walk a few metres in a dark alleyway. Wearing an attractive red V-neck vest and a checkered suit, he stood by Taiga's side under the dimly-lit streetlamp and waved his hand while smiling. His overly cheerful smile caused Ryuuji to forget the hassle of having to come out to pick Taiga up, and unknowingly smiled in response. He really is a gentle geezer, though his daughter would quickly yell at him, "You're too slow!"
As he reminisced of that scene, Ryuuji had an urge to smile, but quickly repressed that urge in the nick of time. He took another glance at the curl on Taiga's hair... He wasn't interested in people's hair curls, but it was that from Ryuuji's height, all he could see was Taiga's hair curl and the tip of her nose.
"So your dad's going to come to the festival this Saturday, and then spend the night at your place? This would be the first time he'll be staying the night, right?"
"Yeah, the first and last time. If it wasn't for the fact that we have something to do on Sunday, I wouldn't want him living there, it's too bothersome."
Taiga looked up toward Ryuuji, and flicked her hair with a blank expression.
"Something to do?"
"Yeah, the estate agent's coming to assess the value of the apartment that morning."
"Assess the value."
Like a parrot, Ryuuji repeated what she had said, though not even a parrot would be interested in such a boring conversation. Ryuuji never considered such a possibility, but as he thought about it...
If she's going to live with her dad, Taiga wouldn't need to live in that apartment on her own. Since that hateful stepmother's gone, she finally has a home to return to.
"B, but... do you really need to move? Since your current place's quite close to school... Couldn't your dad just move in with you?"
Ryuuji tried to say what he really felt as nonchalantly as possible, trying to conceal the shock hidden within his heart.
"He said it'll be too crowded for two people to live there."
"Is that so..."
So she's really going to move...?
A breeze tingled Ryuuji's neck. Trying to ignore the chilliness, he attempted to calm his trembling heart and said,
"Hold it. Are you kidding me? Your living room is so much bigger than my place!"
Ryuuji toyed with the curl on Taiga's hair, but quickly went into defensive mode, preparing to parry off the Palmtop Tiger's fierce counter-attack, but...
"There's nothing worth remembering in my old house, so I didn't want to go back. I too felt that we should just live together in that apartment, but Da... that person was already looking for apartments, saying he wanted a penthouse... We even went to have a look on the way back after dinner a few days ago. Though we only saw the outside, I thought it looked rather normal... But I guess it'll do."
Surprisingly, Taiga merely muttered to herself as she walked silently beside Ryuuji. Right now, she was completely ignoring Ryuuji and thinking about other stuff.
Taiga's mind was now occupied with everything concerning her father.
Spending dinner with him every night, not being resistant to the idea of living together, not feeling terrible either... It wasn't just her dad who's putting in the effort, but Taiga too is receiving his efforts with open arms, working hard to once again trust the dad that she used to hate. Yeah, upon hearing her dad say he would come to the school festival, she would even contemplate asking her rival Ami to switch roles with her, and play the 'good guy' for once.
This is good.
Ryuuji repeated those words within his heart, and forcefully squeezed out a smile. This is good.
"What now? So you are laughing at me."
"I already said I'm not."
"Like hell you aren't... You're laughing evilly! Forget it, you stand here for 30 seconds while I go off with Minorin. You can move again once we're out of sight... Eh? Minorin's not here? This is strange, is she late?"
"I think we're the ones that are late..."
"How could it be? I didn't oversleep today... No way!? Oh no..."
Looking at his watch, time did indeed fly faster than one would imagine. Ryuuji was so stunned he nearly jolted. Now was not the time to chat idly, so they both began running under the beechwood path that was dyed by the fallen leaves into hues of red and yellow. On the way, Taiga slid and tripped, but quickly stood up just with her sheer determination. Her dad's protective thoughts are probably watching over his clumsy daughter, no doubt.
In deep thought, Ryuuji looked up at the autumn blue sky.
"Ryuuji! Why are you still dragging your feet!? If you decide to give up and just walk normally to school, then I can stay with you, since I'm out of ideas anyway!"
"Are you an idiot!? ...Just keep on running already!"
"If you like it, I'd like you to have it."
Upon hearing this, Ami looked at the object that was handed to her, and stayed silent for a few seconds,
"Ugh, what's in it? Some sort of an animal carcass?"
Ami gave a genuinely disgusted look as she raised her thin brows. After school had ended, the tiny corner in the chaotic classroom where the two of them stood had turned into an air pocket, instantly creating an icy and hostile atmosphere. Undeterred by this, Taiga continued,
"Don't be silly, Bakachi. No way would I ever give you something like that."
Taiga reluctantly shrugged her shoulders, swallowing everything that she could use to retaliate against Ami as she insisted on giving the object in her hand to Ami. That object was an elegantly wrapped box, or "bait" as Taiga had put it. She was forcefully stuffing the box into Ami's chest, and no matter how much Ami would push it away, she refused to give up.
"This is for you. Just take it already, Bakachi..."
"No, I don't want it. For you to actually give me a gift, you must be plotting something."
As expected from the Queen of Deviousness, Ami was extremely perceptive when it came to sensing anything suspicious. She had guessed correctly, as they were up to something. Even Ryuuji, who was standing beside them, couldn't help but mutter, "What amazing perception."
"No, no, I'm not plotting anything at all."
Taiga waved her arms widely before her, and widening her eyes gently like her father, she smiled and said,
"I just wanted to give this to Bakachi, since I believe you'll like it."
Taiga said so in the voice of a gentle girl, causing Ami to look at her with some disgust, though she was no longer dodging Taiga. She reluctantly turned her frowning face, and decided to hear Taiga out. Okay! Do it! Now's the chance! Ryuuji whispered as he backed Taiga up as well.
"I suggest you not assume everyone is as double-faced as you are. It's better to assume the best of things."
Wha!? Why must you suddenly say such nonsense!? A fit of rage flashed through Ami's face, which became as red as a rose,
"Why you... just when I was about to shut up and hear what you had to say..."
"Just take it already, Kawashima."
Ryuuji decided to intervene, with his back toward Taiga, and gave Ami an unusually gentle smile - This only added to Ami's suspicions that something was up.
"There's some really good stuff inside, so just accept it. I guarantee that you'll be happy once you see what it is."
But not even Ryuuji's kindness could persuade Ami,
"Huh? What's this got to do with you!?"
Now get lost! Ami waved her hand to motion Ryuuji to go away.
"Even though you're right..."
"I'm definitely not taking any gifts from the Tiger."
Ami turned her face to one side and ignored them. Ryuuji and Taiga now found themselves suddenly facing a difficult obstacle as they looked at each other.
Inside the classroom after lessons, though the showdown between two pretty girls plus one ruffian-looking student was getting explosively intense, no one was paying any attention to them. This was because the whole class was busy preparing for the school festival the next day. Laughter and yelling could be heard everywhere as the rehearsal for the pro-wrestling show was entering its final stages. Haruta was completely in director mode as he gathered the classmates from the gymnastics club to perfect the backflipping choreographs, while constantly complaining, "No good! Try again!", only to be ignored by everyone. It felt as though he would soon be finished off by the Shadow Brigade himself.
The sky outside the window was getting darker. It wasn't just Class 2-C that was making all the noise. The classes next door and opposite of them were also the same. Every student was busy building their woodwork, carrying their ladders, or dressing up in all sorts of maid costumes. Kitamura wasn't in the classroom, as he was busy going around the school while doing preparation work for the Student Council. It seemed like Class 2-C weren't the only people that were interested in the prizes offered by the Student Council this time. Besides the third year exam classes, nearly every class was taking part in this competition.
Amongst this busy cyclone in the school...
"I, I think it'll taste great, so try some!"
Ryuuji decided to take a lower profile in an attempt to improve the situation,
Though it was still not enough to attract. The lead actress, who was taking a break, twisted her cute face, and glared at the main villain and her lackey and said,
"This is getting even scarier... Now I'm definitely not taking it."
She flatly refused the gift from her nemesis, not even wanting to receive it. Taiga probably went too far with her everyday antics, but I never thought it would come to this. Looks like I'll have to do this myself... Ryuuji continued to act as mediator,
"Just open it and you'll know what I mean. I assure you that you'll love it. C'mon, take it. Open the wrapping and see what's inside! Okay?"
Hearing Ryuuji persuade passionately, Ami thought, Is this the Takasu Shopping Network? And turned her head while looking suspiciously. She didn't want to let that box which seemed to contain food drop onto the floor, so she finally stretched out her white hand, and reluctantly took the small box. As she looked with a frowning face at the logo on the wrapping, she suddenly widened her eyes,
"Huh? No way!? Is it really that one!?"
Taiga and Ryuuji exchanged glances. Ami ignored them and opened the wrapping, slowly opening the box,
"No shit, what is this!? Holy...!"
Ami exclaimed in a much softer voice than usual. Inside was a box of macarons made by a well-known French restaurant, which was famous for being notoriously difficult to get a reservation. The macarons were lined up as a beautiful rainbow.
"Lately my dad has been taking me out for dinner.The food at this French restaurant I went to last night looked really good, so I decided to buy something for you. I believe you'll like this, won't you?"
"With your dad? Dinner? At that restaurant?"
Ami's gaze, which was fixed on the macarons, was suddenly covered in darkness. Even her beautiful chin now looked a bit awkward,
"No way... What did you say? Not even me and my modeling colleagues have ever been there, so why is it that common folk like you and your dad get to go... You're kidding me, right? I see... no wonder you've been getting acne lately. It's because you've been eating all these nice things, huh?"
Ami's watery eyes pointed toward Taiga's chin, which indeed revealed a few red spots of acne due to eating so much good food. "Hmph!" Ami unreservedly wore her jealousy on her face as she said bitterly,
"Your dad, huh... I heard your parents were divorced? For you to live alone at such an age, you poor thing~ Oh my, I never thought you two get along so well!"
How rude to blatantly point out other people's familial affairs. If this were Taiga back then, she would definitely have hell freeze over, but today was different. No matter what people said, she seemed reserved. The heart of this queen tiger had already been stuffed with all sorts of exquisite French cuisine, wrapping around it like a layer of fat. As a result, any petty attacks made by the chihuahua were merely mosquito bites to her.
"Yeah, we get along well. Sorry to disappoint you."
Heh... Taiga smiled with the acne on her face as she gracefully dodged all attacks. Ryuuji muttered approvingly,
Taiga sure is amazing. She's hid her aggressiveness really well this time.
This is good... He nodded non-stop. Yup. This is good, definitely.
"Bakachi, why don't you try some?"
"Huh? You want me to eat these right here right now? Why? No way! My mouth would be dry. Though I'm still pissed at you, the macarons are innocent, so I'm going to take them home with a gracious heart, and enjoy them nicely with a cup of red tea... But, dammit... I still can't believe a midget commoner like you went there before me... I'm definitely gonna have to go there next weekend..."
"Whatever! Just eat! Hurry up and eat! Eat! Eat!"
"No! You're annoying, you know that? What are you doing!?"
"C'mon! Just eat already~"
Taiga began to pout like a kid, and clung onto Ami, grabbing onto Ami's track suit, while kicking Ami's butt with her indoor shoes.
"Hey, stop it! Stop pulling my PE uniform! It'll stretch out...! And didn't you wear your shoes to the bathroom!? Stop stepping on me already! Ahh~! Enough already! I'll eat them! Okay!?"
Ami finally conceded to the unyielding Taiga, and tossed a piece of macaron into her mouth. Clinging onto Ami like a monkey, Taiga said softly,
"You've eaten it..."
And leapt back onto the floor, keeping her distance from Ami and stared at her until she swallowed the macaron. Dusting off her hands, Ami said,
"Alright, I've eaten, it's tasty, you happy now? Now get lost! Dismissed! You can really be a pain in the ass sometimes, you know?"
"You've eaten it! Now you have to do what I say!"
"Ah! So you are up to something! Damn... cough cough!"
Ami choked and went teary-eyed as she attempted to spit out the remnants of the macaron that she just swallowed, and pointed an accusing finger at Taiga,
"You're the most despicable person! Hey, Takasu-kun! Did you hear what she said? And I was thinking why she would be so kind as to give me a gift, I never thought you would be this kind of person!"
This is awful! Even though Ami said that, Ryuuji could only smile meekly, since he was an accomplice as well. He turned his head away from Ami's beautiful gaze as though it had nothing to do with him. Taiga approached Ami and said,
"Since you've accepted my snack, you will swap roles with me in tomorrow's pro-wrestling show. Just once will do, I don't want to be the villain, I want to be the good guy."
Taiga had finally said it. It was a most shameless, self-degrading request.
"Ugh!" Taiga twitched her lips like a kitten, and probably felt embarrassed by now as she grabbed onto Ami's track suit with her entire weight, as though she was wind-surfing,
"Tomorrow my dad's gonna come to the festival, but I couldn't tell him I was going to play the villain... I only said I had a lot of lines, and he assumed it was going to be a play... He even said since I'm the main character, then he'll definitely come..."
"But this isn't a play, and you aren't the main character."
"Of course I know that. This is just a stupid pro-wrestling show thought up by that long-haired idiot! But I can't change that anymore! No matter what, he'll still be coming! So at least let him see me play the lead character! I couldn't tell him to not come!"
Rather than being moved, Ami's eyes were looking coldly at Taiga. Yanking her track suit back, she moved her lips, seemingly wanting to say something nasty, but she quickly swallowed it. After thinking for a while, Ami placed her finger over her lips and said softly,
"I see~ Is your dad going to watch the Campus Queen competition? Did you tell him you were participating?"
"Umm... yeah... though I didn't want to, but I accidentally spilled..."
Ho~ As though coming up with an interesting joke, Ami squinted her eyes as she smiled,
"That's fine... At least that'll ensure you'll definitely be participating in the Campus Queen competition. If it's only our class that's not cooperating, then it'll look bad on me as the host. Hmm, alright, we'll switch roles when your dad's watching. Sigh, since Ami-chan has to play the main character all the time, it's fun to occasionally play the bad guy once in a while. As for the excuse, I'll think of something to keep everyone in the dark. Besides, it's not like a 'father complex' like you would ever tell anyone why you would switch roles."
"Who you calling a 'father com...'"
This time it was Ami's turn to approach Taiga, bending down to look at her face and said in an unusually sweet voice,
"Speaking of which, what does your dad do anyway? From your description, I smell the scent of an aristocrat~ I can switch roles with you, but you're going to have to tell your dad that the host for the Campus Queen competition is your friend. Not to mention a model, as well as extremely cute, courteous and amazing! Just say a lot of good things for Ami-chan, let me create a good relationship with him. Huh? Why, you ask? Even if we won't meet each other during work, I could still establish good relationships with the people at that restaurant, call it networking if you will~"
"Uwah! How did I end up talking to this disgusting woman..."
"What's that you say!? I've already agreed to your request! How can you still say such things!?"
Deal... I guess?
Ami and Taiga were now yelling and running around the classroom like usual. Ryuuji could only stand by helplessly while watching them.
"Just remember to introduce me to your dad, get it!?"
Just when Ami had raised her voice...
"Taiga's dad...? What's going on?"
In preparation for tomorrow's show, Minori wiped her bald cap as she approached Ryuuji. She's talking to me! Ryuuji nearly leaped for joy like a puppy. Having restrained his own excitement, he managed to nonchalantly explain what just happened, while feeling puzzled at the same time, Does she not know anything at all?
"That girl's dad said he's coming to the festival tomorrow. When Kawashima heard that, she insisted that Taiga introduce her to him, so that's why they're squabbling right now. I really don't know what she's expecting."
Just as he was about to continue his explanation,
Minori suddenly closed her mouth and held her breath. Her shining black eyes widened, merely gazing at Ryuuji who stood before her. The dimples on her seemingly round cheek were full of energy. So cute. Ryuuji was obviously relaxed as he thought that.
"W, what is it?"
After a few seconds, Ryuuji finally sensed something was not right. Minori seemed to have heard something very surprising, and was unable to speak. Her face had become stiff, as though it was petrified. Normally, no matter what happened, Minori would always solve things with her positive thinking, as she was an extremely optimistic and enthusiastic girl with a personality that shined as bright as the sun. Was it because I said something strange?
Minori finally spoke, but her voice sounded anxious and uneasy for some reason.
"You ask me why but..."
Now even Ryuuji was speechless. Just what's going on? Did I say something wrong?
Minori quickly looked around, and then casually turned her back toward Taiga and Ami, who were now wrestling with each other, and cornered Ryuuji between herself and the wall before saying,
"Just why... Come on, tell me."
There was no trace of a smile on her face. Her brows were furrowed tightly, and she bit her lips with a serious look. This was the first time Ryuuji had seen her with such an expression, as he would've never thought she would make a face like this. Smiling cheerfully, making funny faces, and sometimes showing anxiety fitting for a teenage girl... Those were the emotions by Minori that Ryuuji knew of.
"Stop being so quiet. Tell me, what's Taiga's dad planning this time?"
"What's he planning? He's coming to the festival..."
"That's why I'm asking why he's coming!?"
Minori yelled suddenly in a loud voice, startling Ryuuji. Even Minori was startled by it, and quickly shut her mouth, allowing herself to calm down. She then opened her eyes again, and took a deep breath. Ryuuji now understood.
Minori was angry.
But upon understanding that, doubt had entered Ryuuji's mind like a flash of lightning. Why is Minori suddenly getting angry? It just doesn't make sense. For some reason, it's too awkward. He didn't know what this all meant.
Faced with a silent Ryuuji, Minori said in an anxious voice,
"I'm asking you, Takasu-kun, why is he coming? If you know the reason, please tell me. What's happened to Taiga? Why is her dad appearing so suddenly now?"
Minori's voice sounded almost mechanical. Ryuuji could hear her speak in a speed he wouldn't normally hear, and in words that seemed to admonish him. He didn't know the reason behind this at all, but as he couldn't ignore her question, he replied,
"Taiga's going to move in with her dad. I'm sure you know very well about their past, but lately, they seem to be making up as father and daughter again."
Ryuuji tried to remain calm, and said the facts that he knew.
A second later.
Minori couldn't say anything.
He could clearly see her chest puffing from under her uniform as she inhaled. Her face had gone pale as she opened her lips, which could not seem to exhale, but merely tremble helplessly. Her reaction was different from how Yasuko randomly ended the conversation back then. It seemed like she took it really hard.
"Are you okay? Hey, you look terrible, what's going on?"
Although he was a bit hesitant, Ryuuji still gently placed his hand on Minori's shoulder. He wanted to hold onto it in order to cheer her up, however,
"What the hell..."
Minori's eyes could no longer see Ryuuji nor anything else. She trembled while shaking off Ryuuji's hand, tightly gripping her well-manicured fingernails in one hand, and holding onto her bald cap in her other hand, and said,
"What the hell is this!? Stop kidding me!"
Minori said something similar again. Ryuuji didn't know whom she was talking to. The next moment, Minori turned her back toward Ryuuji, and walked forward to look for Taiga.
Ryuuji found himself grabbing Minori's hand and stopping her. There was no romantic warmth as their skin came into contact. Minori turned her head, and shot Ryuuji what seemed to be a hostile glare,
"Takasu-kun, let go."
"Where are you going? What are planning to do? You're getting delirious now, can you please calm down?"
"The one who's delirious is Taiga."
This time it was Ryuuji that was rendered speechless.
"Taiga must have lost her mind, I need to wake her up. I have to tell her that she can't trust such a dad."
Ryuuji was so shocked that he could feel his hair tingling and goosebumps growing all over him. Calm down, calm down... This time he was telling himself instead.
"Why must you say such words? Aren't you Taiga's best friend? Why do you have to say such mean words... Why aren't you feeling happy for her?"
"Happy? Me? What for? Taiga's dad appearing in such a moment, and she's actually believing the words of such a dad. How can I be happy with that? I can't just stand by and smile while my friend gets hurt!"
Are you saying I'm smiling and watching Taiga get hurt? It was a miracle that Ryuuji managed to restrain himself. This is Kushieda Minori, the girl I like... Ryuuji repeated that thought as if it was a mantra. After stopping himself from yelling, he said in a calm voice,
"Isn't that a bit exaggerated? Though he may do things out of the ordinary, Taiga's dad is just a normal geezer that just wants to love his daughter and keep her happy. He may have made mistakes, and he has hurt Taiga before, but right now he's trying his best to make amends for his mistakes, and Taiga's doing her best to reciprocate those feelings. You're just a bystander, what right do you have to say such words? You don't even know anything..."
Ryuuji breathed deeply, attempting to keep himself calm. But Minori didn't even want to hear it, nor did she stretch out her arms, but rather squinted her eyes and continued to berate Ryuuji,
"Have you ever met Taiga's dad? You must have... that's why you're saying that. I get it, you want to throw Taiga into a burning pit... Takasu-kun, when you met Taiga's dad, did you open your eyes and look carefully? Are you even sure your eyes were open at all?"
"What? What's that supposed to mean? Of course I had my eyes open!"
"Forget it. I understand. There's no point talking to you."
"What did you say!?"
Ryuuji's voice was becoming mute due to it being suppressed so hard.
"Stop talking as though you know everything! Why are you saying this!? Why aren't you feeling happy for Taiga!? The one who should have their eyes opened is you!"
Ryuuji had always believed Minori to be as bright as the sunshine, and so she should, more than anyone else, wish for Taiga's happiness. She should be wanting to congratulate Taiga and her father, wanting to be happy for Taiga who finally would have a family once more, wanting to see Taiga be happy with him, and smiling to him as she says "This is the best outcome."
The more he believed, the more he was hurt by the betrayal. That wound was far beyond what Ryuuji could comprehend, and just looking at it was enough to make his blood boil.
"That's because I don't trust her dad."
"Who are you to decide whether he should be trusted!? Shouldn't that be left to Taiga!?"
"That's why I'm going to tell Taiga not to trust him!"
"You stay out of this!"
"Well, it's got nothing to do with you!"
"It's got even less to do with you!"
How can she be so insolent!? How can she say such things!?
Ryuuji glared at Minori with eyes that looked as though they could shoot fire, though Minori was hardly intimidated, and refused to back down. As they glared at each other while catching their breaths, their classmates around them had begun to notice them fighting.
"What's going on with Kushieda? Why does it seem like...?"
"Was that Takasu yelling just now...?"
Amidst the murmuring, a startled Taiga looked at both of them, and it seemed like she only just discovered them bickering. She widened her eyes in surprise and opened her mouth, looking back and forth between Ryuuji and Minori. Then she...
Ran to them.
This was the first time Ryuuji had seen such an expression on Taiga - an anxious expression peeking at their faces, trying her best to reveal a smile, and trying to resolve all that had just happened with it.
"Let's shake hands...!"
Squeezing between them, Taiga grabbed their hands and tried to make them shake hands. But Ryuuji's tightly clenched fist resisted, and when their knuckles came into contact, he reflexively shook off Taiga's hand and glared at Minori. Minori was no longer looking at him, and instead, merely stared at her own shoes.
Ryuuji didn't want to know what would happen afterward. No matter what people said, no matter what face Minori made, he wasn't going to care anymore, and merely said, "It's got nothing to do with me."
With his mind numb and blank, he decided to throw everything away, and bolted out of the classroom.
Those who didn't know Ryuuji saw him as a thug, a hooligan, or a serial offender.
Those who knew him saw him as a kind and gentle, yet serious person, and as a strange high school student that behaved like a housewife.
He was probably born with it, while others said he inherited it from his klutzy mother Yasuko, who had raised him since birth. Ever since he learned to think for himself, Ryuuji had been playing the part of son, professional housewife, and Yasuko's minder all at the same time, which explained why he was more independent than other kids. By suppressing his childish urges to pout, moan and be selfish for all these years, Ryuuji was able to become the man he is today. Like a willow, he had to be flexible enough to take in all that came his way, otherwise, with an unstable mother-son relationship, the Takasu family would have easily fallen into disarray.
On top of that, the hooligan-looking face that he inherited from his father also compelled Ryuuji to be calm and reserved.
Without even doing anything, people would simply assume he was a violent miscreant just by looking at him. They would be intimidated due to fear, and would even say some mean things to him, eventually excluding him from their circles. As he had experienced this often, Ryuuji was fully prepared for it. That was why he demanded himself to be more upright and gentle than anybody, and he would not be angry or get involved in any argument no matter what happened, instead, living his life honestly. He believed that by doing so, there was bound to be someone who would understand him, and would want to befriend him. As long as he had friends who understood him, no matter what happened, they would always be there for him; no matter the situation, they would all know that deep down, he was a good person.
Before today, Ryuuji always understood that by being angry or irritated, the last person to suffer would always be himself, which was why he had never showed such emotions before...
"I feel like dying..."
Is this my punishment?
Between the two vending machines was an empty space about 50cm wide, and right now, Ryuuji had squeezed himself in that space while sulking and holding onto a can of iced coffee. As the temperature was less than 10 degrees right now, Ryuuji's fingers, which were wrapped around the cold can, were close to freezing.
He was angry, and did exactly what he shouldn't have been doing - he let loose his anger. Using all of his strength, he gave the innocent vending machine a hard punch. This ended up creating a dent in the machine, causing it to eject a can of iced coffee, which rolled over to Ryuuji's feet.
He could've put down the can, but his body felt numb, and he was unable to move his fingers. Besides, he more or less felt like punishing himself, so even if his fingers had lost all feeling, he still continued to hold onto the icy can.
It's all Minori's fault.
But, I yelled too.
If I could turn back time, could things be resolved? The problem was time could never go back, and that was why Ryuuji felt like dying.
He didn't know how long he had sat there for. It was quiet around him, and he couldn't feel the flow of time, nor could he think, as he didn't want to recall what had just happened.
If I die here... maybe Minori would cry for me.
"Hello. Mister. Dummy."
He suddenly heard a gentle voice.
"Leave me alone..."
Without even looking, just by smelling the perfume, he could tell who it was that was approaching with elegant footsteps.
"That gap is reserved for Ami-chan."
Ami crossed her arms and lowered her brows, casting a shadow over her starry eyes, while revealing a soft smile. She walked up toward Ryuuji, who was seated on the floor, and looked over his figure.
"Says Ami-chan. Now come on. Get on up, move."
With fingers as slim as bones, she grabbed onto Ryuuji's icy hands. The soft touch did not contain any mischief as Ami pulled Ryuuji up from the gap with all her strength. She then seated herself into the gap.
"See? Ami-chan's body fits just fine in here. This place is indeed reserved for Ami-chan."
"Heh." Ami smiled in satisfaction. Ryuuji had no choice but to sit opposite of her with his legs crossed. This feels incredible. Even when I'm looking at Ami's haughty looking eyes and her mischievous smile, I hardly feel bad at all. No matter how down I look, this girl would never sympathize with me... It was also because he knew that, he was actually able to relax and continue to feel depressed, and not worry about her finding out.
"What's with this can of coffee? I'm not really into canned coffee, you know. Oh, and Minori-chan's gone home already."
"No way! ...Oh man..."
Ryuuji buried his face into his knees. "Ah... I'm so screwed." While moaning, Ryuuji finally understood the true meaning of the word "despair" - no hope, no tomorrow, no future.
"Well, you brought it upon yourself, yelling at the girl that you like."
Ami said while pulling the can open, but little did she expect for Ryuuji to fall for her words so easily.
"That's Kushieda's fault! It's because she said some really mean stuff that things have come to this!"
"Hmm...? Well, I don't know what exactly you were arguing about, but you don't normally get into a fight, do you? Besides, the person you were arguing with is a girl, and to top it off, it's the girl you like."
"Shut up... It doesn't matter anymore. I was really angry, I didn't want to believe that she could... That's just terrible. Only now do I know what kind of person she is, I can't believe she'd say such things..."
Ryuuji realized he was pouting, as well as abandoning all dignity he had as a man, but he had already said what was said, and could not pretend nothing had been uttered.
"Oh dear, you look pathetic. Can you not tell me these things? I'm not interested. Do you seriously think I'm gonna stand by your side and sympathize with you?"
"Yeah, you're right."
Ami toyed with her eyebrows with an indifferent look and drank her canned coffee. Ryuuji said nothing for a while, and just looked at Ami's throat as she sipped down the coffee.
"Care to bring my bag over? I feel like going home right away."
Since he had already let Ami see his pathetic side, he might as well go all the way.
"No way, man~"
It was expected that she would make that mean look and reply with that disdainful attitude.
"I'm just here to take a short break before returning to the classroom. You can come back with me."
"Gimme a break... Everyone's worked so hard to spice up the mood, only to be ruined by me..."
"You may be right, but I've smoothed things out and told everyone to ignore you guys, so I guess it should be okay, as everyone's gone back to their rehearsals."
"Smoothed things out...? You?"
"That was nothing for me. I'm not like that midget Palmtop Tiger, who only knows how to get her fur standing straight up and intimidate the people around her."
"Didn't she go home with Kushieda?"
"She did run after her, but she then tripped and got left behind by Minori-chan. It looked like she had hurt her ankles and was close to tears, so Nanako-chan had to take her to the infirmary. She's probably back in the classroom by now."
Ryuuji felt like he was witnessing the whole scene himself as he gave a sigh. And just whose fault was it that led to this? A stereo-like effect formed in his head as he thought that, as on one side he could hear himself yell, "It's Minori!" while on the other side, he said sheepishly, "It's me?"
But Ryuuji could not find himself to accept what Minori had said because he couldn't understand it at all. Even if he had prayed for time to go backwards, and even if it did, he still couldn't agree with Minori's words. No matter how much he wanted to go back, no matter how much he would regret and hate himself for it, he would still answer back and attempt to convince Minori to turn away from such conceited thinking. This is a good thing, so we must feel happy for Taiga.
"We've rested enough. Let's go back."
Finishing the can of coffee in one gulp, Ami tossed the can into the bin with precision. "Nice! As expected from Ami-chan!", and made a victory pose.
"Alright, let's go. It'll be fine."
Like a boy, Ami grabbed Ryuuji's arm beneath his gakuran jacket, and roughly wrapped her arm around his shoulder. As they were quite similar in height, Ami's beautiful face was extremely close to Ryuuji's. Even during these moments, those two eyelids and gorgeous eyes still looked dazzling.
"You'll be able to enter the classroom if you're with me, right? Just pretend nothing happened."
Just why? Today, her eyes revealed none of the mischief she would normally have, neither did she confuse people with whether she was seducing or toying with him.
She was just genuinely being close today, as a "friend". Maybe it was because Ryuuji was really very depressed right now...
"You've really changed."
...But I'm very grateful.
"You could tell?"
"You're the only one that's grown up."
"Heh..." Ami turned her eyes away from Ryuuji and looked at the space ahead of her.
"I've always been a grownup, but something has changed a bit... I've been thinking. And after that, I wanted to change... I too have been thinking of changing... changing myself..."
A glimmer of hesitation seemed to appear on Ami's face.
"I want to change too. So what should I do? What do you think, Kawashima?"
"Stop pouting and think for yourself."
When Ami turned her face back, she was carrying her usual mischievous smile.
"I'm not the Palmtop Tiger who's always sticking around with you; neither am I Minori-chan, who's your sparkling sun. I, Kawashima Ami, am standing in the same land as you, walking on the same path as you. It's just that I'm a few steps ahead of you... Come on, we need to get back for rehearsals. Tomorrow's the school festival, the real show time."
Ami turned and walked off ahead. Ryuuji looked at his feet for a bit before looking up toward Ami's back.
In the quiet corner where the vending machines stood, there was a 600 yen coin in one of the small change slots, and with it was a note listing the name and class of the culprit, as well as the message - "I broke it. Sorry."
|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|