| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
The continuation of a dream. Knowing that you have to go to primary school for lessons, but no matter how carefully you cycle, you'll always end up on the wrong street, never being able to reach school. Such illusion-like feelings of desperation melted away in the soft sunlight peeking through a gap in the curtains.
Oh right, I'm already in high school, so I don't need to go to primary school anymore.
It was morning.
"Good morning, Takasu."
Ryuuji slowly stretched out his neck to look at the clock beside him, but the familiar clock was not in its usual position. Now I won't be able to know the time...
Ryuuji suddenly jumped up from his bed - he wasn't in his own room, but in the living room that was connected to the kitchen.
"Sorry, I drank all the milk in the refrigerator."
Three whole seconds passed before Ryuuji recognized the blond-haired guy whose breath smelled of milk and wore his long-sleeve t-shirt and track pants in front of him. Oh right... He finally remembered everything while rubbing his eyes sleepily.
"The two of you are too cunning! Looks like you two had fun during the night. Why didn't you call me along? I would have liked to go with the two of you!"
Kitamura pouted unhappily, while Ryuuji unconsciously stared at his face.
"No...nothing. Good morning..."
It's because you were crying! But he couldn't say it. The expression on Kitamura's face that said that nothing was wrong was rather irritating. Since you're acting like this, I'll pretend that I don't know anything as well, for this is what real men do. Ryuuji scratched his head, slowly floating back to reality. As he became more awake and more aware of the situation, the creases on his eyebrows grew deeper.
His last memory of the night was of Taiga separating the cheese cod into three servings, but only eating the cod. Ah, what a strange woman... Ryuuji seemed to have fallen asleep beside the low table while watching her eat.
Ryuuji used the cushion as a pillow, his body extremely sore from the cold. The sorry state of the low table was also extremely embarrassing to Ryuuji. The remains of the cup noodles, cheese puffs, yogurt and other foodstuffs bought from the convenience store last night gave off a bad smell in tandem with the single-use chopsticks. Oh! Single-use chopsticks...! It was too late to be afraid. Yet another patch of rain forest has disappeared...!
"Darn it! You actually saw my room like this...now I'm extremely embarrassed!"
"Cheer up, it's nothing. My room is normally like this too, and my house would be polluted by rubbish from the convenience store when my brother's friends come over to play mahjong."
"AH!!!" Ryuuji screamed while shaking his head vigorously.
"That's not the problem! Even if every home on earth allows such pollution, I'll never allow such a thing in my home! And to tell the truth, I won't allow any home on earth to be so dirty and messy!"
"I-Is that so? I'm sorry!"
"No!!! You don't have to apologize! It's true that my home is dirty and messy right now! Please kill me if I don't clean everything up in thirty seconds! Or I won't be able to face this earth!"
Ryuuji prepared to get up, but found that something heavy was pressing down on his leg. The leg in question was already numb from the cold. The girl who was still asleep, using the environmentalist Ryuuji's leg as a pillow was none other than Taiga. The weight of her head had cut off all blood flow in Ryuuji's leg; it was no longer a problem of numbness. Taiga probably fell asleep at around the same time as Ryuuji did...seeing as she still clutched a piece of cod in her hand.
Wait, the numbness in my leg and why we're asleep in this position isn't important. The important thing is, how could I let an innocent teenage girl's crush see her sleeping on another man's leg!? Now's not the time to discuss whether Taiga's an innocent teenage girl or not! Ryuuji hurriedly shook Taiga's head forcefully,
"Taiga! Wake up! You look extremely bad!"
Ryuuji's angry and edgy look was all for Taiga's own good, but...
"It's alright, it'll be too mean to wake her up when she's sleeping so soundly, right?"
The ignorant Kitamura put on a good guy face and stopped Ryuuji's actions, instead lightly shifting Taiga's head to a cushion. Taiga gave a contented mew, curling her body into a C-shape, once again falling into a deep slumber.
"Look at how contented her sleeping face is...her face is really cute, and her eyelashes are so long."
"Please say that to her after she wakes up..."
"I'd be too embarrassed, and it'll be sexual harassment. But her sleeping figure emits a peaceful aura, almost as if one could be unburdened of all sins just by looking at her..."
Kitamura smiled with a gentle expression on his face, lowering his head to look at Taiga's sleeping face. Ryuuji didn't say anything, but thought, You're actually the same as her!
Taiga and Ryuuji didn't notice Kitamura's sorrows, and similarly, Kitamura also did not know of Taiga's complicated inner feelings and the honest, messy and blundering feelings of love. Everyone is like this, everyone must be the same. Even though comfort could be obtained by saying that everyone was the same, the pain would not be lightened in any way.
Crack! His numb shoulder made a sound.
"What time is it? Ah! It's already past eleven!"
Ryuuji was surprised at the time. He had originally thought that it was nine o'clock at most, not knowing that his precious Saturday morning had already disappeared.
"I just woke up too, it's really too late. Ah, So now... Hell's car!
Kitamura suddenly grabbed hold of Ryuuji with his softball toned arms, tightly locking his limbs in place and threw Ryuuji towards the kitchen violently. Because it happened so suddenly, Ryuuji, who was now lying on the floor, even forgot about the mandatory complaint. What exactly is this? Such violence right after waking up, such actions, more importantly, the emotion... It was impossible to connect these to the guy who had cried alone in the middle of the night. But thanks to Kitamura's random act of violence, Ryuuji's feeling of tiredness was gone in an instant.
"What... What are you trying to do!?"
"Huh? It's been thirty seconds, so I'm giving you your death sentence. Ah, you're still breathing."
"Stop it, you idiot! You don't need a brain to know that I was joking!"
"My death sentence isn't a joke! Giant Swing!"
"It's very dangerous, so remember to protect your head!"
If it's dangerous then don't do it! As Ryuuji's body was still in slumber-mode, his legs were easily grabbed, and he suddenly started spinning. Ryuuji quickly covered his head with his arms. A quick death leads to a quick reincarnation. Ryuuji could only pray for that, giving up on any futile resistance. Why do I have to be involved in something like this... Ah... Is it because I damaged the environment? If that's it, then I'll gladly sacrifice my body for the sins of mankind... Ryuuji closed his eyes, reveling in the feeling of being a martyr, not expecting his body to fly towards an unexpected destination.
He smashed into the door separating Yasuko's room and the living room. Out of the corner of his eyes, Ryuuji saw Kitamura breathe out in surprise before flying backwards towards a 10-point landing on the floor.
The reason being...
The girl who should have been sleeping peacefully had slapped her crush unhesitatingly, giving him the same fate as the criminal who had undergone the "Giant Swing". And she was currently standing up.
Her light-coloured hair rose and fell in perfect sync with her breathing, her eyes puffy and swollen, but whether it was due her crying before sleeping or excess salt, an extremely inauspicious light emanating from beneath her eyelids. Her stumbling form showed that this was a subconscious violent reaction.
The fact that two guys were trembling in fear probably didn't even register in her mind. Still half-asleep, the monster that stood with her legs apart opened her eyes that were naturally devoid of human reason, lifting them to the sky to look at an invisible moon. Bam! The invisible restraints on her lower jaw were broken, and the blood-soaked fangs finally revealed themselves, giving the fingers that still had pieces of cod on them monstrous strength. And then came the primitive roar of a monster,
This was the "humanoid interface fighting machine"... No, it was the Palmtop Tiger.
"Oh... You're finally awake...!"
Kitamura scrunched his eyes, and crouched in front of the violent sleepwalking girl, using his hands to shield his eyes from the brilliant light. But there was no source of light in the apartment, since the sun had been blocked by Taiga's apartment complex, totally depriving Ryuuji's apartment of any sunlight. Ryuuji merely pushed Kitamura, who was having fun by himself, to the side,
"Taiga... Taiga. Come here, come..."
"Look...here's something that you really like. Cold...blueberry flavor..."
"Ugu, Ugu ugu..."
Ryuuji opened the refrigerator to show the half-asleep and dangerous tiger its contents. He took out the BULGARIA yogurt that he bought from the convenience store last night, no, this morning... Taiga stumbled towards Ryuuji slowly, her eyes focusing on the cold drink in Ryuuji's hands.
"Here, drink up. It's yours, so it's alright if you finish the whole thing."
"Ugu... Ugu...? Ugu!"
The delicate hands tightly grasped the yogurt, sticking the straw into the opening. The tiny mouth sucked out the contents of the container forcefully, and her throat made a "Gulp!" sound, bringing back a shred of humanity in Taiga's eyes.
"Ah~! It's good! Give me another bottle!"
She finally started conversing in a human language.
"There isn't any left."
"Huh!? You're so stingy! Then give me milk!"
"Sorry, Aisaka, I finished the milk."
"Huh!? What right do you have to finish my dairy product... Ah!!!"
What are you ah-ing about? In front of the stupefied Ryuuji, Taiga finally woke up and took stock of the situation,
"Ki-Ki-Ki-Ki-Ki-Kitamura-kun!? Ah!!! Gah!!! Argh!!! Did, Did, Did you see my embarrassing sleeping face!?"
She started to wipe her mouth...using the sleeve of Ryuuji's hooded t-shirt.
"Sorry, but I saw it. But that's Aisaka's fault for sleeping there."
"Ah... Ryuuji, what do I do!? I'm going to die from the shame!!! He saw me sleeping!!!"
"Other than seeing you sleep, you sla...never mind, it's nothing..."
Taiga, who had just slapped Kitamura with all her strength a few moments ago, was now extremely embarrassed by having been seen sleeping by her crush, and hid behind Ryuuji, wailing "So embarrassing!" while stamping her feet.
"Ah, this is the worst possible situation!!! My hair's in a mess too!!!"
"Ah!" Taiga ran screaming into Yasuko's room, shutting the door with a loud Bang!, probably to hide in the empty futon beside the sleeping Yasuko. At least now she finally realizes how clumsy she really is.
"What are you so flustered about...idiot!"
"But that slap was just enough to clear my mind."
The two friends folded their arms in front of their chests and nodded in agreement, but the worst was yet to come.
The person who pulled open the door looked like a deliveryman. The deliveryman held the parcel, Taiga, in one hand. Her unfurled curls flowed in all directions, and the area below her eyes appeared to be black by virtue of the combination of sweat and oil. Her face, now devoid of makeup, looked extremely oily and shiny, but the area around her eyes, lips, and nose all had wrinkles due to extremely dry skin. Probably because of the cold, she wore Ryuuji's middle school gym shirt on top of her black lace top, but her bra, which was undone at the back, spilled out of the top. The lower half of her body was still clad in a miniskirt, but the zipper on the front was pulled down halfway, through which her pink underwear cheerily winked at everyone.
The person in question was Ryuuji's mother.
Dong! Yasuko didn't say anything, but placed Taiga on the ground, and grappled for her handbag that laid by her pillow with her eyes half-closed, pulling out her golden-colored wallet.
She took out three one thousand yen notes, and gave one to each of the children present.
She stuck out her thumb and pointed to the doorway.
The drunk breadwinner of the family once again disappeared behind the door. Ryuuji started to clear up the mess in the living room as quietly as a thief so as to avoid disrupting the sleep of the sole breadwinner of the family, while Kitamura showered with a trickle of water, and Taiga stumbled home, trying to make as little noise as possible, to change and shower.
Alright, everyone has a budget of a thousand yen, better stay out for as long as possible.
"I'm very sorry, it's the peak hour for the restaurant, so we're unable to issue separate receipts by person! Italian hamburger and rice, combo meal with soft drink, mushroom-baked rice and soft drink, a salad, a Hawaiian pumpkin cake, and chocolate cake. That will be a total of three thousand three hundred and thirteen yen! Received ten thousand yen! Please confirm! Heh! I'll return you five thousand, six thousand yen in change first, then another six hundred and eighty seven yen! Please check! This is your receipt! Thank you for eating here, please come again! Welcome! The smoking area is full right now, so please allow me to take you to the table by the window in the non-smoking zone! Why are you guys here!?"
"We've already waited for a long time, Minorin..."
"You didn't notice us at all?"
"Anyway, why can't you issue separate receipts? I'm rather bothered by that."
To avoid disrupting Yasuko's beauty sleep, after showering and changing into fresh clothes, the three of them went out to look for a place to eat breakfast - that is, the family restaurant that Minori worked part time at which they were extremely familiar with.
"Ah, I can only flip off the switch that controls my human behavior to go into total mechanical service mode during lunch hour~ Huh? Kitamura-kun!? W-W-Why have you appeared here as if nothing happened!? I've been extremely worried about you!? Hey, what's with that hair!"
"I'm sorry, because of many reasons, I'm currently running away from home and staying in Takasu's home. "
"Of course there would be many reasons! But at least you look okay! I'm relieved!"
"Sorry for making you worry."
The apologetic Kitamura scratched his blond-colored head. He had borrowed Ryuuji's hooded t-shirt and track pants, looking to be more casual than before. Taiga was also rather energetic,
"Minorin, has your shift finished yet? We'll wait for you while eating lunch, so let's find a place to hang out afterward!"
Taiga had put on a snowy white woolen sweater on top of a red one piece lace dress with a lot more lace than usual. Was Taiga trying to cover up her embarrassing misdemeanor not too long ago? She even put on an orange-colored lip balm in a bid to appear cute. It'd be good if that lip balm didn't end up in her nose. Ryuuji was clad in a hooded t-shirt and jeans as per normal and was scrutinizing Minori from head to toe, who had her hair in a ponytail and was in a waitress uniform.
"Ah, I can't as my shift is from 11 am to 8 pm. I'm sorry, so just leave me out for today, please sit here~."
"Huh~! What are you trying to do, that's such a pity..."
I feel that it's such a pity too... Ryuuji looked at the back of Minori's neck and sighed.
"If you don't mind, then just let that woman over there take my place!"
The three people followed Minori's line of sight, and widened their eyes in surprise.
She sat alone at the single seater in the non-smoking zone, shutting herself out from the outside world with a pair of white earphones, with one hand on the wheel of her iPod while the other hand rolled some spaghetti onto her fork. Her beautiful face was expressionless, as if she was extremely bored. She totally ignored the white-hot gazes that she was attracting. She wasn't wearing makeup, and was clothed in a woolen sweater and jeans, wearing a pair of heel-less ballet shoes and a look which when put on someone other than a real beauty would only turn that person into a plain-looking middle-aged woman. It was to the credit of the famous model that she was able to put together such a perfect casual image. Her presence alone turned the family restaurant into a cafe in Paris, and the faces of other customers into simple drawings.
This was the lunch that the beautiful girl, Kawashima Ami ate on Saturday by herself. The corners of Taiga's mouth curled up wickedly at the scene,
"Ahhhhhh, and here I was, thinking who could it be. Isn't this the stupid chihuahua? Why are you so lonely as to be eating spaghetti by yourself on a Saturday?"
Her tone immediately changed to one of provocation. But Ami was listening to her music and didn't hear Taiga. She looked in the other direction while eating her salad, tapping her shoes to the beat of her music.
"Huh? You can't hear me? Hey!!! Stupid chihuahua!!! The lonely stupid chihuahua who doesn't have work on a rest day!!!"
Ami still didn't notice her. Taiga was preparing to raise the volume of her voice to an even greater level when Kitamura finally intervened. The childhood friend who was naive, gentle and always acting as the older brother...
"Hey, slacker! Slac-ker! The slacker who's currently not working!"
"Ki, Kitamura...? What's wrong?"
"Ami is a slacker, an unpopular slacker who has no work to do! The poor model who has no work!"
"That's right, that's right! Stupid chihuahua's a slacker! A model who has nothing to do! Slacker chi..."
Even Taiga started to follow Kitamura's lead happily, starting to chant "slacker, slacker", their combined voices coming together in a jarring melody.
"Kitamura's so good! So clever!"
The blond-haired idiot and the stupid tiger clapped their hands happily, revolving around Ami, who was completely oblivious to the situation, while making noise and jumping around smiling at each other. Even Minori wrinkled her eyebrows and said,
"Wh-What's wrong!? Kitamura-kun, what you just said was not funny at all! Could it be that blond-hair resulted in a loss of your sense of humor...?"
"That can't be it, right? Kitamura was never much of a humourous guy... The important thing is that you're being called by that table over there."
"Ah!" Minori immediately put on her waitress expression, and hurried off to take the order. As he watched her move away, Ryuuji thought that the reason for Kitamura's actions should be because of the anger at Ami's scolding in the lecture room the other day boiling over now, right? Right now, Kitamura was no longer the saint who didn't scold nor argue with people, and he had the backing of Taiga, whom everyone named "The Aristocrat of the Vulgar Realm".
"I don't have a job, so I'm-slack-ing~"
"I love modeling! But I don't have jobs! I'm eating alone by myself! Ahhhhhh... Sobsobsobsob... Ahhhhhh... Sobsobsobsob... I don't have a job, so please open for business~."
"It's not good to be so free! If you don't be a model! You'll be slacking forever! The slacker who eats by herself! So relaxed! So relaxed! So relaxed! Hehe! Alone! Alone! Alone! Sobsobsobsob~"
The two of them even broke new ground, creating a song to mock Ami. With Taiga, who was smiling evilly like a loyal magic familiar as a companion, Kitamura even snatched Ami's handkerchief to use as a microphone, his butt shaking from one side to another, and just as he was preparing for a new wave of irritating laughter...
"You're so irritating that I can't even pretend to not be able to hear you! Idiot!"
Ami splashed the rest of her iced water onto Kitamura's face. Actually, most of the water was gone, with most of the contents of the glass being ice, so only Kitamura's cheeks and chin were wet. But it's still probably cold, right? Kitamura's face was pale, as he frantically attempted to pry out the ice cubes that had gotten into his collar.
Taiga used the empty glass to knock Ami on the head,
"So you were able to hear us from the beginning, then why were you acting like you didn't notice us? Stupid!"
The glass was immediately snatched away.
"Ah, it's already busy enough during lunch hour, and you guys are still adding to my workload! The floor is wet! Darn it!"
"It's all Yuusaku's and the mini tiger's fault~!"
"Alright alright, don't fight, sit down! Ami, you go and sit with them, it's wet here, I have to clean up! Hurry up. Hey, girl, move your butt!"
Minori's hardworking mode was three times as efficient as normal, as she chased away the four people with a mop, ushering them into a table by the window. Minori also moved Ami's unfinished spaghetti and salad over.
"Call me when you've decided on what to order! I'll give you an extra large serving of fries!"
Minori whispered the last part of that sentence while putting three sets of menus onto the table with a swan-like flourish.
"But I don't want to sit with you guys!?"
"Oh~look at this! It says 'big mushroom gathering'... Mushroom-baked rice, mushroom hamburger, and mushroom spaghetti! They all contain very little calories, so maybe I can get dessert..."
"You want to eat dessert here? Didn't you want to go to the coffee shop in front of the train station?"
"I, I want to order something warm... Something that'll warm my body up...! I'm freezing! I'm dying!"
"Would the mushroom-baked rice be good?"
"Don't want the mushroom-baked rice."
"...No one's listening to me! That's why I hate being together with you people!"
"Humph!" Ami rashly finished the rest of her spaghetti, appearing to be in a bad mood. Her beautiful face revealed an extremely unhappy expression as she turned away.
"I'll have the beef okonomiyaki and a drink. Kawashima, why are you alone today? No work?"
Ryuuji, who asked the question seriously, also received a glare from Ami,
"I'm...resting! I'm human too, can't I rest sometimes!?"
"Why are you so emotional...?"
"Yeah, that's so scary. Stupid chihuahua's in a bad mood today?"
"It's more her lousy personality than her emotions."
"Shut up! You guys are very pleased with yourselves, right, especially that blond-haired guy over there! Anyone would be unhappy if they were being repeatedly labeled a slacker! Seriously...what's wrong with eating alone on a Saturday? Is it a crime to do so!?"
No, no, it's not a crime~. The other occupants of the table turned their gazes back to their menus. Ami crossed her legs in annoyance,
"Humph...! I'm still in high school, and how would I be a professional if I don't rest appropriately? I can only study, prepare for exams, and go to the beauty centre or the gym in my free time. In the past, yes, before transferring here, my work wasn't just normal photo-taking, I still had to take photos for magazine covers, it was like 'I'm going on the cover again~?', I had no time to rest... Ah, right! If not for that perverted stalker forcing me to take two whole months of leave from the agency, I would be on the cover this month! In any case, Ami-chan hasn't gone on the cover even once after her leave!? What's going on!? Do you mean that the cover with Ami-chan's face won't sell well!? Damn...those bastards who look down on my abilities!"
The "slacker attack" seemed to have triggered a landmine. Taiga, who had set it off, sat quietly beside Ryuuji, at a loss of what to do, facing the extremely frustrated Ami,
"Stupid chihuahua... Alright, I'll treat you to a drink. Since you're so pitiful that you couldn't even afford a two hundred and eighty yen drink..."
She deliberately made a pained expression, pressing down on her flat chest. Ami screamed shrilly, almost exploding in anger,
"I'm not drinking water because I'm too poor to order anything else! Water is good for removing toxins from your body! I'm drinking water to nourish my body! Stupid little tiger! Ah, you're so annoying! I'll let you treat me! I'll let you treat me!"
Ami stood up angrily and stomped towards the drinks bar. Ryuuji saw it and hurriedly called after her,
"Hey! You have to order first!"
Waving to the working Minori, they ordered "okonomiyaki, creamy mushroom rice in white sauce, Mushroom-baked rice...and four drinks". The ordering was complete.
As they hadn't brought along anything valuable enough to be stolen, the four of them left their seats at the same time to congregate around the drinks bar like sheep alongside a river.
"Where do we go after lunch?"
"Mm... It's embarrassing to say this, but I don't have any money since I ran away from home. The money that Yasuko-san gave me is barely enough for the meal... Ah~ it's freezing! Coffee coffee!"
"Then let's go to someplace warm, we can't keep staring at Minorin here. Where's the thing you use to pick up ice cubes that looks like a clothes hanger?"
"You mean the tongs? It's here, give me your cup, I'll help you get some in a bit... Kawashima? Do you have any place you want to go?"
"Mm... The one with zero calories is...huh!? When did this happen!? Why have I been included!?"
"Aren't you very free today? To tell the truth, Kitamura-kun looks more energetic with you around. Though I don't like you, I'll still allow you to come with us. You can come along to help cheer Kitamura-kun up!"
"Wait a minute, this is too far away from what I thought... Yuusaku's reaction just now was energetic? And the most important thing is, didn't I tell you two not to get involved with him? You guys totally ignored my words!"
"You're already too deeply involved to turn back now. Look at that face, his lips are turning blue because you splashed ice water on him..."
"I don't want to! He asked for it!"
The four people added another level of noise onto the already noisy restaurant during lunch hour.
To cheer Kitamura-kun up is the most important thing right now. She was willing to do anything to achieve that.
Taiga came to this decision while munching on the electric chocolate cheese puff. At four o'clock in the morning, nearing daybreak, Ryuuji had the same line of thought as her. "For Kitamura, we must work hard!" The two people that were gorging themselves with food made the promise.
"How has that promise progressed?"
"He, He looks very energetic...in a way..."
"You should help to do something too..."
"I was about to say the same thing to you..."
In front of the two who were sitting side by side on the cold bench, on the other side of the green protective fence, the two childhood friends were conversing with dark expressions on their faces.
"Why did you miss again! How can you miss a 70 km/h ball? Ami, are you even looking at the ball? Why aren't you more serious about this!? Why are you afraid of giving your all!? When did this kind of thing become popular in Japan!?"
"I'm very serious about it! And this is my first time holding a bat, isn't it normal not to be able to hit anything!? And you're the one who suggested this place, so why am I the one batting!? Can't you bat by yourself!"
"Everyone's equal in the strike zone. This rule will always hold true in the strike zone! It is because of this rule that the batter is able to step into the strike zone! And bat! Everyone in the strike zone is a batter! Hey! Look in front of you! The ball's coming! Look carefully! Focus on it! Heyyyyy! If you don't pay attention, it'll hit you!"
Whoosh! The wild swing of the bat missed for the fifth time in a row. Kitamura, who was acting as the coach, arrogantly crouched down in front of the control panel. "What are you doing!?", he yelled as he ruffled his golden hair and stamped his feet in frustration,
"Didn't I tell you to focus on the ball! Why can't you do such a simple thing!"
"Because you've been distracting me by talking so much!"
"Kushieda's a girl too, and she can easily hit a ball that's going 140 km/h!"
"Minori's always been a baseball girl! Ah! That hurts! Ow ow ow! Did you just hit me with the baseball bat!?"
"You're unable to focus because you keep complaining! Heads up, the ball's coming again! You must concentrate and hit the ball this time!"
"Takasu-kun saw it too, right!? This guy just hit my butt with the baseball bat!"
Yes I saw it, and I can't believe that there are still people who hit other people's butts with baseball bats in this day and age. Ryuuji nodded in affirmation, hugging his knees and curling up on the bench. The dilapidated softball practice centre was situated on the edge of a golf course, and only had one strike zone. Whether it was the result of the lack of sunlight, or the natural production of cold air by concrete structures, or the polluted air surrounding the place, it felt as though the practice centre was even colder than the streets. The bored Taiga also hugged her legs in the same position, sniffing loudly.
When Kitamura suggested going to the soft/baseball practice centre, we thought that he wanted to have a change of emotions by exercising, and felt that it was very healthy and wholesome. Everything was fine when everyone was walking to the centre, but once we reached the centre, Kitamura immediately called Ami up to the strike zone and started to roleplay the part of the coach from hell. Although Kitamura's spirited display was reassuring, Ryuuji felt that it was going in the opposite direction from healthy and wholesome.
"Don't you think that Kitamura seems to have changed into another person?"
"I felt that way too when you were teaching me how to fry eggs."
"Anyone would be distressed if the house was going to be burned down, right..."
"Ah, the stupid chihuahua got a hit."
Pong! The sound of contact between ball and bat rang out; Ami had wielded the bat correctly for the first time in her life. But the path of the ball and the sound it made were both extremely amateurish, flying straight up into the sky and landing a few centimeters in front of the batter.
"Mm...a soft catcher's hit. Alright, I'll let you pass! You can rest now!"
"What is he so arrogant about...?"
The finally liberated Ami crawled through the protective fencing and returned to the outside world, passing the bat to Taiga,
"Alright, you're the next sacrifice. Be careful, that guy's a real loudmouth and pervert. Ah... I never want to be associated with him in any way ever again..."
"Who's next!? I'll coach you myself, come!" Hearing the voice of the coach from hell, Taiga looked at Ryuuji hesitantly.
"Go on, make him a happy coach."
"Mm... You're right. Alright! Kitamura-kun! I'm next!"
Taiga took off her woolen sweater, tied up her hair, and went through the protective fence, stepping into the strike zone with gusto. It was probably Taiga's first time playing baseball too, but the impression she gave as she did a practice swing, pointing towards the pitching machine, her left hand rolled up the sleeve of her one piece dress was like that of Suzuki Ichiro himself. Just like this, Suzuki Taiga was born into the world.
"Alright! We'll start from 70 km/h! We're starting, Aisaka!"
Ami sat down beside Ryuuji while sorting out her slightly-messy hair. At the same time, a crisp sound was heard, as Taiga's bat came into direct contact with the ball. The ball flew straight at the circular target, hitting the target near its centre. "Oh!" Ryuuji started clapping in spite of himself. "That's really good..." Ami was even more bored.
"I hit it? That's it? Isn't it a bit too easy? Kitamura-kun, it should be fine for you to increase the speed."
Taiga swayed from side to side in her billowing one piece western dress while shouting for a bigger challenge. Kitamura looked at her with shining eyes,
"Have I found an uncut diamond? Ah! Aisaka! Why didn't a genius like you join the softball club!?"
"Because I've already had enough of sports clubs in middle school. Is it alright to hold it like this?"
"Let me see... Yes, just like that! You actually held the bat so perfectly without any prior experience! I'm in awe of your amazing physical talent!"
"I'm not that great~ Minorin's much better than me~."
"Ehehehe." Taiga smiled shyly, her face turning a shade of deep red. Just like this, it feels good! Kitamura looks happy too. He's happy, right? Ryuuji observed him quietly so as to avoid misinterpreting his facial expression. But suddenly, on the back of his hand...
"Hey, Takasu-kun, I'm very bored. It's so cold here... What do you say to the two of us going somewhere else to get something warm to drink?"
Ami's pearly fingers traced the back of Ryuuji's hand, while her watery eyes looked up at his face, as she swiftly moved her body in close, attaching herself onto Ryuuji by hugging his arm tightly,
"What do you think...?"
Ami cocked her head to the side, her sakura-colored lips slightly pouting, her brown eyes staring straight at Ryuuji's face, almost pulling him into another world. Ryuuji's sense of reason disappeared in an instant.
"Alright, let's go."
Ryuuji didn't push Ami away, nor did make any reaction that conveyed a feeling of dislike, but just stood up abruptly. Surprisingly, Ami was the one who made a surprised sound, who lifted her head to look at Ryuuji with a suspicious look in her eyes. Ryuuji signaled for her to stand up with him.
"What, aren't you the one who asked me to go with you? There's a juice vending machine at the counter, let's go."
"Why does this feel so different from the usual...? Just what are you scheming?"
"How rude, I'm not you, so obviously I'm not scheming to do anything."
"I'm never scheming...never mind."
Ami looked at Ryuuji, and stood up while saying,
"Since it's like this, then I have something I want to do too."
Ami hugged Ryuuji's arm tightly, as if she was hanging on him.
"Hey... Be careful of what you're doing!"
The light smell of flowery perfume floated into his nose.
"What's wrong? You're losing control already? Aren't you a bit too weak-minded?"
Due to their similar heights, Ami's face was almost pressing into Ryuuji's neck. Ryuuji was unable to escape Ami's joint-locking of his elbow and wrist, as the two of them leaned into each other like lovers.
"We're going for a break~!"
"Alright! Hey, Aisaka, the ball's coming at 100 km/h!"
The dedicated Kitamura didn't notice, but Taiga widened her eyes in shock at the two people who were intimately connected together. The end result was that Taiga swung her bat too late, missing the simple straight pitch.
"No, it's not what you think it is!" Ryuuji shook his head furiously, trying to convey his message to Taiga with his eyes. "I'm disappearing so that you can be alone together with Kitamura. Though Kitamura's more energetic when Ami's around, it seems as though he's falling to the dark side. So I'm going along with Ami's rashness as usual to give you this chance." But Ami, who was still attached to Ryuuji's arm, happily turned around and stuck her tongue out at Taiga.
She didn't move at all! Taiga had two strikes, and was in a dangerous situation. The fire in Coach Kitamura's eyes flared even brighter.
"Hehehe, finally it's just-the-two-of-us... Just joking."
After walking into the office of both the golf course and the baseball practice centre, Ami immediately let go of Ryuuji's arm and pushed him away. Ryuuji wasn't particularly surprised, as it was Ami's normal reaction.
"I've already gotten an inkling of how you work. As long as Taiga's not around, there would be no fun in sticking to me, right? Alright, go and sit there, I'll buy a drink for you."
"I'll buy it myself... Ah, it's so~ boring."
Ami put on a bored expression on her beautiful face and cut in front of Ryuuji. Looking at Ami's dainty back, Ryuuji suddenly wanted to take revenge for always being tricked by her.
"What are you talking about? Be more honest if you can't bear to be separated from me."
Ryuuji acted as if he was going to hug her from behind. He was only acting, but Ami immediately ran away and turned around.
"You screamed! You screamed!"
Ryuuji pointed at the surprised Ami, who had jumped away, and laughed. It felt quite good to take revenge for always being tricked and laughed at! Ami's mouth was open, her face red with anger, probably because she had been pranked by someone like Ryuuji,
"I'm so...angry! Juice! You said that you'd buy me a drink!"
Ami stood with her legs apart and pointed to the old-fashioned paper cup vending machine. The price of 70 yen and its old-fashioned design was vintage to the extent of being humorous.
"Yes yes, what do you want?"
"...Would that be alright? Are models allowed to drink such sugary drinks?"
"Yes we can! Stop poking your nose into things that don't concern you! Seriously, you're always thinking of such unnecessary things...!"
After buying coffee for himself and the honeydew drink for Ami, the two of them sat on the bartop counter in the sparsely decorated eating section.
"Don't be so irritated."
"Didn't I tell you not to stick your nose into other people's business!? Don't talk to me! And don't look at me!"
Looks like Ami's really angry. Supporting her head with an arm on the counter, she turned her body away from Ryuuji. Ami drank her drink that was full of artificial components. Her back and shoulders gave off the light smell of perfume and an evil aura. Ryuuji's mood also became bad accordingly,
"Would it be okay if I apologize? I was only joking, just like how you always jokingly stick to me?"
"I'm not angry at that... Never mind."
"Then what are you angry about?"
"Never mind never mind... There are a lot of reasons which Takasu-kun wouldn't understand."
Ami, who was facing the wall, forcibly ended the short conversation. But...
"Many reasons... So you're frustrated by a combination of work-related problems, Kitamura's rashness, anger at my actions... Something like that?"
Ryuuji mentally prepared himself to be ignored, attempting to continue the conversation. But surprisingly, Ami answered softly while still staring at the wall,
"...No, not like that. It's not that simple."
Ryuuji seemed to have picked up on something. He felt that Ami's words had a deeper meaning, but was unable to find a way to get her to reveal the deeper meaning of her words. It seemed to be just as Ami had said, it wasn't that simple.
"Kawashima, you're such a complicated woman. It'll certainly take a lot of effort to truly understand everything about you."
"If a person isn't willing to make that kind of effort to understand me, then he has no right to become my other half. And...I'm worth the effort, right?"
Speaking with an arrogant attitude, Ami flicked her hair rather violently, finally turning to look at Ryuuji with her usual ice-cold look. At least it's better than staring at the wall. Ryuuji was slightly relieved,
"Ah, you're not the only one who's hard to understand. Kitamura said that he dyed his hair because he didn't want to be the student council president. That no one would expect anything of him if he became a delinquent... What do you think? Is he speaking the truth?"
"Huh~?" Ami's pearly-white features finally turned to face Ryuuji,
"That's-why-I-said, regardless of whether it's true or not, Yuusaku is hoping that 'someone' would... Never mind, I said that I wouldn't get involved in this, so you don't have to report such things to me. I feel stupid just being together with Yuusaku."
At this time, an alarm suddenly sounded in the practice centre on the other side.
"Wha, What's going on!?"
Is it a disaster simulation? Or could it be a real fire? Ryuuji and Ami stood up together, but the workers at the counter looked to be relaxed, as if nothing was wrong. A middle-aged woman wearing thick makeup was dragging something enormous behind her.
"Congratulations for hitting it!!!"
"Who's the one who hit it?"
In the midst of the applause of the workers...
"She's the one! She good isn't she!? And she's only a beginner!"
The extremely happy coach grinned widely, pointing at the uncut diamond, Taiga. She wore a confused look on her face, but laughed along with him, standing among the applause of everyone present while hugging the gigantic stuffed animal which the middle-aged woman had forced into her arms. The stuffed animal wore a sash around its neck which said "Congratulations for hitting a home run!" Ryuuji walked to Taiga, trying to find out what had happened,
"What have you done again!?"
"Nothing... It seems like I hit something. I swung my bat and the ball flew to the centre of the target, then the alarm sounded, and it's become like this..."
"What do you mean by become like this? Isn't this great!? Aisaka's really talented! You're the exact opposite of Ami! A home run, that's great!"
"To be honest, I don't really need that kind of talent."
Ami glared at the excited Kitamura, finishing the rest of her drink. Taiga passed the stuffed animal to Kitamura, "...Do you want it?" Kitamura happily accepted.
Ryuuji asked the middle-aged woman with thick make-up,
"Is a home run a rare occurance?"
"Not really. It happens once or twice in a month."
"Your eyes look like an animal's. Hey, everyone, look, this boy's eyes look like an animal's!"
"Ah, it's true."
"Let me see, who?"
"Animal? Snake! It's like a snake's eyes!" It'll be worth it as long as Kitamura's happy. Ryuuji endured the mass of middle-aged women surrounding him.
The sun finally set in the east, and the wind became colder accordingly.
It was about time to go home. Just as the three people who were going back to the Takasu residence were waving goodbye to Ami---
"Ah~ What a coincidence~!"
"Yes, what a coincidence."
A makeup-less Yasuko walked up to them. After a refreshing sleep, her skin cells were restored to their youthful beauty. Yasuko, who had gone shopping, was carrying a bag from the makeup shop in each hand, wearing clothes that were slightly better than Ryuuji's gym clothes. After seeing Ami, Yasuko said,
"Ah, Ryu-chan's friends have increased by one person~! I remember seeing you before~? It's been a long time~! Ah~ luckily I bought four puddings! Come and eat with everyone~. Ya-chan's an adult now, so she can go without eating the pudding~!"
"Ah, it's been a long time! But I'm about to go home now, goodbye everyone~"
Ami put on her nice demeanor, attempting to avoid the invitation and go home. But...
"Ryu-chan! Stop her! Ya-chan needs helpers!"
"Huh? For what?"
"Just stop her right now~!"
The rarely-excited Yasuko whispered her instructions to Ryuuji, so how could the son with a mother-complex not obey? He quickly caught up with Ami. "Huh? Why do I have to go to your house?" Ryuuji glossed over her question with an "Alright, alright, just come and have some pudding", succeeding in bringing Ami back home with the others. But even Ryuuji didn't know the real reason for bringing Ami back with them.
"Huff huff huff huff..."
After finishing the pudding that Yasuko bought, everyone finally understood the meaning behind Yasuko's actions. Ryuuji, Taiga, Ami and Kitamura all widened their eyes in surprise, looking up at Yasuko.
Her track pants were rolled all the way up to her knees, an old apron draped over her T-shirt, both hands wearing rubber gloves for some unknown reason. In her hands was...
"Ryu-chan! Now! Keep Kitamura on the floor~!"
...a black package that read "Takes care of any color! Will transform your hair into the darkest shade of black! The strongest black hair reverser FOR MEN!". At the same time that Ryuuji came to fully comprehend the situation, Kitamura had also become aware of the danger, jumping up like a stallion.
"Taiga! Subdue him!"
"Huh!? Oh, Oh!"
"Kawashima! Flank him to block his path to the doorway!"
"Ah~ so that's what it's all about~? Alright, alright..."
Ryuuji grabbed both of Kitamura's arms from behind, while Taiga held on to his legs from the front, restricting his movement, almost lifting him off the ground.
"Wait, this kind of position, wait, wait, wait, wait... Ahhhhhhhh...!"
"What are you so excited about, you idiot!? Keep him in place!"
Of course, Kitamura was also shouting at the same time,
"You trai~tor~! Takasu, you lied to me! Yasuko-san, weren't you on my side!?"
"Yes~ I'm sorry~. Of course, Ya-chan wishes for Kitamura to be Ryu-chan's friend forever~ but I just got off the phone with your father and he's very angry, so Ya-chan hopes that you'll be back to normal before going back home~."
"Damn, you even kept in contact with my parents... No matter how young you look, you're still a parent!"
"Ryu-chan, hold him down properly~. Ami-chan, come and help me~."
Yasuko passed the box to Ami, squeezing the dye onto a brush, then holding Kitamura's face tightly in place. Ami also pulled on Kitamura's ears, helping to hold his head in place,
"Ah... Such a short-lived blond-hair era. Yuusaku, just give in to your fate."
"I don't want ittttttttttttttttttttttttttt~~!"
The stubborn Kitamura shook his head vigorously, causing Yasuko and Ami to let go of his head, screaming in agony,
Kitamura knocked the tools for dyeing out of their hands, and the dye landed on Yasuko and Ami.
"Ahhhhh! This is bad! Quick, go shower! Wash it off! If you don't wash it off, your body will be dyed black~!"
"Ahhh~ It's gone in~! My eyes hurt~!"
"It hurts! It's gone into my eyes! It smells! It'll be bad if we don't wash it off quickly!"
The scene at hand was hell, but Ryuuji was also wailing in sorrow. The tatami, the floor, the ceiling, the walls... More importantly, on the body! He let go of Kitamura, using his fingers to wipe away the dye that been sprayed onto the faces of the two wailing ladies, sending them to the bathroom after they were able to open their eyes. Sounds of the two of them taking off their clothes were heard, followed by the sound of rushing water.
"That's why I said to just let me be...!"
Ryuuji was extremely angry at that.
"What did you say!?"
Hearing Kitamura's words, Ryuuji had already forgotten about washing his hands, turning around with an extremely scary expression, looking as though he was about to say "What did you just say? You arrogant blond-haired delinquent!", and he did want to say that.
My tatami mat... No, what kind of attitude is that? Yasuko did that because Kitamura came to my house. This bastard, he actually dares to say something like that after causing so much trouble for everyone?
"You bastard, what are you trying to do? You ran away from home to my home and still want us to leave you alone!? What kind of attitude is that when it's so obvious that everyone's so worried about you!? Go back to where you belong so that your angry father can whip some sense into you!"
"I-I'll go home even without you saying it! Takasu is a traitor! And to think I trusted you!"
"That's none of my business! A bastard like you who doesn't even know how much everyone is worrying about you has no association with me whatsoever!"
"Oh, so it's like this!"
"Yes, that's right!"
Kitamura stumbled into the doorway, and came back to take the momentarily forgotten "home run souvenir" stuffed animal, violently slamming the door as he went out of the apartment.
"Idiot idiot idiot!!! I don't care about that guy anymore!"
Ryuuji screamed at the closed door.
Taiga fell at Ryuuji's feet, one hand stretched out to the retreating figure, looking for the disappearing illusion, but only able to shake her finger in an extremely pitiful manner.
"That's what I've been saying since the beginning, right? You'd be stupid to treat that guy seriously. Ah, it's delicious~. It was the right choice to order this after all!"
"You can order dessert too~. I'm really sorry, Ami-chan... It's all Ya-chan's fault for dragging you into this... Do your eyes still hurt? I'm really sorry for dirtying your clothes..."
"It's alright~! It was good that I showered immediately, so my face, body and hair weren't affected. My clothes were black in the first place, so it'll be alright once I get rid of the smell."
"Remember to ask for the cleaning expenses from Ya-chan~."
"It's alright~. It's enough to treat me to this meal! I'm really lucky today to have people treating me to various things!"
Ami smiled while in her nice-girl mode. Her hair had already been blown dry, and she was wearing what Taiga was wearing as pajamas last night - a hooded T-shirt and track pants. Her original clothes were now in a wash bag. Taiga, who was sitting beside her, was also eating spaghetti with her fork.
After Ami and Yasuko's hair was dry, the four of them went to the Italian restaurant in front of the train station to eat dinner. Yasuko insisted on paying for the meal to make up for bothering Ami.
"Kawashima, is it really alright to eat here?"
"Yes, why do you ask? The food is very nice here, I like it."
"I don't mean it in that way... Didn't you eat spaghetti for lunch too...?" "Yes~. Don't the Italians eat spaghetti for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Ah, Takasu-kun, did you just think that I'm a 'natural airhead'~? That's mean, don't misunderstand me! People always say that about me! Aisaka-san, don't misunderstand me too!"
"Hehe..." The long-awaited nice demeanor of Ami-chan finally appeared while looking at Taiga, who was beside her, beaming a smile. Taiga didn't say anything, totally ignoring the fronting Ami, and continuing to toy with her spaghetti. Yasuko said to Taiga,
"Taiga-chan... It's all Ya-chan's fault for making Kitamura angry... I'm sorry..."
Taiga immediately raised her head,
"Ugu...no, I'm not angry at Ya-chan! I helped to hold Kitamura-kun down too. He must be angry at me..."
Taiga shook her head, but her voice lacked its characteristic force of will. Perhaps she was sad at the thought of Kitamura being angry at her? She sat quietly beside Ami, seemingly lacking the strength to even bring the spaghetti up to her mouth. But if it was up to Ryuuji, he would say that Taiga had no reason to be down over Kitamura, and that they should just leave him be. That was the only thing they could do at this time. Just how normal can the guy who appeared so pitifully and in need of sympathy and still shout "leave me alone!" be?
"What's so bad about that? We've already proven that Kitamura is just like what Kawashima said he was."
"Ahh..." Yasuko peeked at her son, who was shoveling large amounts of spaghetti into his mouth,
"Ryu-chan, you shouldn't be angry at Kitamura~. You shouldn't be saying things like that when you're obviously so worried about him~. Do you hear me? We should also be happy that a cute guest like Ami is eating with us tonight~! Alright alright, smile~?"
"Yasuko-san! Takasu-kun won't be happy just because I'm here!"
"Huh~? Is that so? That's strange, but Ami-chan's so cute~."
"Because Takasu-kun already has 'that'!"
Cough! The timing for the chili to stick onto Ryuuji's throat was just right. What is she talking about!? He really wanted to make sure, but he was coughing nonstop. Yasuko cocked her head to the side in confusion,
Cough cough! Taiga was the next one to choke. She was shocked because Yasuko's hand suddenly pointed towards her, and conveyed an expression of extreme distaste, their actions perfect mirror images of each other. What exactly is Ami thinking about? She continued to speak with an angelic smile on her face,
"Wrong, not that, someone else~!"
"Huh~! It's not Taiga-chan!? Sob~! Ya-chan has been constantly hoping that Taiga-chan will become Ryu-chan's bride and become a part of our family~!"
"Wh-What are you talking about... Cough cough! Kawashima! What kind of nonsense are you spouting!?"
"Ah~ Takasu-kun doesn't want his parent to know about something like this? No matter how you hide it, your family members will still know that the other person isn't Aisaka-san when you get to the next level with her. But it's alright, Yasuko-san! If you want Taiga to be part of your family, you could just adopt her, since the concept of kinship doesn't exist in the Aisaka family."
"Ah, so there's that way too~! But Ya-chan doesn't know what kind of person Taiga-chan's mother is..."
"The two of you are too noisy! Control yourself! You've been talking nonsense since just now!"
Ryuuji couldn't take it anymore and cut short their conversation. The conversation of the two people who had no idea of Taiga's situation was getting closer to the hole in Taiga's heart.
"Ryuuji, you're the noisiest person here."
But Taiga's expression didn't change at all, as she merely flicked her hair,
"I don't wish for Ryuuji or anyone to intervene in my life. I don't mind continuing like this since I can live by myself. I can get money when I need it, I know how to wash dishes, and I even know how to fry eggs, I don't have any problems living by myself, and I'm not afraid of the future at all!"
Know how to fry...eggs...? Ryuuji suddenly had the impulse to rebut her proclamation, but...
"Ah! Lonely woman! That's so sad!"
"Whatever makes you happy, since I don't really care about what the stupid chihuahua thinks."
Taiga showed no response to Ami's provocation, as she continued to eat her spaghetti. Ryuuji suddenly thought of a question. She's only saying that about living alone in response to Ami's provocation right? What you really want is to be together with Kitamura right? But Taiga's face showed no signs of hesitation after saying "living by myself", as though she really felt that way. For the very first time, Ryuuji felt a fleeting suspicion.
The Taiga that his eyes saw and the real Taiga - were they completely different? On the topic of "unable to understand each other", Ryuuji and Taiga were the same. Maybe the distance between the two of them wasn't as close as they had thought? That what they saw was merely an imperfect reflection of the truth?
Ryuuji heard Ami mutter in an irritating voice,
"Humph~. Do you seriously think that you'd be alright living by yourself? I had originally thought that you would be the one who'd be most unable to forgive Yuusaku's actions, the one who'd be the angriest at his actions..."
In the end, Ami stayed with the group for almost the entire day. After sending her back home, the Takasu family and Taiga went home together, with Yasuko leading the line that the three of them had formed.
Taiga spoke while pacing with Ryuuji's footsteps,
"Stupid chihuahua was hinting about Minorin, right? That got me thinking... Minorin loves frightening things, and once announced that she 'hated frightening things'?"
"Yeah, I remember that."
"Didn't Kitamura also say that he didn't want to be student council president? Might that be hinting that he 'really wants to be student council president'?"
Ryuuji wanted to say that "I don't want to be involved with Kitamura anymore", but kept quiet.
Kitamura did mention that. And before saying that, something seemed to have happened between him and the student council president... and he won't tell me the truth no matter how much I ask him. Although Ryuuji was tired of caring about that guy, he was also worried about what had happened to him.
"Maybe there's a chance..."
"Since it has come to this, there are no other possibilities, so now..."
"We must make him the student council president."
Ryuuji had suddenly thought of a scary idea.
It was Sunday tomorrow, so there should be enough preparation time.
|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|