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E6 - 6 This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.

This is Chapter 3 from Volume 7 of the Toradora! Light Novel series. The text is from Baka-tsuki.

Transcript

However, the time that flew like an arrow and marched forward with each day, wouldn't grant Ryuuji the reprieve to be able to stay in merry disarray.


"Habu!"

"Kyaa!"

Glittering shreds of paper fluttered and scattered about, surrounded by two-person's worth of muffled screaming. The screaming of others was then added on top as an empty cardboard box tumbled to the corner of the hall.

"Oh no! What should we do, oh this is bad! It all came out!"

"Dammit, you klutz! If you're going to be screaming, pick the pieces up, pick them up! Let me see that, is your knee okay? Aaaah, you scraped it didn't you! Damn, you really are a klutz!"

"I don't need you to tell me that! Ow.....I messed up again didn't I......"

What Taiga scattered throughout the hallway after school was gold and silver confetti, which had taken the efforts of five people to make by shredding streamers. This could have been bought, but since it was surprisingly expensive, the Preparatory Committee, wanting to curtail costs, decided to make it themselves. Several hours of silent and plain labor were spent before homeroom, at lunch, and then after school. Once a large enough amount for several boxes was completed, a klutz emptied all the contents of one box while falling forward and rolling about two times.

The klutzy culprit got up, scowled with irritation, and looked at her hurting red knee.

"Excuse me! Could someone please help pick my stuff up over here too!"

"Ah, I'm sorry......."

Ryuuji turned his head toward the voice of the bachelorette homeroom teacher (30) that had been rear-ended by Taiga. From what he could see, the large amounts of handouts that the bachelorette (in good health) had been carrying were also scattered in the hallway. He was glad that she wasn't fall over, but......if he said......my, what an impressive 30-year old lower body, .....a bachelorette door that shouldn't be opened will open into a bachelorette dimension. So, without saying anything unnecessary, he quickly got down to his knees, leaving the confetti to the other guys, and began picking up the handouts.

"Why me~! I had these handouts arranged in order but now they're a mess~!"

"I'm really sorry. She's the culprit. That little idiot over there!"

Introduced by Ryuuji, Taiga lightly picked up the edges of her skirt, bent her knees, and saying, "Sorry," bowing with surprising docility. This too was probably a part of the good girl Taiga policy. Had this been the normal version, the bachelorette (both parents in good health) would have been subjected to stepping solo steps for all of a bachelorette eternity in a hell of 64 beat tsks. The bachelorette (no siblings), not knowing how fortunate she was, muttered "Good grief, you kids are so restless....." while furrowing her brows.

"You two sure have been working for the Preparatory Committee an awful lot for the past few days, but is everything fine? I don't mind that you're excited about the Christmas party, but don't forget about your tests. And Aisaka-san, have you caught up with the classes you missed during your suspension?"

Aaaah, ugh, half-heartedly replied Taiga while she focused on picking up the confetti, so Ryuuji answered in her place.

"We've been having study sessions with our group. If there's anything we're stumped on, we ask questions to each other, move on, and teach and learn from each other, that kind of thing. But it doesn't look like there's much stuff that Taiga doesn't know already, and, we do have Kanou-senpai's killer notes in the end, so we're kind of able to manage."

"Is that so?.......Well, Aisaka-san's grades, at least, are good. You also have extremely good grades, but Haruta-kun, and Haruta-kun, and Haruta-kun, you see...."

".....Haruta you say."

"And Haruta-kun. .....Sigh. Haruta-kun isn't in the Preparatory Committee, is he?"

"Don't worry. By order of Kitamura, we've kept the party off-limits to him, and we're forcing him to concentrate on studying."

Clad in a grey knit top and a white tight skirt, the small diamond pendant on her chest shaking, and making an iron wall crouch (The ultimate anti-panty shot technique, in which her knees are on the floor, her thigh is tilted diagonally, leaving no opportunity to see her underwear. While a refined technique, when learned, your untouchable, unpopular-with-the-opposite-sex aura rises!), the bachelorette (civil servant) picked up her handouts, but still looked at Ryuuji's face with worry.

"Please, be sure, be sure, be very sure, to not neglect your studies and drop your grades like him. ......You and Aisaka-san have been busy with the Preparatory Committee recently and I've been a little worried."

"I'm sorry......"

Apologizing lightly, Ryuuji scratched his head.

Yes, what the bachelorette (college graduate) said wasn't completely off the mark. Lately, Ryuuji and Taiga's days have been consumed by work from the Committee and have been tempestuously busy.

They met early in the morning with the Student Council and had done this and that for the party preparations. There was plenty that had to be done. The Committee had to assign personnel, draft plans for obtaining the necessary materials, work out the budget, pester teachers about receiving expenditures from the Student Council budget, meet during lunch, finalize the daily schedule and work, determine if they were going to split up into groups, check their progress, and after school, decorate the place with confetti and what not, but mainly, they all performed manual labor.

Concurrent to that, classes were still going on as usual and the term finals were getting closer. At night, they'd have study sessions at the family restaurant or someone's house, and after they split up, each would study separately at their own house. The teachers, however, had been saying it again and again, that they only reluctantly allowed the party on Christmas Eve, and if anyone neglected their classes and as a result received bad test results because of the party preparations, the party will be immediately canceled.

Taiga's joining of the Preparatory Committee, especially, hadn't been looked on well by the adults. Of course, they wouldn't welcome the involvement of Taiga in the non-officially sanctioned so-called "fun club" of the students, seeing as she was the biggest problem child in school, the troublemaker everyone knew, and, who on top of that, finally obtained a record the other day. Harsh comments like, she hasn't learned her lesson, or her punishment was too light, were not few in number.

However, among them, there was only one person, the bachelorette, no, their homeroom teacher, Koigakubo Yuri, that had been in favor of Taiga's participation in the Committee, on the grounds that Taiga's grades were far from bad, that this will be the necessary stress relief for emotionally stabilizing Taiga, that her involvement in an event in a position of responsibility will deepen her own sense of being a student of this school

The so-called bachelorette (she's a single child, but she doesn't care about keeping her family name) was holding up Taiga's back, and if Taiga fell down, the bachelorette's (in other words, she doesn't want someone to marry into her family!) position will also become shaky. And at this moment, an event that embodied that very statement itself occurred.

".....But, anyway. I don't think you need to worry about Taiga at all. Taiga's grades are much better than mine. While we were studying together for these term finals, we showed each other the results we got for the midterms, and that's when I first found out. I hate to say it, but I didn't expect that from the way she normally is...."

"Back in her first year, she had to take make-up examinations a few times because she had gotten 0s for forgetting to write her name. But don't you worry, this year I've been telling her, 'Write your name! Your name! Your n-a-m-e!' before the tests."

"I apologize on behalf of the klutz....... Here you go, that's everything."

"Thank you!"

"I'm sorry for the trouble. Bache.....Sensei, are you coming to the Christmas Eve party?"

"I most certainly will not! I don't have plans, but by my honor, I refuse to go! ......But, "

An faint laugh shook her soft, unexpected smile.

"I hope it's a success. You guys have been working so hard on setting it up, so your efforts have to be rewarded."

The tip of Ryuuji's nose reddened involuntarily by what the bachelorette (she's ready to become a bride anytime!) had to say. He was finally able to emit flame from the tip of his nose! .....No, that wasn't it. To be rewarded – in other words, Minori will come. To spend Christmas Eve with his crush. Ryuuji, and Lord Angel Taiga as well, used up precious time on preparing for the party for that purpose.

He wanted to be rewarded. Ryuuji fell silent for a bit and reflected on what she had said. He wanted to spend his once in a lifetime, seventeenth Christmas Eve with.....he wanted to spend this lovers' day, with Minori. Taiga should've felt the same way too. She should be wishing that she could make the party a success with Kitamura.

The bachelorette (ah, she's also proficient in language ♥) wouldn't have a clue to this, but he felt that the way she was gently looking at Taiga was full of earnest warmth. It was clear to Ryuuji by just her eyes that she was truly concerned about Taiga, the problem child, as her homeroom teacher. This adult was definitely on their side, he thought.

Taiga was crawling in the hallway, and – "Aisaka-senpai! There's garbage inside~!" "Geh! Awawa, oh no, oh no!" "I'll remove the garbage, so senpai, please keep gathering the pieces! If someone passes, they'll get scattered!" "No! Oh no!" – while making a big ruckus with the first year students, she picked up the pieces of her own klutzy mess. When they first laid their eyes on her, the underclassmen had been terror-stricken at the appearance of the most vicious animal, the Palmtop Tiger. But now, because Taiga was in her Christmas-only good girl mode, even they were completely treating her rather normally as an upperclassmen and seemed to have gotten used to following up on her goofs.

Senpai, over there! Over there too! While he was looking at Taiga hurriedly going back and forth left and right in response to her underclassmen, Ryuuji's face sinisterly convulsed involuntarily. It was a smile.

"......Taiga, she loves Christmas. To be honest, it's a little hard for me to understand...... That's why she's working so hard. She said that she has to be a good girl because Santa's looking, something stupid like that."

"My, so that's why. .......I understand how she feels, all girls love Christmas."

"Really?"

"I'm not at an age where I can be called a girl anymore, but I love it. Christmas.....Tiffany, and Cartier, Gucci and Coach.....Hermes, Bulgari, Dior, Chanel....Chloe, Bottega, Mark, Jaco, bu, su, u, u, u, uooooooooooooooooooooo!"

".....Ou!?"

THE BACHELORETTE BLEW THE FIRE OF WORLDLY DESIRE!

RYUUJI SHUDDERED!

COMMAND (DOWN) ESCAPE

CAN'T ESCAPE!

"I'm, going to buy myself a rewaaaaaard! It's Christmas, it's all right isn't it!? A watch, a bag, or an accessory, my budget's at a big 30,000 yen! It's my first Christmas since turning 30 after all, and this is a reward for 30 years worth of hard work! Thus, it's fine if I buy something!"

"......"

"Wh, why are you looking at me like that!? If you have something to say, why don't you say it!?"

"......"

"You, you think that it's going to be a waste of money don't you!? I bet you're thinking, you're being fooled by the "Reward yourself ★" marketing, you bachelorette, you bachelorette, you bachelorette, right?!"

"......"

"No....Stop it....don't look at me with those eyes....don't looooooook! I know, even I know, I know it's a waste of money! But, but, but! I don't know how to get the energy to live without raising my tension this way! I don't know what's the point of working toooooo! Ugyaaaa!"

"......"

"Sob, sob, I'm squandering money aren't I......I might be single for the rest of my life, I might need almost 70,000,000 yen when I'm old, but I can't expect to die easily if I spend 30,000 yen on showy brand goods just because it's Christmas, right......But, but, let's say I save and save, hold back on buying everything I want, and then I finally get 100,000,000 yen, yahoo! But the next minute, Japan's going up in hyper inflation and it's become a world where savings are just pieces of paper, what would you do? And besides t.....huh? I think I might have seen......maybe......I should buy an apartment!?"

"......"

"I, I see.....if I take a loan and buy one....that'll settle the inflation problems perfectly, right!?"

"......"

"Right, right, that's right! I shouldn't be wasting time buying brand goods! I'll save money for the down payment and buy an apartment! A fashionable, new apartment, for one person, by the station! And when I get married, I'll lease it out, right!? Kyaa ♪"

"......"

"......Then again, maybe I'll end up spending the rest of my life there and be found as a lonely corpse......"

"......."

Looking at the illusions of cold powdery snow falling painfully behind the bachelorette (Mercury, still retrograding.....sob), Ryuuji was at a loss as to what to say to her. Absolute zero snow blew from permafrost called emptiness that festered inside the hearts of the ice ace generation.

"This is the last one! Ryuuji, I picked up everything! Let's go to the gym, they're waiting over there!"

"Ah, yeah! Ou!"

Picking up her box once more, Taiga roared. She stamped her feet, telling him to hurry. Ryuuji finally receiving the chance to escape, bowed, and ran down the hallway, following Taiga while carrying his own box. Ah! Don't run! echoed the voice of the Bachelorette, who still chose to continue living her difficult life, but they raced down the stairs as if to flee from a curse.

With each carrying one confetti box, the destination they were heading to was the gym storeroom. Over there, the Student Council Team led by Kitamura should be organizing the items that had been fabricated. The confetti was originally not included in the schedule, so the one full day of work spent on the confetti had to be made up by the Taiga Group starting now. Hurry, hurry, he mumbled to himself as he kicked his own butt, but then,

"Yo! It's Taiga!"

He noticed the ringing voice. This time, Ryuuji was the one who nearly unleashed the confetti.

"Oh, Minorin! What a coincidence! Club activity?"

Taiga stopped her feet and answered with a smile. She secretly winked at Ryuuji, like she wanted to say, Yes!

"Yeah, we've been doing muscle training in the gym. Kitamura-kun and the gang were there, hustling."

Minori also laughed and stopped moving. The person they had nearly passed was Minori, in a jersey, slightly sweating, cheeks glowing, and with her hair tied up in a crumpled and bland bun. However, she was with several other second year students. "Kushieda, the coach's going to yell if we don't hurry up!" one girl said, tugging on her jersey. "Aisaka-senpai, we should hurry up!" said a first year girl frantically to a stopped Taiga from behind.

Oh my, oh my, anyway! See you later! she said with regret, however, the two girls began walking again practically simultaneously, then,

"....Hey. There have been a lot of near-misses lately."

"......Ou."

There was a brief, strobe like light –

It was an unavoidable, direct, glance that hit him from the front.

Kushieda Minori's two eyes definitely had looked toward him, he thought. He tried to reply lightly and quickly, but unable to make a good face, he contorted his mouth. Seeing that, indeed seeing that, Minori uttered a strange and comical "Fuh, he" then turned around. Ryuuji then frantically released a strained voice from his tension-stiff throat and hurled it in the direction of her back.

"C.......Christmas Eve! Party! You'll have fun! So, Kushieda, you come too!"

She heard it, didn't she?

She should have heard it.

Minori turned her head a little and was about to say something with a problematic look on her face, but before she could, the girl next to her immediately took her by the arm. "Hurry up!" the girl had said, and Minori was tugged away. Judging from her expression, what Minori was about to say but couldn't, wasn't the response that Ryuuji was waiting for. But, she should have heard him. What Ryuuji tried hard to say must have reached Minori.

Another near-miss – Lately, this has been happening a lot. Lately, no, more like, for the past few days. In the morning, at lunch, after school. Minori didn't join the study group, nor was she working at the family restaurant. The only thing building up between the two of them were days of near-misses

But, even so.

Even so, Ryuuji still believed.

That as long as Minori showed up at the party, everything would work out.

Minori said that she was in a slump now. She said that being bubbly wouldn't be setting a good example to her club members. He wanted her to at least get in the mood to think about going. But, the only things that he could do were clumsily invite her in that one moment that they ran into each other, and get the preparations in order in the event that Minori came. ........Of course, he really wanted to do more. If there was anything he could do, he'd do it. He wanted to, but he didn't know how, and could only look at Minori's back. He was only able to become aware of just how useless he was day by day.

But if there was anything he had, it was a wish. He believed in it from the bottom of his heart.

As long as she came to the Christmas Eve party, as long as the party became a success and everyone had fun and everyone laughed, Minori should be back to her old, cheerful self and points that smile of hers on him. Then, Ryuuji should become happy after looking at that smile. Yes – in the end, he wanted Minori to cheer up. To Ryuuji, keeping Minori smiling, and having her smile at him, were important and special above all.

He wanted Minori to be happy.

So that's it, he thought, as he finally realized what he'd been unaware of. Somewhere along the way, he mixed up the order of the means and the ends.

It shouldn't have been, "Since I'm having a party on Christmas Eve, I want to bring a brooding Minori." It should be, "Because I want Minori to cheer up, I want her to have a good time at the Eve party." That's how Ryuuji truly felt.

Your efforts have to be rewarded. The words whispered by the adult on his side resonated to the bottom of his chest like a protective charm. That was really it. He really wanted to be rewarded. To do that, he can keep working no matter how little sleep he gets. He can keep working no matter how worried he is. He can overcome it no matter how many near misses there are.

As long as Ryuuji believed that Minori's face would be waiting for him across the horizon, he will be able to overcome anything. Yes, anything –

"Ryuuuji! What are you doing you dilly-dallying nitw.....I mean, you silly, easy-going person! Come on, hurry up!"

".......Ou!"


"You're la~te. What were you doing? Geez, you really are dilly-dallying stupid nitwits~"

Inside the dusty and sweat-stinking gym storeroom was Ami. She was sitting on top of a layered mat with her legs thrown out, and next to her, Kitamura and the Student Council were hustling around and about.

Spotting Murase writing something on a white board, Ryuuji shouted, "Hey!" and slapped him on the butt. Murase, smiling, replied, "Yo," and turned his face toward him. They had met each other at the chaos before the Student Council elections. Since then, it turned out they had a surprisingly lot in common and have become friends. Murase, screwing around, ground the back of his pen against a box-holding Ryuuji's armpit, who then screamed for him to stoooooooooop it as he twisted his body.

Behind those filthy and unsightly men,

"There was a little accident! What's your prob.....wait, why are you here, Stupichi? What happened to your job? You're skipping aren't you."

"I'~m in charge of making little ornaments, with one of the Student Council first years~. So, we've split up the work, and I'm here making this thingy little by little. See, look! I'm pretty incredible don't you think?"

What Ami, sitting on top of the layer mat, scooped up with a tingle sound was a decoration made up of small bells tied across a long silkworm gut. It was to be entangled around a mini light strand and wrapped around the tree. Ami shook it with a proud look on her face to show it off, but at that moment,

"Uwah!? Wait, wait, wait, no! Why!?"

From the part that had been finished and so carefully coiled, a bell fell and jingled onto the mat. Ami frantically tried to pick up the rolling bell, but doing so, even more came jingling off. Taiga also went over to pick them up with her and said,

"Kyaa kyakya! That's our Stupichi! You klutz, you klutz! Haha, you have to redo it!"

"Why you.....is it okay for you to be saying that?"

".....What a regrettable accident."

Pushing aside an anti-Santa Taiga – who added an, "Oh, what a tragedy," and theatrically knelt down to present the bells she picked up to Ami – Ryuuji took a look at Ami's wrists. He'd been attending when the Committee had picked this out from a book. At that time, it looked like it was easy to make, but.

Ami pouted her cheeks, sat cross-legged, and glowered like she was the head honcho of a gang of prisoners.

"Che, why does this have to happen~? Aaah, I got this far after one hour but now look..... Ami-chan's not meant to do this kind of dull work! Yes, Ami-chan should be having a flashy, eye-grabbing role, one where her beauty, sweetness, fairness, cuteness, and pureness brilliantly stand out..."

Muttering nonsense, she fell backwards with a slam. Thanks to the absolutely unsexy lederhosen under her skirt, she didn't have to worry about a flickering glimpse of her panties, however, her back did make a pathetic snapping sound. Ryuuji sat next to that same Ami and smacked her white, protruding knee a few times.

"If you have time to whine, fix it. Hey, get up, look, see this. You tied this the wrong way. If you don't pass it through this loop too, everything's going to fall off."

Ryuuji skillfully passed the silkworm gut into the head of the bell, and showing it to her, made a tight knot and properly fastened it. Ha? was the reaction Ami gave as she sat up and tilted her head.

"How did you do that? Where did I go wrong? I couldn't see it because you were too fast. Do it one more time."

"Look, you......do it......like this"

Dexterous Ryuuji slowly moved his long fingers with easy-to-understand, large and slow movements for Ami. Ami brought her face so close he could smell her hair, and while seriously looking at his fingers, said,

"....No-way. Like, what a total hassle. .....So like, I have to fix everything? I don't believe it, I have to untie and redo, eeeeverything?"

"If you don't, they'll all jingle off the gut."

"Kyaa! You're kidding me!? Really!? This is the pits! This seemed like the easiest~! Hey, Yuusaku! It's just like I thought, I caaaan't do this by myself!"

Hearing his childhood friend and tilting his glasses with an "Eh?" Kitamura came out in a white shirt from the depths of the deep L-shaped storeroom. Dust was sticking heavily to his head, his school jacket was off, his sleeves folded, and in his hands, for some reason, was a rusty hurdle. In exchange for permission to use the gym, he was stuck with the task of cleaning out the storage room by the teachers. And this was the ugly result. He may be the Great Illuminator Deity of Broken Hearts, but he was a newborn, green-horned, newcomer Student President, and he couldn't hold a candle to the previous President when it came to negotiating with the teachers.

"What, it's that much of a pain in the butt?"

"It's so, totally, totally, totally, a pain the butt! There's absolutely no way I can finish this by myself!"

"Erm....In that case, sorry Takasu, but could you help Ami? I already have Aisaka and the others working on the next task."

To the side of Kitamura, Taiga firmly held scissors and glue in her hands and was assigning tasks to the first years. Her eyes looked at Ryuuji and blinked like she just noticed him.

"Eh, Ryuuji? You won't work with us? We're going to make stars, a looot."

From behind her, Kitamura, easily standing one head taller than her, stooped down and told Taiga with a smile on his face. That, he thought about having Takasu help Ami out. Ryuuji didn't know if it was because she didn't have the time to blush from being distracted by the recent bustle, or if it was because she developed some degree of immunization, but when she nodded, it was with surprising calmness, yet bright eyes. Ah, I see, was her reaction.

Kitamura took the scissors away from klutzy Taiga's hands nonchalantly, and in its place, jokingly made her carry a far too massive load of paper patterns of stars. It looked like Taiga was about to drop it, but just when it looked bad, she narrowly recovered and smiled. Smiling closely at each other once, Taiga and Kitamura walked away into the depths of the storeroom.

– Have to be rewarded.

Before his thoughts could be gathered, the echoes of his previous thoughts revived in his ears. He immediately forgot what he was about to say. He also forgot whatever it was he was about to think.

Have to be rewarded. That's right.

Taiga's efforts, have to be rewarded.

"Oh my, oh my, they're getting along, Yuusaku and Tiger-chan. They look like quite the nice couple don't they~"

"....Shut up and work. At any rate, you untie everything up to here."

Ami, displeased, stuck her tongue out. Unlike Noto, Ami's face was cute even when her tongue was sticking out. However, ignoring that, Ryuuji sat on the mat by her and skillfully pulled out a new silkworm gut. He speedily began tying small bells to it. Ami poked his back ill-manneredly with her cross-legged knees.

".......Hey, hey, why don't we skip this. Nobody'll find out."

"No.....The hell, 'Ami-chan' is sure showing a damn lack of effort. I thought you were going to bust your butt and make the party take off?"

"I am busting my butt ~? I will make the party take off ~? Just watch, Ami-chan will show you just, how, amazing she is. ......But ~, I'm all pooped out today, the air's awful ~, it's totally cold and stinks like sweat~, the athletic clubs are going in and out and being noisy~, the softball girls from earlier were lifting barbells and squealing~. Oh right, they left juuuust before you guys came, kind of?"

"I said work."

Kyaha ♥, laughed Ami, and looking at the others going about doing their jobs busily, she curled her big eyes at Ryuuji.

"Aw, too bad. You could have met a certain someone if only you came just a little bit earlier. Ow!"

Putting a bell on the palm of his hand, he flicked it, hitting Ami on the nose. Ryuuji narrowed one eye, indicating that he couldn't hear anything, and turned his back to Ami, who was covering her nose.

"What a creep. Unbelievable. So that's what you guys do, huh? Men's misplaced bouts of anger are sooo freaky. Don't take your frustration out on me just because you're drifting farther away from Minori-chan. It's not my fault."

"No duh. Who ever said that?"

".......Oooh nasty temper, nasty attitude."

"Because you aren't doing your job."

"Okay, okay, I'll do it. See, see, I'm doing it, I'm doing it.... Yeah, I can understand why Takasu-kun's not in a good mood though. You've been doing nothing but getting off on the wrong wavelength with the girl you like, and I'm getting the vibes that Tiger-chan's going to be merry, and poor Takasu-kun's going to be left all by himself - Owowowow!"

He silenced her with three flicks to the forehead. He shut her up and then, a light bulb went off in his head.

"It was you, wasn't it!? You did it! You're the one responsible for that weird gossip!"

"Ha~~~a!? I don't know what you're talking about!"

Not falling victim to the pretty face staring at him, he brought his face closer and said with as low a voice as possible,

"I mean......! That Taiga...l-likes Kitamura! It looks like everybody wants them to be together! You,"

"HOW THE HELL SHOULD I KNOW!?"

Having been finger-flicked in the forehead, no, more like, punched straight in the forehead, Ryuuji shut his mouth from the long-awaited return of female-induced violence. Now that he thought about it, it has been one week since Taiga stopped being violent. Waving her hand in pain, Ami snorted.

"Screw this~, why do I have to do this! Oh, and I knew about it of course, but I don't feel like supporting Tiger and Yuusaku. I never gave a crap about them, and Ms. "I love you Maruo ♥" Maya is being hysterical. But, I'll agree with the rest of the class about them actually looking like quite the couple. Heh, when people like that keep getting closer like that, one day, they'll end up dating, right~. Then, what will you do~? Does it bother you~?"

"That's fine. If that's it. I just... have the feeling... that there's something wrong about a mob jumping up and down and saying stuff about other people's romances. That's all."

"Really~~~~"

After Ami looked at Ryuuji's mumbling face, the nasty sparkle in her eyes returned.

"Aha~ ♥ So, you feel like a father sending off his daughter as a bride~?"

"I don't know what you're talking about. I never had a daughter and I never had a father."

"The woman you treasured so very dearly for a~ll this time – kept her from falling, from getting hurt, from crying, from getting injured, from getting sick, from dying – is being swiped away by another man. A guy who might not treasure her as well as you did. A guy who might not be able to protect her, snatches her out of your nest after all you did to raise her, just when she became so pretty...... Daddy doesn't get rewarded. Even if he doesn't want to, even if he's unrewarded, he has to let go. Do you know why? Because Daddy's going to become old and die first. He has no choice but to entrust his daughter to a healthy man who will live longer than him 'cause he's instinctively afraid of leaving his daughter alone in the world after he dies."

What the, he thought.

Taiga's real father wasn't somebody special like that. He was a ridiculously self-centered bastard that had no problems in throwing out his unprepared daughter. And Ryuuji wasn't Taiga's father. No way was he going to let himself have a daughter of the same age as him at 17. Also, there's plenty of women that are separated from their fathers, unmarried, and can live by themselves. Like Yuri-chan from the Koigakubo family or Yasuko-chan from the Takasu family. They weren't daughters left to fend for themselves powerlessly, but were adults with enough power and knowledge to get by in the world. And, that isn't the only problem.

"What? What you just said is really discriminatory. You're a 'daughter' too. Don't mock your own kind."

"That's not what I'M thinking~. Smart Ami-chan is just putting into easy words what Takasu-kun is thinking~."

"That's not how I think. Cut the crap."

He brushed off what Ami was saying with a snort and tried to focus on the silkworm gut and the bells. He was carefully passing the gut through a small hole at the head of a bell. But, it didn't go through and he tutted. It's not easy.

"But it bothers you, doesn't it~? Looking at Yuusaku and Taiga together. I can tell from your face. That's why you're in such a bad mood, it's twisted~. Even though you're not her father, even though it's not like you'll die of old age before her, Takasu-kun's treasuring, really treasuring the one woman you've decided to 'absolutely never touch.' You've already got a wife set in your mind, and the three of you, like you're playing house, understand your roles, as Papa, Mama, and Daughter."

"...Ah, I've had enough of this!"

"Hey. What are you going to do?"

This wasn't sarcasm or nastiness. She looked at him quietly. Her two somewhat cold, dark brown eyes looked at him as if they could see through anything. Ami tried forcefully to see what was in the bottom of Ryuuji's heart with such directness that prevented him from moving.

"I mean it. If Taiga and Yuusaku get together, what will Takasu-kun do? You don't care? As long as you get together with Minori-chan, it doesn't matter what happens to her?"

He blinked. Licking his dried lips and forgetting to even breathe in front of Ami's gaze, he then finally remembered. He didn't have to answer Ami's question. However, when he tried to turn his face, his jaw was grabbed like he was a girl about to be kissed. He was captured by surprising power and was dragged in at point blank. He was looked at by frighteningly large eyes and was questioned again.

"Are you fine with that? Hey, why are you playing the Papa? When did that happen? Was it like that from the beginning?"

"I told you, I don't remember ever acting the part."

Even if he averted his eyes, even if he had a way of a way of knocking away the hand grabbing his jaw, he couldn't run away from Ami's voice.

"What are you saying? You are so totally doing it."

"......Ch."


"Takasu-kun and Taiga's relationship, is reeeallly unnatural. It's freaking strange. You should stop playing this childish game. It must have been mistaken from the beginning. Why don't you wake up before someone gets really hurt? End everything. Then, you can start from scratch. Put me in too. Not as a factor that appeared in the 'middle' of an already developed relationship, but from the start line. Put me in too. And then, be more...be more........I...I,"

– Don't know, then Ami shut her mouth. Then she quietly said, whatevah.

Ami turned her face to the side once, and in the next moment, formed a smile with her mouth. Then, she whispered with the face of an angel, "Forget everything I said."

He couldn't forget, but he might be able to act like he did. But Ryuuji couldn't find words to say and he looked back at Ami's smile, unable to move even his frozen hands. Ami picked up the silkworm gut and a bell with her white hands, untied the gut, and dropped the bell onto her lap. It was more trouble to undo a mistake and fix it instead of tying bells onto a new gut. Doing that, she murmured quietly to herself,

"... When it comes down to it... the person whom everyone understands the least is themselves."

That was it. The side of her face was covered by fallen hair and could barely be seen. The rush of people coming and going had their hands full with themselves and didn't notice that the fake angel on the mat had said anything.


From that point on, he couldn't see even a trace of the Christmas-only, donut-halo'ed angel.


  • *

It was the last day of the term finals.

All the tests ended before noon and homeroom was full of noisy clamor. Even though everyone should've been exhausted from the three consecutive days of tests, their young bodies were fidgeting to leave from the feeling of liberation, and they were already in the winter vacation mood. They were imagining Christmas, and some were even dreaming as far as New Year's presents.

"People, I keep telling you to be quiet! Okay!? Go straight home and don't fool around outside, do you understand!? There are still normal classes tomorrow and the day after, so don't go into winter vacation mode yet! Are-you-listening-to-me!??"

The bachelorette homeroom teacher strained her voice, but there wasn't a chance in the world that there would be people obediently shutting up in this class. They were finally freed from test studying, and though she might have said there were still normal classes, it was not as if there was going to be anything beyond handing out and explaining tests. And what remained was the closing ceremony – and what they were anticipating on Christmas Eve, the large party at the gym to be attended by most of the class. There's no such thing in the world as a seventeen year old that's able to be calm under these circumstances and silently sit in his seat.

Even so, all stood up exuberantly at Kitamura's class order to rise. At the same time that the farewell etiquette ended,

".....Yaaaahoooooooooo! No more tests........!"

"Yes~yes~, it's winter break! It's break~! Let's party~!"

"What should we eat, where do we go, what do we do on the way home~~~~~~?! Kya~~~~~~~~~~!"

The roar of the class was so loud that the 30 year old could no longer do anything but laugh awkwardly shook the 2-C classroom at once. Similar uproar surely must have been happening in the other classes too. There was laughter and shrilling chatter here and there in the classroom, and soon, kids were dashing to the hallways like they were racing against each other, like they were trying to escape from prison as quickly as they could. Ryuuji as well, finished packing his bag and placed it on his desk. He stretched, bending his stiff shoulders and back. He had the feeling that the results may be his best ever. The major points summed up simply in the Bro Notes had appeared in the tests so much it was funny.


"Hyo~! It's over! Hey, hey, let's get out of here and eat! Ruaaamen!"

"There shouldn't be Prep Committee work today right?"

"Ou, actually, today's a little..."

He ambiguously dodged answering the double "Eh!"s with a scratch to the head. He hadn't made any plans for the part after, "Today's a little....," but he decided to tentatively turn them down, in keeping with his wishful thinking on a certain matter. Shrugging off the invitation of his friends, Ryuuji was looking straight ahead to the right. Because of his lack of sleep, his two bloodshot, curse-, whoops, hopeful eyes were protectively glued to the exchange between two girls.

One was Taiga. Forgetting to undo her long hair pinned back for the tests, she was trying very hard to talk. The other was Minori. She listened to Taiga, with her front hair loosely bunched together like a Kewpie doll (or Daigorou), again probably because of the tests.

After shaking her head and crossing her arms, Minori soon closed her eyes with a stern look. Come on, nod, please say yes, cheered Ryuuji secretly. Clenching the sweat in his fists, he li~cked his lips chapped from the dry air and took coarse breaths because of his nervousness.

Huff, huff, one more li~ck, clench, huff, huff, li~~~~~ck~........ "Oh no, Takasu-kun's going wild~" "He's probably just fantasizing about something like end-of-year cleaning." "Yeah. Actually, that's kind of scary itself." "Yeah, that's actually kind of dangerous." .......Huff, huff, clench, huff, li~~~~~~ck. Unaware of the terrified glances of the girls around him, Ryuuji huffed as he waited for Minori's response.

But maybe his cheering wasn't good enough.

"Sorry! I'za gotta be going to practice next!"

Sorry! Minori apologized and suddenly gripped Taiga by the waist and pushed her out of an imaginary ring with her strength as imaginary drums went rat-a-tat-tat.

Ryuuji, who didn't even have a cushion to throw, went back a little and dropped his shoulders. And as if to give him another kick in the groin, Taiga, having recovered her footing, looked back at Ryuuji nonchalantly, stuck her tongue out like she'd been strangled, and made the gesture of her head being decapitated with her thumb – It wasn't nonchalant, but anyway, she gave him the negative sign. Yes, he already heard you two.

It had been Taiga's suggestion to invite Minori out for lunch with her and Ryuuji. However, the operation was a failure, and Taiga returned to Ryuuji in shame.

"Sorry. Minorin, she's got her club......"

"I know, I know, I heard."

"Guaa!"

"I said I know."

She made another neck cutting gesture, maybe because she wasn't confident that he understood her. It became increasingly less lovely once he saw it up close, and while he felt sorry, he had to look the other way by reflex. But at that moment,

"Ah. Sorry, for real, I'm sorry that I have to turn you guys down."

"Ou. .......No, well, I just, thought that, it's been a while since w.....you and Taiga had a decent chat with each other."

"Nah, the coach has fallen completely to the Dark Side, so practice's been rough."

For the first time in days, by coincidence....well, not a coincidence... Thanks to a near miss, he was able to hear Minori's voice up close. Minori laughed and swung her little top-knot.

"About your hair. Are you, okay with keeping it like that?"

"Eh? My hair? What? .....Oh!? Gyao!"

She apparently forgot that she tied her bangs up. Minori touched her hair with her hands after Ryuuji pointed at it, noticed the protruding Daigorou, and hastily pulled the rubber band off. "Tell me earlier, TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA, done!" said Minori, unleashing a flurry of strikes in the secret channeling points on Taiga's forehead, who then fell down backwards without uttering a sound. Then,

"Whoah, oh crap! I have to go like this now! Aaaah, it's all weird now.....oh, no!"

While she held down her bangs which were flipping back in strange directions, her cheeks turned red. Muho! Ryuuji coughed. While the weird hair was funny, an obviously-embarrassed Minori was so cute it affected his lungs.

"Shouldn't Kawashima have some styling gel or something in her locker?"

"No, that's fine, I'll use water. ....No, forget it, I'll just put this on."

Minori shook her head strongly, took out the uniform cap that was sticking out from the pocket of her sports bag, and forced it down hard as if she wanted to cover her whole face.

"Ou, phew. I almost thought you were going to take out the bald wig.....but you're going to be losing hair if you wear that inside."

"I care not, YOU'RE in SHOCK!! Baldness comes falling down on me!! TO~O KEEP MY HAIR STAY FLAT DOWN........ Ah, lost my voice. Oh well, who cares! Okay, see you guys tomorrow!"

Then, without even giving them the time to wave back at her, she flipped her body around and had quickly vacated the premises. She was gone like the wind and hadn't even let them say goodbye.

He realized there was more stuff he wanted to talk about with her after she was gone. Like, about how effective the Bro Notes – which Minori had ended up not using – were, or how she should come to the party since preparations were moving along fine and most of the class was coming.

He wouldn't let her get away next time. Ryuuji then buttoned his opened school jacket with an agonized face. Che, intestines spilled forth from his sliced-open stomach.......What a laugh....Of course not. In the first place, he couldn't laugh at something like that. He simply put some willingness and effort into it. Next time, he will definitely, definitely, not let her get away. There were normal classes tomorrow and the day after, so he still had plenty of chances.

In order for his efforts to be rewarded, in order for him to have a happy Christmas, he will definitely invite Minori out to the party. In order to see Minori's real smile, he will sincerely invite her.

"Ah, that took me off guard, blood isn't gushing from my forehead right?"

".....Gushed.....You're going to be in serious trouble if that happened."

After being knocked on to the floor by striking her secret channeling points, Taiga finally stood up. Rubbing her forehead, she sighed with disappointment.

"Minorin got away again."

"She has to go to her club and there's nothing to do about that. I don't mind since there's still time left."

"Aaaah.....You're being an unusually good loser, or unusually understanding. And here I was, thinking that I'd give you two a chance to be alone together. I would have gone up to the front of the restaurant, then deliberately say, 'Ah! There was something I had to do!' or something."

"Lord Angel Taiga is sure fired up. Enough to even prepare such a touching lie."

Now with time on his hands, Ryuuji looked around the classroom. Kitamura, who is intensely busy, wouldn't be here, and it looks like Noto and Haruta already went out to eat ruaaamen. It was awfully sad to be stuck with no one to eat lunch with, even when it was the last day of exams and it was the first time in a while that he was free of responsibilities. But wait, there was still someone left. Right in front of him.

"Ah, oh fine, let's go eat something.

"No, I wasn't lying, there's something I have to do, really."

Eh!? was Ryuuji's reaction, who then unwittingly acted like a punk kid and fired eyebeams at Taiga's hair swirl.

"What do you mean you have stuff to do!"

"I have to go to the post office for a bit. After I finish that, I'll just go eat somewhere outside."

"What's up with that? Why don't you just go to the post office and eat with me after? I'm okay with making something at home."

"I have to go back once and carry some packages down there. And, hey, why are you being such a pe-......."

"Pe? Ou, just say the rest of that. Me and Santa are listening."

".....A pe, st, no it's not that, it's just, there are these times when I f, fuh, fee, feel like not feeling like feeling like not feeling like feeling like not feeling like that I feel that we should keep a certain distance between ourselves......?"

"........? "

It doesn't look like she even understood what she said. Taiga frowned and began leaning gradually like the leaning tower of Pisa. Ryuuji, the one listening, also began leaning. Just when the two were facing each other, mirroring the other and slanting at about 35 degrees,

"There he is! Takasu-kun, hey, hey, hey, hey! Are you free!? You are, right, right! I need some advice! How about having lunch with us!? You'll be the only guy in the group, but you don't mind, right!? Right!?"

The one aggressively coming at him with desperation that made him want to take a step back on reflex, was Maya. Behind her were a slightly-smiling Nanako and Ami, wearing a malicious smile, seemingly taking pleasure in seeing how Ryuuji was going to act. Judging by Maya's right and left eyes, he was getting the vibes that "Maruo's case" and "Tiger's case" were written in them respectively. Also, on her forehead were the words, "The tests are over so we better start thinking!" In spite of it being an invitation from the 2-C Official Beautiful Girl Trio, the truth was that he had the feeling that this was going to be a little..........more like, a major pain in the butt. So, without bothering to think about it,

"Ah, uh.....sorry. There's stuff I have to do."

And so, he lied.

"Eh!? Really!? If that's the case, I'll wait!?"

"Ah, uh, no, I have to go to the post office."

"Then I'll go with you! We'll have lunch after!"

"I have to carry packages from Taiga's house...... If it's okay to bring Taiga along, then,"

Of course it isn't! was in her right eye. Read between the lines! was in the left one. Maya had spoken eloquently with only the colors of her eyes, however, she kept her mouth shut and reluctantly withdrew. While brushing up her long, beautifully colored hair,

"......Okay, fine. But, next time, you'd better help me. .....After all, we're birds of a feather, and if I go down, you go down,...."

Secretive mumbling trickled into Ryuuji's ears. He had the feeling that clearing up her misunderstanding is going to result in a bigger hysteria. And, at the moment, he didn't have that energy.

So, bidding a quick adios and waving his hand in a rush to the trio, Ryuuji then got a dazed Taiga to carry her bag, and pushing her small back, fled to the hallway.

As they descended down the stairs leading to the entrance side by side, Taiga looked at Ryuuji's face briefly.

"What was that? You even lied? And what is with that valley girl that I've started to become acquainted to because she's been cozy-dozy with Kitamura-kun? Is she forcing you to do something? .......Whoops, ignore that, one more time, I wonder what that suh, sociable Kihara-san wanted?"

"Dunno, beats the hell out of me. Let's just go to the post office already. It won't be a lie if we really go."

Taiga, for one moment, narrowed her eyes with real displeasure, but apparently, "good girl" mode prevented her from being able to find a way to turn down Ryuuji's persistent request. "Geez.....," she moaned quietly like a cow, gave up, and walked home with Ryuuji, just the two of them.


"....You, were, going, to carry this.........by yourself?"

"Yeah, so? I did this last year too. One cart in each hand."

The rumbling and squeaking wheels of his cart conveyed to him the unevenness of the asphalt street by the tickling in the palms of his hands. Taiga and Ryuuji were each pushing a cart, but it started to feel like to him that they were competing to see who'd break first from the weight.

The distance between the area of town that they lived in and the post office had a travel time of more than 15 minutes even when walking normally. And to get there, one would have to brave a painfully steep hill, go down the narrow, sharply-sloping, and winding "Snake Hill," oh and, cross the pedestrian walkway. Incidentally, the north wind was cold and strong enough to numb his throat. It was so cold that he couldn't keep his eyes decently opened.

He hadn't dreamed that he'd ever wind up making that kind of journey with stuff as big as this. The noble part of him that felt great about helping out and his honest feelings about his decision being a bit rash came and went in cycles. Either way, he was about to reach his limit – but a little bit ahead of that same, close-to-whining Ryuuji, Taiga was silently pulling a cart just as heavy. She walked, the parts of her dress underneath her coat fluttered in the wind, and the heels of her boots clicked the ground.

When Ryuuji had went to her apartment after changing, Taiga had already clumsily but firmly bound the heavy packages with packaging cords to both carts. The piled-up packages were very heavy and quite big. There were several bags beautifully wrapped.

"So, what is this stuff?"

"....Stuff I'm mailing. Look, we've arrived. Watch out for the steps. Heave,"

Ho! And raising their voices in unison at the entrance of the post office, the two of them each lifted up a heavy cart. Wobbling uncouthly like crabs, they passed the three-step stairs. Unfortunately, the words "No Barriers" apparently belonged to a far-off land. The door wasn't an automatic one, so Taiga, her back against the door, had no choice but to ill-manneredly push open the door with her butt while holding the cart. Ryuuji was the one that was being persistent about coming with her, so it wasn't his place to complain, but it was a really, tough, trip.

And once inside that small post office that had taken so long to reach,

"Eh!? What is this, what is this line!"

"Ou.....now this is an exhausting sight......"

What they were shown was a terribly crowded hubbub of men and women of all ages. Maybe it was like this because it was nearly the end of the year, or maybe it was the gift-giving season, or maybe it just happened to be the middle of lunchtime for the nearby companies, but anyway, the narrow space was packed with so many people that it was muggy – in fact, there was a good chance he could catch a cold with one wrong move. However, no one was lining up at the only delivery window in the building, and thinking, "Oh," Ryuuji approached it, only to be stopped by a service worker. He was told to draw a number slip from the machine, and when he drew a paper strip, digital numbers told him that there were seven people waiting. Exactly just what is there behind simply delivering something that warranted waiting that long?

"Aaaah, we picked the wrong time to come. Nothing to do but sit on the sofa, huh.....Hey, there's not even anything to sit on."

"Oh, don't fuss. Could you watch over the packages over there for a minute? I don't have the address labels all in order yet, so I'll use this time to fill them out right over there."

Got it, and Ryuuji forced the two carts to the walls and saw off the fluttering hem of Taiga's long skirt while he tapped his grating hip. He figured that he'll undo the cords holding down the packages for her while she's away, so he brought his fingers to a tight knot,

"........"

His hands automatically stopped.

The words – What is this? – leaked out from Ryuuji's mouth.

He didn't intend to look. But he saw it. On this beautiful and large box, wrapped in festive Christmas paper and even ribboned, was an already-attached address label.

The name that accompanied the metropolitan prime spot address that was written on the label, was Aisaka Rikurou – He couldn't believe it. He found another package just like that. This time, with clear intent, he looked at it. It had the same address, and the name was Aisaka Yuu.

"Hey, could you put this on the one on the bottom, the big one......what?"

"What, the hell is this? What are these names?"

It wasn't his place to complain. He didn't have the right. He knew that, but he still couldn't bear to say nothing. He couldn't stop himself from asking. Ryuuji looked like he was going to have a bout of vertigo from the shock, but in front of him, Taiga's expression did not change at all.

"I could have had these sent directly at the department store, but I wanted to send them together with cards and the stuff I bought at the other stores. And I decided I'd send them myself. So, at the department store, I purchased knit zip jackets that they could wear when they're golfing. A grey and pink set, the brand goods they'd like. Then there's Marriage Frerestea tea, ceramic glasses that'd go well with drinking beer, and,"

"Not,"

His voice got entangled in his throat and he coughed once. He started over again.

"Not that! Your father and your stepmother? You're sending them Christmas presents? Are you serious!? Are you sane!? !"

"If it wasn't Christmas, I'd hit you for looking at my stuff without asking. But I'll forgive you. These are just Christmas presents that I'm sending to my father's place, and I am serious and sane. Is that good enough?"

"Why are you doing this!"

"Because it's Christmas. And, he's my father. And, I wanted to keep it a secret, but I also got presents for you and Yacchan. Oh right, back on Sunday, when I said I was going to study at home, I was actually shopping at the department store, and then,"

"I'm not talking about that!"

Taiga momentarily closed her mouth. Apparently, it wasn't because she was overpowered by Ryuuji's sudden, large voice. Rather, she looked carefully at a shaken Ryuuji, calmly and with composure. Her breathing was relaxed, and as if she was going to teach him how to have a rational conversation, she spoke quietly.

"The truth is, I know what you want to say. But, I don't want to hear it. That's why I didn't want you to come."

The reason why Ryuuji fell silent this time wasn't because he was overpowered.

– Does she really understand? If she understands, why is she – It was because he couldn't organize these questions that were rushing up his throat and turn them into words that he fell silent. Why Taiga, why, he thought.

Even if it was Christmas, he couldn't believe that she was giving gifts to the father that abandoned her and even the stepmother that was the reason for that. Even though she normally had nothing to do with them because of all of their betrayal and pain, even though she hates their guts, why does she have to be nice to them? Just what kind of performance demanded her to "artificially" go about like her relationship with her parents was in good shape and send presents to them? If this was just a gigantic act of sarcasm, it would have made sense.

But, the reason was, "because it's Christmas," and he couldn't fathom it. Even Ryuuji felt like he was betrayed by Taiga's father. Back then, Ryuuji was also hurt, he was still hurt, and even now, he hated him. Yet, how could Taiga be...

Unable to believe this, Ryuuji continued to only look at Taiga's face. Taiga, apparently, decided to leave him be. She only took a short breath and indifferently continued to work. She patted and flattened labels on the top of the cardboard boxes with her small, child-like, white hands. This too, was strange.

The labels were written in script so beautiful that at one glance, he couldn't tell what language they were written in. Once he took a good, good look, he could tell that the destination address was Tokyo, but the return address column wasn't marked with Taiga's name nor the address of this city. In its place, there was only a name beginning with the letter S –

"......Santa, Claus....."

"A volunteer. That kind of thing...... It's our turn. If you're not feeling uncomfortable about it, help me out."

The addresses that the old man at the counter read aloud to make sure there weren't any mistakes, were the addresses of several churches and child welfare organizations.


  • *

She said that the all-girls school she had attended near her family home since primary school was a Catholic one.

".......But I couldn't move up to high school. I'd been rejected entry for bad behavior."

Hearing the name of that school, one known throughout Japan as a traditional prestigious school for daughters of rich families, Ryuuji unwittingly stopped his hand from twirling up his 780 yen pasta (with drink, salad, and lunch soup). In front of him, Taiga, putting the same pasta in her mouth, continued to speak without noticing how he was looking at her.

"Volunteer activities were mandatory at that school and we would travel to churches and foundations with the sisters. There, it was compulsory for us to play with and do chores with what people call – I don't like the phrase, but – .....'unfortunate....children'. Those packages back at the post office are being sent to the churches and organizations I've done volunteer work at before. They're all going to places where children who can't be with their parents live. Toys, sweets, books, manga, sports goods, wordbooks, dictionaries, illustrated books, character goods for school supplies....'Good girl' I may be, I can't travel around the world and hand out Christmas presents and I didn't want to get swindled by a strange charity either. That's why I sent presents to places that I had ties with and did as much as I could do."

"......So what comes after your family is, unfortunate children, huh.....Hmmm......"

He knew that Taiga was looking back at him. But he still didn't feel like shutting up. He didn't want to criticize her, nor did he want to make her stop, but,

"Sorry, what your intentions are, are beyond me."

That was it.

He felt sick, not literally, by this over-the-top, un-"Aisaka Taiga"-like behavior. It was unsettling to him inside and he couldn't understand it at all. It was too artificial, too phony, and he had to ask her what her real intent was.

Taiga's true self is the spoiled, arrogant, self-centered, swaggering, most vicious and most powerful, Palmtop Tiger. At the same time, she is a girl that's unable to lie, doesn't know how to be deceitful, and so honest that she's clumsy. That was what Aisaka Taiga should be. When Taiga had said that she'll be a good girl until Christmas, he had felt that this was a good thing, even though he thought that her reasoning was unnatural. The facts were that since then, Taiga didn't fight with anyone, not even Ami, didn't go on a rampage, diligently prepared for the party, and gained the trust of the people around her. Everything had been heading in a good direction. Ryuuji was able to spend his days peacefully without having to be exposed to Taiga's unreasonable and spoiled screaming. And in the case of Kitamura – so much that Ryuuji was becoming uneasy about it for reasons he didn't understand himself – Taiga was able to get closer to her crush.

But this, he felt that this was taking it past the limit. There was too much of a difference from the usual Taiga, and frankly, it even felt very fake; it went beyond his understanding.

Drinking a slightly weak soup, Taiga took one breath. Normally, she would scream, "You insolent dog!" at Ryuuji for pestering her, give him a double slap, and then be done with it, but it looked like Taiga was going to adhere to being "unlike herself," even here. Starting off by saying this was separate from her family, she then slowly said,

".......I want to let them know, that there is somebody watching."

She brushed up her long hair which spilled over her turtleneck sweater. She wiped the parsley on her lips with a napkin and began speaking.

"Christmas is the opportunity for this kind of stuff. I want them to know that even if they don't have parents to raise them, even if they can't believe in God, even if they can't believe in Santa, there's still somebody watching. I want to let them know that there is somebody that definitely exists that is pretending to be Santa Claus and sending them piles of toys and sweets. That there's somebody, somewhere in the world, that cares about them....I want them to know that, I want them to believe, I want to believe... This is kind of.....to satisfy myself. Yeah, to say it simply, it's self-satisfaction. That's all."

Her composed smile must have been one of self-mockery. After she shrugged her shoulders and laughed, Taiga poked the bacon in her pasta.

"Hypocrisy. Self-righteousness. It's exactly that. I know, I don't need you telling me that. What I'm doing isn't for the children, but to satisfy my own craving to do this. I'm 'acting' like a good girl, for my own sake...... It's because, I, want to believe. That, 'someone, somewhere in the world, is definitely watching me'. In my case, it's Santa."

"....When you were talking about Santa, you weren't joking?"

"Stupid isn't it?"

Ryuuji could no longer reply. She was the one that was putting on the pale smile, but her eyes radiated powerfully and didn't yield.

".......I, really love Christmas. The town, the stores, everything is glittering, bright, and beautiful, and everyone - they all look like they're really having fun. To me, it looks like everywhere, everywhere, is brimming with happiness. And then I think, ah, if only I can be a part of that... I want to become a part of that happy scene – do good things, be a good girl, and then become one of those happy faces shining in the Christmas city. And, "

Who could have been able to say anything after looking at the shaking color in the depths of her covered eyelashes, after looking at Taiga's expression? What could he have said, Ryuuji wondered, still unable to say anything and only listening. Taiga's voice, whispering quietly as if she were talking to herself, chipped slightly and seemed like it would fade out in the noise of the restaurant.

"And, you know, I really did meet Santa once. .....Then again, it might have been a dream....but, I remember it. It was when I was little. Papa and Mama were still at home, it was Eve, and I was sleeping under the tree in the living room. I think I was waiting for Santa. I woke up from the cold and then I saw it snowing outside the window. I got up and just when I got close... he was there. Santa. On the other side of the window. I was startled, and then I opened the window for him. Santa came in, drank the milk that I left for him under the tree, ate the biscuits, and then, he gave me a present. Then, he said – If Taiga is a good girl, I'll come again."

Her eyes weakly shook as she relived her memories, but then closed her mouth as if she were snapping out of a trance. She lowered her eyes to the corner of the table, as if she were trying to make up an excuse for herself to a silent Ryuuji.

"Anyway, it's a childish dream. I remember up to the point where I was trying to open the present and untied the ribbon as my heart was pounding. But after that.... It was still a really happy dream. That's the only part that's true. This is the only precious Christmas memory I have. So, I want to be a good girl. I'm believing a dream; stupid, right? Believing that someone's watching, that's stupid isn't it? Don't you think that's weak?"

When she said that, there was only one thing that Ryuuji thought.

How do I answer without hurting Taiga? Nothing other than that.

Then slowly, Ryuuji shook his head. "I don't think so at all," he murmured clumsily. Taiga hearing that, deepened her smile and once again began to eat her pasta again. As he looked at her large mouth, cold silence fell onto Ryuuji's chest. And he wondered. Somebody that wants to believe that "someone is watching" is, basically, somebody that's grown up "without being seen by anybody". Taiga has grown up without being watched by anyone, with the exception of just one person – the Santa she met in her dream. The people other than Santa, all of them, didn't look at a maturing Taiga. On the shiny nights of Christmas Eves past, Taiga continued to be alone.

When he started into these deep wounds, this deep loneliness, what he felt was something close to fear. It was a bottomless darkness, similar to despair.

What should I do, he thought.

What should he do to comfort the loneliness of Taiga that had been building up until now, which wouldn't heal even as time passed? Taiga smiled and ate her pasta. She smiled as she said she loved Christmas. She smiled as she said she'll be a good girl ....The reason why she could laugh, it had to be because she'd become numb. She continued to be neglected, the pain inside torturing her entire body, and had come to think that it was normal.

If there was nothing he could do, then does this mean that he should leave her alone? That's not possible. But, but.

But. But.

"It's a dream, it's okay. It's not reality. I'm not clinging to something real. This is a dream, it's fantasy, it's imagination. That's why....I'll believe it, I'll believe that someone is watching, I'll keep being a good girl, and it's not being weak, right?"

Was it a dream, was it real?

It must have been a dream. It might have been just a one-in-a-time event that her bastard of a father cooked up on a whim, but even that would be just as fleeting as a dream to Taiga. It wasn't weakness, but it was sad, but if he honestly said that, he'll surely hurt Taiga.

"Sorry about badgering you about this so much. After you told me all that, I get it. Okay. I think, that you're doing a fine job at being a good girl. Thus, I grant you the right to eat dessert too!"

He smiled at her and pushed the dessert menu toward Taiga. Taiga said, "Ah, wait, wait," ate the remaining pasta with one slurp, and then began picking from a vast selection of desserts as her eyes sparkled.

To keep himself from realizing the powerlessness that struck him by surprise at this pasta chain in the early afternoon, Ryuuji put his chin into his hands.

They lived on the same planet, breathed the same air, walked beneath the same sky, had been side by side like family – but, in the end, he still hadn't seen her properly. He knew how hard it was to understand each other, but his heart felt like breaking from his carelessness and inexperience. He discovered that understanding and not hurting were on a completely different level.

He didn't mind if he lost sight of someone going far away. He even believed that he would want to shout goodbye with love and sincerity to the back of that person that was leaving his road, the person that decided that she'd follow her own path. Ryuuji already knew that if people believed in "thinking of one another", they'd be fine no matter how far apart they were.

But.

What should he do for a person he couldn't help with his own hands, even when she was in pain and writhing even now, only several dozen centimeters away from him? If she at least yelled "Help me" – if she herself realized that she bore large wounds gushing blood, something might change, but...

This world probably has been made so cruel that she too, has to walk alone with her raw wounds still open. If this was true, then God and Santa don't exist in this world. There is no salvation, there is no one watching.

Light Novel
Main Series' Volumes

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