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

This is Chapter 5 from Volume 7 of the Toradora! Light Novel series. The text is from Baka-tsuki.

Transcript

"We even came here early but it's sooo crowded! How many people are here!? Ah, it's Takasu!"

"Hey, Taka-chan! Over here!"

5:15 PM

The gym, with a twinkling tree set in its center, its curtains closed, and lights and illuminations adorned throughout, was stuffed with noisy students. The excitement from the Christmas party, which was from something they didn't get to see everyday, was probably at its peak, and there were all sorts of people getting into the spirit of things. There were those wearing the shiny party hats handed out at the reception desks, those wearing Groucho glasses, and one wearing a suit as well as...

"Ah, watch it! Don't you dare spill that! You're going to get dust stuck on the floor with that!"

...A bandana and apron, acting like the old lady at the cafeteria. Eek....was the reaction of the guy that was being yelled at, shrugging his shoulders. But he deserved it. Even with the hall this packed, he was unsteadily holding a full cup of fruit punch in one hand, and was about to spill the sweet carbonated juice on the floor.

Noto and Haruta pushed their way through the crowd of people as if they were swimming through a wave with a forward crawl, and approached the old lady in the suit and the bandanna. Noticing them, the old lady, Ryuuji, said, "Ou!" and put on his special Yaksha face. Er, no, he smiled.

"Hey, Taka-chan. I can't believe you're wearing an apron when you've got something on that sweet! And say, when did you get a suit that stylish!? Oh man~, lucky you~! I'm stuck with this thing I just bought at the station building!"

And when Haruta pinched, wriggling the edge of his cutsew,

"Haruta's case is still okay. It's new too. Me, I've got this, this. I've been wearing it for two years."

Noto tugged on his worn-out parka, on which the name of a minor band was written in large letters. Their eyes watered up sadly, as if to say, If everybody's going to be dressed up, tell us~. This, by the way, was not even as adorable as cat poop.

From behind these two pitiful men, cold voices rattled.

"Hey! That's the line for the fruit punch, you know!"

"Don't cut in line!"

It was a little hard to tell with that crowd, but it seems that Noto and Haruta had accidentally cut to the head of the line.

Uh oh, thought Ryuuji, who then waved his ladle with a piercing look in his eyes. Like magic, the trajectory of the ladle banished Noto and Haruta from the dimension of the people in the line. Basically, he scooted them in a little. As far as ladling went, Ryuuji basically had no equals.


Haruta held down his long head and bowed to the people in the line, saying "So sorryy," whereas Noto, whose glasses were fogging up from being close to so many people, spotted a team of girls in Chinese dresses and firmly rubbed the lens with his fingers.

Having arrived to the party on a magic chariot, the prince of the underworld was currently settling in as the person in charge of the wall-side fruit punch booth, radiating an alien presence.

But still, it wasn't as if Ryuuji wanted to take up this dull job. When he and Taiga had gotten out of the car together, all of the amazed eyes of present students were on them. It wasn't his imagination, it really wasn't. There were people saying how stylish, how beautiful, how cute, and even somewhat maniacal ones like, "Didn't expect any less of the Tiger. Those high-heels are lethal weapons...." But for the most part, he already had been excessively exposed to something as ticklish as jealous eyes.

As they caught the attention of the surrounding mob, they slowly walked step by step with each other to the center of the hall where the tree was. Then, Ryuuji's eyes, by chance, looked toward the walls. That was when things went wrong. His eyes became glued to it. Syrup dripped heavily from the ladle, and cracker crumbs littered the tablecloths though it wasn't long after the opening of the hall. The people who should have been serving the food were chit-chatting, "Ah, it's pretty cold" "Still, there's sure a lot of people here."

At that moment, one of Ryuuji's cheeks twitched. His right hand scratched the area that would have been where his uniform pocket was in vain, but he then remembered that he was wearing a suit now. He didn't have the Takasu stick either. He had tissues and a handkerchief, but no wet tissues. He didn't have his baking soda water pack set. He didn't have his emergency stain remover, nor did he have his magic cloth. He didn't have his favorite, all-purpose, acrylic sponge. He didn't have his citric acid spray. He didn't even have his antibacterial gel, air freshener, or natural soap..... He was completely exposed. He might as well been stark naked.

Ryuuji, feeling like a soldier stripped of his arguments, recklessly ran forward. "Just shoot dammit! Er, no... Out of the way~! Please, please let me do it~~~! I'll keep this place from being a mess~~~~!"..... Ryuuji was exposed to enemy fire, completely naked, and started showing the perverted habit he normally hid. A fed-up Taiga had disappeared somewhere, and once he came to,

"But Takasu, are you going to do that the whole time? I kind of feel sorry for you."

".....No, not the whole time....I...think...."

He could only twist his head in response to Noto, who once again approached him, this time lining up properly from the end of the line to reach him. While pouring the foaming fruit punch into Noto's cup, he began to question anew what the devil he was doing, and looked around at his surroundings.

There was still a little time left before 5:30, when the party was to officially begin. However, there were already many students inside the gym, and it was crowded beyond what he had imagined. He got the feeling that there weren't that many third-years here. They had entrance examinations to study for naturally. But still, there were guys still in their uniforms, guys showing off their fashion sense, a group using the occasion to go for the complete gag route by dressing up in drag, and costumed mascots ranging from animals to copyrighted characters appearing and disappearing here and there. There were also couples clinging to each other, being teased by cries of "XXXmas Eve, XXXmas Eve!" from the drag group.

"Ou!? What is that!?"

"That's the 'Ami-chan faction' that's been rumored to be getting out of control lately. They're supposed to be extreme...."

More than a dozen men were wearing long, fluorescent yellow Happi coats with the sloppy and dangerous-looking characters for "Ami-sama Forever" and "Ami-sama Love" written on the back, and wore bandanas tightly around their foreheads. They were sitting in a line at the entrance with one knee up and with serious faces, and... "Wow~, the party's in hi..... Gyah!" ...needlessly frightening a group of girls who had finished their business at the reception table, and did it without changing their expressions to boot. Haruta too was slurping up his fruit punch,

"They're waiting for Ami-chan to come~. They look dangerous don't they~? Fuhihi!"

He laughed at them from a distance. However, the thing that was boldly dangling from his chest, fitted with an abnormally long telephoto lens, was a dangerous-looking camera.

".....So, Haruta. Just what are you going to take a picture of....?"

Overlooking this was difficult as one of the committee members running the party. But the idiot happily said, "Ah, you noticed~!?" and proudly flashed a V-sign.

"Ami-chan, you know~! Okay~! She'll be like jiggle, jiggle, tu~nak, tunakking with another unbelievable outfit~! She should when she shows up~! So I borrowed this~! Ahahahahahahahahaha!"

From Haruta's big, laughing mouth, a strand of fruit punch came tu~nakking out of his mouth like saliva. Not even pretending to care, the idiot suddenly pulled in his face and said with determination,

"I, want to just remember Ami-chan's LENGS, I want to leave behind a record....."

...."You mean legs", Noto corrected, the tone of his voice having a sad inflection. Ryuuji forgot the anger inside him and was going to gently wipe the mouth of his brainless friend. However, "Eh, what!? Don't act like a mom! That's gross!" ....His hand was knocked away unexpectedly roughly, and Ryuuji was hurt by this so much that even he was surprised. Noto comforted him, patting his back, but his eyes weren't looking at a watery-eyed Ryuuji, but the hubbub around.

"But, so where is Ami-chan? The party's almost about to start you know? I did see Kihara and Nanako though."

"A~o! That Kihara, she was like showing off her legs with her short pants~! She is soooo baiting us~! Sexy~! On the other hand, Nanako-sama's wearing a pure white Cinderella dress~! She's also baiting us~! Sexy~!"

The words of the idiot passed through Ryuuji's ears from right to left in an instant. Now that he mentioned it, he hadn't seen Ami yet. It'd be like that attention whore to be spending time on getting lavishly dressed up. Maybe she was going be dressed in something as ridiculous as that thing she wore back when she was hosting the Cultural Festival beauty pageant. Or maybe, she was going to arrive here late on purpose, grab all the attention, then, "Ha, ha! Grovel behind Ami-chan as she walks, smell and lick the scent of her footsteps, shed tears of joy at miracle of her absolute beauty, and get out of the way you foolish commoners, yeehaw!" This was likely, which was why he cringed.

But...

The truth was, the person he'd been looking for since earlier wasn't Ami.

Even while he was mixing the fruit punch, wiping the table, and talking to Noto and Haruta, the person he had been waiting for and hadn't forgot about for even a moment was none other than Kushieda Minori.

Ryuuji surveyed the clamorous gym filled with students. He gently held down the small lump in his back pocket.

There wasn't a reply yet to the email he had just sent. He had tried calling her cell phone once, but it went to voicemail, and he hadn't heard a word from her since then. Before he knew it, he had lost sight of Taiga too, the one who had told him while puffing out her flat chest, "You'll be fine, just leave it to me."

She still didn't come.

No, more like, just as he'd thought. No matter how many times he invited her today, she was already set on not coming. And ultimately, she still hadn't changed her mind, so maybe, she really might not show up.... No, don't think like that. Ryuuji shook his head violently. He forcefully discarded the discouraging thoughts from his brain. There was something he wanted to show to Minori right? There was something he wanted to give her right? What is not believing in himself going to accomplish? And, the party still hasn't even begun yet. Things are just starting. Clenching the ladle, Ryuuji lifted his face up, but just at that moment,

"Eh~, ladies and gentlemen! Thank you, thank you, thank you very much for attending this Christmas party today!"

Kitamura's mic-amplified voice reverberated throughout the hall. Ryuuji, Noto, Haruta, and everyone else in the hall looked toward the stage in unison – and gagged. Their jaws could only drop once they saw the brave figure of the Student President, the organizer of tonight's party.

"Please take out the party poppers that were distributed at the reception table! In celebration of Christmas Eve, I would like to countdown to the beginning of the party!"

On the stage, Kitamura, smiling in a pleasant mood, was dashingly dressed as a nudist Santa. Other than the fake beard, the usual red hat, black boots, red pants, and suspenders barely covering his nipples, he wasn't wearing anything. He was stark naked.

Why? For what purpose? The people in the hall were unable to ask him these questions and, uninhibited, Kitamura continued to lead the party. "His unwanted but exposed skin raised goosebumps and laid bare his surprisingly muscular chest. If only that was Ami-chan"....was what was being nonsensically mumbled by Haruta, who then helplessly took a picture, thus capturing the nude Santa.

"Are you ready!? Let's celebrate this year's Christmas Eve! 3, 2,"

Ryuuji frantically grabbed the party popper he had left beside him. Everyone in the hall raised the party poppers that were distributed at the reception desk, one per person. Then, Kitamura,

"1, .....Merry.........................Christmaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!!"

Yelled, and at the same time.

"It's still Christmas Eve!", shouted several people, but that was overwhelmed by the powerful bursting sounds of Pop! Pop! High voices shrilled in delight. Streamers burst out at once from the simultaneous popping of over a hundred party poppers and brilliantly fluttered in the rays from the lights. The air in the hall was brightly cast in tempestuous colorfulness in an instant. There was a second, delayed blast from somewhere as someone fired his. Laughter could be heard from where that happened.

As the smell of explosive powder floated in the air, all of the lights that had been left on by the entrance were shut off, and only the top spotlights were left lighting the hall. The whistling of someone trailed, laughter and cheering roared throughout, and Ryuuji was close to getting a screw turned loose.

"Yay! Merry Christmas! Here's to next year!"

"Merikuri~~~~~! Uhyo~~~~~~~~~~~~~~!"

Noto and Haruta and high-fived each other, and Ryuuji, adding an, "Ou! Merry Christmas.....Eve!" drank down the awfully sweet fruit punch he had poured for himself.

The carbonic acid fizzled in his throat. The strong sweetness wrapped around his tongue. However, the heat still wasn't enough to make his heart dance. There wasn't enough power. She still didn't come. If Minori didn't show up, he couldn't see the goal mark for the love he was dashing toward.

The beating of his jumping heart, the stiffening of his shaking back, everything in his body, everything, was waiting for her to appear. Ryuuji was waiting for Minori's smile. Please be here, please smile at me, he prayed with all his might. He held out his imaginary hand, his imaginary baton, as if asking her to grab it.

Then, it happened.

The curtains of the stage that the very unsightly Kitamura had departed from rose, and cheering grew even more, bursting in colors of surprise and excitement. Ryuuji's eyes flashed open manically. Was it because he spotted the man that killed his old man...? No. ...What he was firmly clutching wasn't a gun. It was a ladle.

There sure isn't any background music playing was what he had been thinking. He knew, of course, that they were going to fire the party poppers to celebrate the opening (Ryuuji had gotten them after all), so he had figured that playing music afterward would build up the opening mood.

But he had been fooled. He had been completely fooled.

The first year Preparatory Committee member that was handing out sandwiches next to him also had his mouth hanging open in surprise. He didn't know either. To think it'd be a surprise to the Preparatory Committee members too...... It looked like the only ones that knew were the Student Council and them.

On the stage, a secret, one night only, special production was put on. The bones in his body tingled, resonating to the raw sound of unfamiliar drums. The vibrations from the floor raced across his quivering body. The blood in his whole body trembled.

Drums, guitar, bass, and a keyboard. If he remembered right, this should've been the band from the pop music club. He remembered hearing that they were pretty good from the people who saw their live performance at the Cultural Festival. What they were playing was a pop arrangement of an all-too-famous Christmas number one single that everyone should've known. And the one leading the band, singing into the mic with English lyrics was,

"Ta.....Taiga.... That's Taiga!"

Ryuuji was about to faint.

It was Taiga, wearing a black strapless dress. Ami was there too, wearing the same kind of knee-length black dress and had the same kind of hairdo as Taiga. Besides them, there was a second year from the Student Council and another girl, who probably was the vocalist of the pop music club.

The four fashionably dressed girls, all with stylish side-swept hair, deep red lipstick, elbow-length gloves, and black strapless dress, joined their voices to the melody. The girls stepped to the right, and then to the left in front of the mic stands. They raised their arms up, tilted their heads a little, then slowly lowered their hands from the elbows. The group's choreography was sharp, and their singing voices were light and harmonious.

Lights crossed, shining over the four, and from the hall, a coordinated clapping arose. Other voices began sing along with the major parts of song here and there. There were smiles, talking, a Christmas song, and bright lining shining on everything.

"....Wow. Tiger is...singing, and dancing...."

Haruta forgot to release the shutter and danced to the rhythm, his mouth still half open. A clapping and whistling Noto quietly replied.

"It's the power of love, it's love. Just what does she see in that exhibitionist.....right?"

But to those eyes that had quickly glanced at him, Ryuuji couldn't respond. He looked at Taiga on the stage, then Ami, and then thought, Geez.

Geez, seriously.

He had no idea that they'd been working on this. When everyone had been so busy with studying for exams and party preparations, just where did they find the time to rehearse for this, this fine Christmas band?

The songstresses in black, however, trailed off their singing like they were intent on keeping their performance to the background, and stepped up their choreography. Putting both hands to their hips and shaking their heads, they danced with light steps. The people gathering around the tree also followed suit, stepping to the music. Ami, the attention whore, was apparently content on staying as only part of a set tonight. She didn't grandstand, and standing right next to her natural enemy, Taiga, she matched her movements to everyone, and rhythmically shook her ivory shoulders.

The sparkling gold and silver confetti soon began to scatter throughout the hall. Using the air from the ventilation ducts, the guys from the Student Council sprinkled handfuls of confetti from the second floor corridors. The handmade confetti fluttered up, riding on the movement of the air. Ryuuji could also hear the simultaneous voices of girls squealing, "Wow! It's like snow!"

Amidst the shimmering, falling snow, the tree silently beamed light as the symbol of the party. It was enormous, as if it were shining over the entire crowd of smiles. He couldn't see any signs of it being damaged from his wall-side booth. The blinking mini-lights, the bell vine he made with Ami, the silver-blue ornaments, the glossy golden balls, all glittered brilliantly under the crossing spotlights

The same was true for Taiga's star, shining at the top of the tree. Twinkling lights radiated from it beautifully. He could see it brightly shining.

This is so wonderful.

This was, awesome.

Ryuuji looked up at the stage, still paralyzed. He looked at the beautiful Christmas decorations, dazzling illuminations, the large tree, at the live performance, at a singing Taiga. At a dancing Ami. At a nude Kitamura. At his partying friends. And at the many, many, smiling faces. At this hot and crazy, ear ringing, last hoopla of the year.

He really felt like a moron for thinking even for a moment, somewhere inside, that he would have been better off not coming here, that he would have been better off not being nominated as a Committee Member. Ryuuji truly felt that that part of him, the part that had almost thought that he should have forgotten about the party, and instead, call Minori over to give her his present, was an idiot.

After all, he was enjoying himself this much, wasn't he?

That was why he wanted to be here, at this fun place at this moment, with Minori, right? He wanted to watch Taiga and Ami's surprise performance with her didn't he? He wanted to gaze at that shining tree, whilst being shined on by the twinkling of Taiga's star, and enjoy this happy party with her, didn't he?

Ryuuji put down the fruit punch ladle and once again prayed from his heart. Kushieda, please come here. Please come before the party ends. Everyone's having fun, everyone's smiling, and if you're not here, nobody'll be rewarded. Without you, this relay of happiness won't work. This is the amazing moment that I want to see off with smiles, together with you. The ladle was shaking from Ryuuji's powerful prayers.

It couldn't be anywhere else. It couldn't be anytime else. The night that he wanted to spend with Minori, had to be at this party. This night was for the sake of Minori's smile.

Then, Taiga, from the stage, noticed Ryuuji watching her. Keeping eye contact, Taiga curved her lips into a smile. Surprised you, didn't I? You're blown away, aren't you? She seemed as though she wanted to say that. She swiveled around, back to the audience. Waiting three beats, she then turned back. And in that instant, Taiga winked. So fast that no one would notice, and only at Ryuuji.

"I....I.....Idiot!"

He was taken aback, but then grinned. I'm not responsible if you forget you're a klutz and mess up.

But Taiga, despite being Taiga, didn't mess up her choreography. She pushed down her mic stand at the same time and at the same angle as the others, then kicked up the pole, returning it to its original form quickly. Seems like this was all a cinch for the Lord Angel Taiga that had been claiming that Minori will definitely come, that he didn't have to worry. This was, for all intents and purposes, a miracle wasn't it?

"Takasu-kun! Fruit punch please!"

"Hey, I'm first! I'm thirsty!"

The people that got a little too roused up too early came to his booth in flocks, seeking liquid nourishment. Ryuuji snapped out of his trance, remembered his position as a Committee Member, and said, "Okay, okay, please get back in line!" as he swung his ladle. He narrowed his eyes with life-or-death determination, vowing not to spill even one drop.

Amidst the smiles of the people singing, the people dancing, the people talking, the people that just wanted to be loud, and the people waiting for somebody, the night passed. Kitamura also came over and explained why he was dressed like that. He thought he had a full Santa costume, but when he had begun changing at the last minute, he realized that that there was no top. He didn't have time to get another outfit, so he had no choice but to go out like that....was what the story was apparently, but.

"...Couldn't you have just worn a T-shirt?"

"Ah, I see! I could have done that! You should have told me earlier!"

"...It's not too late to wear something now."

"Huh!? What!? I can't hear you!"


By the time that Ryuuji realized Taiga was gone, the background music had switched to the latest Western music and the stage curtains had closed.


  • *

"So this is where you were!"

His arm was suddenly pulled from behind and he lost his balance.

"Ou!..... Geez, you scared me."

"Eh, I can't hear you! It's really crowded..... Kya!"

"It's Ami-chan, it's Ami-chan, it's Ami-chan! Ami-chan's descended to the mortal plane!" He could see guys from all over the place paddling through the waves of people to get near, like they were bugs attracted to a bug zapper. If the "Ami-sama Love" Happi-coated men hadn't encircled Ami with their own bodies and warded off the crowds of people with screams of "Don't touch her!" "Don't get any closer!", the two just might have been stuck in the center of a squishy Ring-a-Round-the-Roses circle and suffocated.

After somehow getting enough space for two in front of the tree, Ami covered one of her ears in the noise and smiled at him with her deep rosy, alluring lips.

"Hey, hey, how was the song!? You were surprised weren't you!"

"Yeah, that really caught me off guard! When did you guys rehearse that?"

"It was like a surprise present ♥ for the guys in the Preparatory Committee!"

Their current location was right in the center of the music and the noise, and it wasn't going to be possible to have a conversation on the same wavelength without both of them shouting. Dressed up more beautifully than anyone else in her tight black dress, Ami raised up both her hands from under the light, and then said, "Ah, I love this song~!" while dancing to the music. Whistles and cheering arose from the glittering confetti. The people encircling her also raised up their arms like Ami and shook them to the rhythm.

"This is my song! Come on, Takasu-kun, raise up your hands too! Hey, what happened today!? I like so didn't expect you to come here with such a chic suit!"

She came so close to him that he could feel her body heat. Both his hands were grabbed and lifted up while glares of jealousy and envy were stabbing at his back, but...

"Ho-hold on! I'm looking for Taiga right now!"

"Eh!? What!?"

Ryuuji wasn't in the mood to be dancing around merrily. Making his way through the dancing people with hand chops and saying "Excuse me, person in the back! Excuse me!" Kitamura, now wearing a T-shirt and having removed the beard and hat, made his appearance.

"Ou, Kitamura! Over here! Was she over there!?"

"No, she wasn't there! Nobody saw her! Oh, good timing, Ami, do you know!? We can't find Aisaka anywhere! We've been looking for her!"

Ami stopped dancing. He got the feeling that her lips moved slightly. However, it was far too hectic and packed, and whatever she said didn't reach Ryuuji's ears.

"Eh!? What did you say!? I can't hear you!"

He brought his ears closer to the mouth of Ami, who was almost as tall as he was. Ami brought her body closer to him, as if she was going to wrap her arms around him, and cupped the area between Ryuuji's ears and her own mouth, and said it.

"I said, she went back home."

"She said, she's going to see Minori-chan. She'll drag her here. Then, she'll go back home. She said she doesn't want to get in the way and she's going to get ready for Christmas and wait for Santa."

Ryuuji looked back at Ami, his mouth agape like an idiot. Ami's large eyes reflected the illumination and emanated powerful and cold light straight at him.

"....You didn't know? You had no idea this would happen? You really had no idea?"

He nodded.

The dance music played. Amid the crowds of people shaking their hands high in the air, Ryuuji could do nothing else but nod. He couldn't move. It doesn't make any sense. Kitamura asked, "What!?", and looking back at Kitamura's face, he thought so once again.

It doesn't make any sense at all.

"Why? ....Why does she have to do that!?"

"How should I know!?"

"Why does she have to go back home!?"

"I said I don't know! ....Maybe, there's something she didn't want to see!?"

"......Eh....?"

"That's why I warned you. Crud, I had enough. No matter what I say to you, it doesn't make a difference. You don't listen to what I say..... None of you do.... I'm finished here."

Ami powerfully pushed Ryuuji's chest away as if she was struggling to get away. Ryuuji was overtaken by her force and his legs tripped over themselves. Ami didn't even bother to look back.

"Okay I'm tired, I'm going home. Out of the way, get out of the damn way! Oh, why does it have to be so crowded....... Pain in the ass! I want to be by myself, I'm tired!"

Saying so, she forced her body away from the crowd and tottered away. "What's wrong, Ami-chan!" "Ami-chan, where you going!?" "Come on, let's dance!" - "I said, out of the way!" Screaming, Ami escaped from the arms of the people approaching her. Her white neck, white back, disappeared in the circle of dancing people. Her voice was buried in the music and faded away.

And Ryuuji was left.

"What did she say!? Did Ami know anything!?"

".....She said, she left......."

"Sorry, couldn't hear! One more time!"

".....Taiga! Went home!"

"Eh!? Why!? Aisaka didn't even spend any time enjoying herself!"

Yeah, yeah she really didn't. He looked at his friend's eye-widened face. Ryuuji held his chest which was still hurting from Ami's shove.

Taiga still hasn't enjoyed herself at this party. She didn't even have the time to talk to Kitamura. The party was a success. Everybody's having fun. Everybody's smiling. But Taiga, she still hasn't been rewarded in the slightest way for this.

"I wonder what happened!? Wait, maybe she felt sick!?"

"I....don't...know...."

I don't know.

Ryuuji stood motionless in the growing mob and scratched his head. He couldn't move a muscle. He didn't get it. Why did it have to be like this?

It was for Ryuuji's sake that Taiga prepared that suit.

It was for the sake of everyone, it was for the sake of building up the mood of the party that she dressed up, sung, and danced.

And again, it was for Ryuuji's sake, that Taiga left. She left, to call Minori, to not get in the way?

"....But then, if you go back home, by yourself.....who is going to make you smile? Is this being a part of the happy scenery?"

Mumbling this, he saw, with the corner of his eyes, the Christmas tree shine. Taiga's shattered star did twinkle. But, no matter how beautiful it is, no matter how bright, if she isn't here, there's no point. If she wasn't laughing with him under that bright tree, she couldn't be rewarded. For whose sake is tonight so beautiful? For whose sake will Christmas come? Isn't it for everybody? An "everybody" that includes Taiga? Everybody has to be happy. Did you forget that you even said that, you klutzy tiger?

Or, do you really, think that Santa is watching? "I know it's hypocrisy, self-righteousness.". This is what you've been saying the whole time, but you really believe that Santa is going to see you again if you stay a good girl?

But there is no Santa in the real world. There's no one that knows how much of a good girl Taiga's been. There's nobody watching. There's no God in the world. The town's glittering, the illuminations are shining, everybody's smiling, and a happy Christmas will be coming to the world, but, Taiga, won't be rewarded.

Isn't Taiga going to be alone again this year? ....Didn't she go back home alone? Aren't there any adults that'd help her? Yeah, there are, but those adults aren't next to Taiga now.

Thus, in the end, this year as well, Taiga's going to be alone?

He patted his face.

He was thinking, still unmoving.

How do I save tonight's relay?

He looked again at Kitamura's face. He was about to wrench a voice out from his throat but No, that's not it..., and swallowed down what he was going to say. He finally realized it.

There is one person that has been watching.

And there's someone that knows Taiga's loneliness.

Only one person in the world. There is only one person who has always been watching Taiga from nearby. The baton to be handed to Taiga is right here in this hand.

There's only one person that knows that Taiga has been a good girl.

And his name is Takasu Ryuuji.

In other words – me.


  • *

"Is that true? Is that really true?"

Her friend had asked her that again and again. She had patiently nodded each time to say that it was true. "Ryuuji said he won't leave until Minorin comes. He's ready to stay overnight at the school." ....The words she had repeated had become close to blackmail. For the first time in a long time, she had come to the Kushieda residence, and at its door, Minori had stood still for a while, at a loss, biting her lips.

Taiga remembered the expression on her face.

".......I'm sorry, Minorin."

There was no way Minori could hear her, but even so, she whispered gently to herself.

"But, you want to go don't you? You really want to go, don't you? ....I know. We're friends. If we weren't, I wouldn't be able to do this much."

After all of that stuff she had said, there was no way Minori wouldn't go to the party. It was good enough if she was going because she couldn't let him stay overnight at the school. The rest would be up to him.

The stockings that she had tossed away were hanging on the sofa. The clutch bag was on the floor and her short fur coat was laid crumpled by the door. She was terribly tired, and not having the energy to take off her dress, she wrapped Ryuuji's muffler around her cold shoulders. She hadn't stolen it from him this time. When she sneezed on the walk back home to change, Ryuuji had wrapped it around her. She'd been busy with the preparations for the party and had forgotten to give it back.

She buried her nose into the softness of the cashmere and filled her lungs with its familiar smell. She exhaled and put her chin against the warmth of her own breath.

The blisters on her heel hurt and it was too much of a bother to stand. Sitting sloppily on the floor, she weakly lowered the lighting in the living room with the remote control. Today, she left the TV off, and the wide room was quiet, as if it was the bottom of the ocean.

On the low table was a small glass tree. She gently took out the candle inside along with the whole tray, and very carefully lit it with a lighter she bought at a convenience store. She did it carefully, quite carefully. No way was she going to die in a fire on Christmas Eve.

In the darkened living room, an orange-colored light warmly shimmered. The glass tree really was beautiful. The aroma of the candle gave off a light scent that tickled her nose.

She removed the pin that tightly bound her hair and resting her elbows on the table, watched the shimmering flame. The only thing that grated her was the sound of the heater. She put the muffler around her head and covered her ears. The room was filled with silence, and she felt that it was fine like this. Her body, exhausted from the calamity of the past few days, seemed like it was about doze off now.

Once again, she was alone. Santa wouldn't come. Even if she tried acting like a good girl just at this time of year, she realized it was too late, as if she just remembered it. After all, this year, she even got herself suspended, and the truth was, there was no Santa either.

That's why, this year, she was alone again. And next year, she would probably be alone too.

And probably, for the years that lay ahead as well, she would always, always, always be alone. As she closed her eyes to a drowsiness close to a peaceful death, Taiga mused. As long as she lived, she would probably always be alone. Just like everything until now, she would be alone forever. She was born under those parents, under that destiny, so it couldn't be helped.

She closed her eyes.

What a life. If she had to say so for herself, she did feel like she could manage, kind of, if she assumed there was "someone" out there. Of course, she knew that was it just a dream. It was because she knew that she could let herself believe that.

She couldn't let herself count on something, on someone. She couldn't live out "Aisaka Taiga's" life with that weak a heart. She had to become strong in order to live alone. But if it was a dream, if it was some short-lived unrealistic fantasy, then that wouldn't be clinging on something, right? If she killed someone she hated in her imagination, that wouldn't be a crime. If she embraced someone in her imagination, it wasn't something that person would know about. That was how it worked. Even if she was living in a dream, that shouldn't make her weak.

"......You're saying that, even when you are so clinging on someone...."

"!?"

She sprung up.

Did she fall asleep? No, it's only been a few minutes. It felt like something suddenly crashed and then she thought she heard someone's voice say something, but,

"......Eh!?"

This time, she really did jump up. She got up on her knees by reflex and looked toward the direction where the sound came from.

There was a knocking sound on glass.....probably the window. She could hear it coming from the bedroom.

A thief? A pervert? A murderer? ....The sound returned, one more time, this time clearer. Taiga stood up without making a sound. She tightly covered her exposed shoulders with her muffler and boldly ventured into the bedroom. Please, oh God no. This has to be a joke. I don't want to die from a fire, but being killed by someone is even worse. My wooden sword is in the bedroom. I have confidence in my strength. I don't know if I could take on a real criminal, but it is better than going down without a fight. She opened the door, stepped barefooted in the cold, dark bedroom, opened the curtains with the readiness to die, and...

"......."

Shriek

What screamed was only the bottom of her throat. She was so shocked that she lost her voice.

Her knees gave way and she fell to the floor.

Why was there – outside the window, at the divider between the apartment from the Takasu residence, in a posture close to falling, hands on the window, and pounding on the glass – a bear, a bear with a Santa hat?

The hands of the bear pounded on the glass even harder, as if he was saying, I'm going to fall! It looked like he was about to, as his footing was wobbling. His stiffened body was trembling. It was only a matter of seconds before he was about to fall, and witnessing the very moment of his crisis,

"Sa–"

Her hesitations were blown away and she hastily opened the window without thinking.

".....Santa....?"

She pulled him inside. If it wasn't Santa, she would be in big, big trouble. But the bear was pulled inside Taiga's bedroom, rested on the floor on all fours for a while, caught his breath like he was exhausted, and soon nodded.

As if to say, I am Santa.

"No way..... Really?"

He nodded one more time. Slowly, while holding down his enormous head. It's true. I really am Santa. He eloquently expressed that more than anything else.

Even she didn't quite understand just what it was that came over her, but...

"........Ahhahahaha! What is this!? Ahahaha!"

Before she knew it, Taiga broke into laughter. She wrapped her arms around her stomach and exploded into laughter. The whole situation was too ridiculous, but, yes, she did believe. This was Santa Claus. A Santa bear came. Because she stayed a good girl, he came to see her again just like he promised. While laughing wholeheartedly, she grabbed Santa's hand. She helped him stand up, tugged on his arm as he tottered, and brought him to her messy living room.

"Santa! Look, this is this year's tree!"

The bear's black plastic eyes looked at the small tree. Then, he turned to Taiga and gave her the thumbs up. Santa approved!

"Yay! I knew it, I knew this was beautiful! Yes, yes, this is soooo great! It's so great that Santa complimented my tree..... No, it's not just the tree! This is great, this is great, this is great! I can't believe it, you really came! Santa really came! You're a bear, but a bear is fine too! This is perfect! .....It's like...a dream.....!"


Taiga screamed, jumping up and down. She jumped again and again and turned each time. She was so happy, so happy, and even threw a kiss with both hands to the ceiling.

Then, she sung that Christmas song she spent so much time rehearsing for the band. Hop, step, then jump! Then, she jumped and clung to Santa's torso. She hung on to him as much as she could. She hugged him for dear life with all her might. The warm Santa bear gently put out both his arms and firmly hugged Taiga's body. He patted her head, stroked her hair, and hugged back her body.

Have there ever been arms that had hugged her like this before?

Were there arms other than these that wouldn't betray the heart she entrusted to them?

There weren't, there weren't, there weren't. There weren't any others, anywhere in the world. Those arms could only be found here. The heat of joy surged from the depths of her body. Her tension rose and she felt like she was becoming an idiot. She wasn't alone this year. Taiga closed her eyes and rubbed her cheeks against his warm chest. This year, Santa came. It wasn't a dream. It was real. He hugged her. How.....happy, she was.

While still hanging on to him with all her might, Taiga continued to sing. She nestled her face into his dusty body. With her bare legs, she danced in steps to the song. The Santa bear also danced. Right, left, turn, then turn the other way.

She guffawed like an idiot, danced so much her legs tripped over each other, hung on to him, and sung a really terrible song. She sung in loops just the phrases she loved. She kept hugging him, tripping, and laughed so much that tears came falling out..... She knew she couldn't keep doing this forever. Taiga knew deep down inside. If only this moment would last forever. If only she could keep dancing with the Santa bear forever.

But...

"Aaaah....this is real, isn't it! My dream's become real.....!"

Muttering this, she lifted her head.

Then she made one long sigh.

Her unattainable wish was granted and became real. If this was a dream, it would have been okay to wish for it to last forever. After all, no matter how much she wished for it, she would wake up from it one day.

But, because reality didn't work that way...

"......Thank you."

She had to, with her own arms, with her own pulsing arms, close the curtains herself.

"Thank you..... Ryuuji."

Catching her breath after laughing too much, she took off the head of the pained-looking bear. A red face dripping with sweat even though it was the middle of winter appeared. "Ah! Don't take it off you idiot!" She laughed on reflex. Why are you fretting that much? You didn't actually think I wouldn't find out, did you?

"So, where did you get that?"

"...I borrowed it from someone wearing it."

Although he brusquely turned his eyes away, Ryuuji, however, smiled clumsily. The hair he had combed back was sticking to his forehead with sweat, and was a mess. Rather, more important than his hair was...

"Hey.... What happened to the suit?"

"I traded it with the guy that was wearing this. Ah, of course I'll get it back! I will, I will!"

Sigh...... What an idiot, Ryuuji really is an idiot.

"I can't believe you'd take it off when you still have the night ahead of you! Geez, you idiot! You idiot, idiot, idiot! Even when I gave it to you! Even though you're supposed to be meeting Minorin!"

"What do you mean I'm an idiot!? .....What!? What do you mean I'm supposed to be meeting Minorin!?"

"I told you to believe in Lord Angel Taiga, didn't I? Minorin should be heading to the party. She might already be there. Come on, you can still make it, hurry up!"

"What!? But....wait, but...today... I'm already a mess, and I came back because I didn't want to leave you by yourself."

"What are you talking about!? Don't worry about me!"

She pushed the body of the dilly-dallier hard and tilted her body back, laughing.

"Santa and good girl role playing... It's been a while since I laughed so hard that my stomach hurt! Your performance.......it was hilarious! Ah, I'm looking forward to tomorrow of course, to the meal you promised. You'll do fine with Minorin, and tomorrow, we'll eat at your house! You didn't forget did you!?"

"O-of course not! There's no way I'd forget!"

"Good! ....Come on, go! Get up! Hurry up! If Ryuuji doesn't go to the party, that'll make me a liar to Minorin."

Ryuuji's eyes looked over Taiga.

Taiga shrugged her shoulders and smiled again. She pointed at Ryuuji's face from the front.

"And, 'Santa' has already come, right? .....I already received my compensation. That's why, this year, I have to be a good girl until the very end. Let me keep being a good girl. Sending Minorin to the party is the real present I'm giving to you. That's why....take it. Please."

"Are you really okay by yourself?"

She thought Ryuuji had said something like that. And repeating over and over again, "I'm fine, don't worry, go on", Taiga forcefully pulled Ryuuji's arm. She was about to push him out from the hallway to the door, but Ryuuji shouted "Ou!" like he noticed something, and returned to the living room. That dilly-dallier. Just when she was wondering what that was about, Ryuuji blew out the candle inside the tree – "Fire has been taken care of!" – and pointed at it. He couldn't leave without any worries if the candle was still lit, or something like that.

He really is such a nitpicker.

"Oookay, okay, okay. I get it. I'm a klutz so I won't light it anymore. I swear. That's good enough, right? ....Geez, you're so annoying..... I get it, so hurry up! The party's going to end! Go on, go on! Go, go!"

She pushed away his back with slaps. She even kicked him in the rear. She threw out Ryuuji from the front door to the hallway with pushes and shoves. If he walks outside like that, he's definitely going to stick out but..... No, it's Christmas Eve after all. He might actually fit in.

"Get out already you dilly-dallying dog!"

"Thanks!" was what Ryuuji shouted in the end after finally turning his back. Before the door was closed, Taiga didn't look at Ryuuji once.

The door was locked.

He finally left.

She took a breath. Mission accomplished. Angel Taiga did what she had to do. The sound of the footsteps descending the stairway grew softer and softer until finally, they became inaudible.

"Aaah. I'm so tired..."

It was her own fault for making a big commotion. The inside of her lonely room returned back to its former silence. While she stretched, she returned to the living room barefooted.

The noise of the heater was definitely jarring in her all-too-quiet room. When Ryuuji had been there, she had forgotten all about it.

"He finally left, he finally left, he finally left..."

She returned onto the top of the rug. While humming a stupid song, she thought about lighting the tree again. She'd do it carefully. She'd be fine. She'd already bought a candle. It would be a waste not to light it. But,

"...Huh? Huh, huh, huh...why?"

She couldn't find the lighter.

Where did she put it? She traced back her steps. The only thing she remembered was that she placed it right over here. Then Ryuuji came in, she made that big ruckus like an idiot, and then the flame had been blown out,

"...Ah. Maybe he..."

Ryuuji took it with him, thinking she'd try to light it again. That had to be it. On top of being a Santa without a present, he actually committed robbery. He had guts. When the 25th was over, she was so going to kill him by 2/3rds of his life.


She reluctantly stood up and looked to see if there was anything else she could use. Taiga looked at the desk Ryuuji had kept neat, looked at the AV board Ryuuji had kept neat, looked at the kitchen drawers Ryuuji had kept neat, but she couldn't find a lighter nor a match.

She couldn't move out of irritation. It was her own house yet she didn't know where anything was. She couldn't even light a candle.

"...No, I've had it."

He really is a nitpicker.

"No, I..."

And despite being a nitpicker, he made the most nonsensical entrance. A bear? Please.

"No."

He should have made it in time, shouldn't he?

"No."

His feelings toward Minori, he should have sai-

"..."

No.


"...What? Why?"

She asked herself out of surprise. When she touched her face, the tips of her fingers were wet.

Why were there tears pouring down her cheeks?

"Ah.....I get it now."

She thought about it a little, then silently nodded her head and understood why.

It was because, this was the end.

She clung on to and lived with Ryuuji as if he were a dream. While making nonsensical excuses to herself like, "I'm not relying on him, I'm just making him help me out," while thinking, "It's just for now anyway. Because if Ryuuji moves, or I move, or he dates Minori, or I date Kitamura-kun, we can't stay together like this." She had lived together with Ryuuji. She lived, counting on Ryuuji's kindness. This is a dream, so it isn't being weak, right? Just this much should be okay, shouldn't it?

That ended tonight.

She believed that Minori was attracted to Ryuuji. She believed that Ryuuji really liked Minori. In other words, their feelings were mutual. That was why they would probably be together. When that happens, she wouldn't be able to stay with him any longer. She wouldn't be able to go in and out of his house like before. No matter what happens, she wouldn't be able to call Ryuuji. She wouldn't be able to walk side by side with Ryuuji. The one next to him wasn't her.

That was why...

"No."

She was sad.

She was surprised.

She never thought about it before. She didn't even give it a thought that she wouldn't want to be separated from Ryuuji. The one she was attracted to, the one she adored, the one in her dreams had always been Kitamura Yuusaku. She only thought of him. The one she loved should have been Kitamura Yuusaku. Why was this happening?

She remembered that day when Kitamura Yuusaku confessed to the woman he loved and had been hurt. She remembered how angry she had been on that day when she went to pulverize Kanou Sumire without thinking of her own future.

She was concerned more about Kitamura than herself that day. She was worried about Kitamura's suffering more than her own. The reason why she was able to put her own heart on hold was probably because Ryuuji was there. Because she believed Ryuuji would understand her. That was why she didn't have to look at her own pain. Ryuuji had always been by her, watching over her.

And that had been the correct thing, hadn't it? When she committed the mistake of violence, the one who grabbed her arm, the one who stopped her, the one who saved her had been Ryuuji.

She had been spoiled and cared by him like that. Without realizing it, she had been counting on his kindness.

She was able to love because she felt near her the definite power of Ryuuji.

Because when she had been daydreaming about doing this and that with Kitamura, being thought of like this and that, Ryuuji had always watched over her. Because she had entrusted her heart to Ryuuji.

It was as if she didn't realize it at all until this happened – until she lost him. She hadn't understood at all how fortunate she was to have a place to entrust her heart to. She hadn't thought of Ryuuji as being "strength". Why? She wanted to kick her own empty head. She hadn't understood what she had been standing on. Without Ryuuji, how could anything bloom? She couldn't even wipe away the tears falling down her chin.

Without Ryuuji, I can't even be in love.

After all, at this moment, I can barely stand.

I don't know if I can continue living.

I needed Ryuuji.

In other words, I had been in love with Ryuuji.

I have been, since a long time ago.

I don't want it to end like this, I don't want this to be the end, I don't want to leave Ryuuji's side. I can't bear it, I can't go on living, I can't take it. I...


No!


"....!"

She ran without knowing what she was doing.

She ran out of the living room, kicked open the door with her bare feet, and ran out. She ran down the cold hallway. Following the stairway Ryuuji walked down from, Taiga ran down three steps at a time. The fringe of her mini skirt ripped. Not knowing how to stop her pouring tears, she dashed past the marble entrance like there was no tomorrow. She held her breath, as if praying. Please, please, let me make it in time.

She pressed her body against the heavy glass door to open it. She tripped outside into the chilly, gusty road.

The cold asphalt pierced her naked feet.

She looked right. She looked left. He wasn't there. Ryuuji was gone. He wasn't here. What should she do? She covered her tear-distorted face. Her feet stopped, and breathing in all the wintery air her lungs could handle, she screamed at the nighttime sky,

".....Ryuujiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii...........!!"

She noticed a passing couple looking at her in surprise. "A fight?" "I feel sorry for her... It's Christmas Eve isn't it...?" So I'm pitiful am I. Taiga wailed with an even louder voice like an infant.

She cried and cried, and called out Ryuuji's name.

She knew it wouldn't reach him, but she still continued. She continued yelling even as her throat became sore. Her heart was trashed, as if a storm had passed through it, but her head was clear. A part of her looked down on her wailing self. That was why I hate reality. Unlike dreams, reality can break. Things are lost.

The moment he stepped in when she wanted him to, the feeling of holding him, it was all real. The fact that she wished to be with him, to not lose him, was also real. All of that broke into pieces and disappeared.

Yes, she had been dreaming a foolish dream the whole time.

The idea that she only adored Ryuuji as a father figure, and the thought that once Ryuuji and Minori were together, she'd be able to "leave the nest" and survive alone. This was the future that she'd envisioned, but it was all a complete misunderstanding. How stupid of her. She'd been thinking something as brainless as being able to bear her loneliness because Ryuuji, her father figure, wanted her to survive on her own. She convinced herself that that was what a father did.

But reality was different. Ryuuji wasn't her father. Her attachment toward her father, who didn't care about her, and her attachment to Ryuuji were different. The moment they parted ways, her "leaving of the nest" wasn't positive at all. She only felt "loss". She lost Ryuuji and now she had to live out her solitary future by herself.


The truth was she wanted to be with Ryuuji. It took this to happen for her to realize it. They had always moved forward through each coming day, hand in hand. But now that was impossible. Everything was too late. Reality broke. She had woken up from her dream. The only thing left was herself.


Where did she make the mistake? Ryuuji even told her that, "I'm a dragon. You're a tiger. The dragon and the tiger stand equal to each other." But her stupid self saw only dreams and hung on to Ryuuji as much as she could, being spoiled by him, counting on him, and chose to run away from the issue, disregarding it completely. She had put it off, thinking that one day, one day, she would leave him, and this was the result.

"...Ryuuji...!"

The world was flooded in tears.

"I don't care anymore, I hope everything breaks." she wanted to say. If this was a movie or a drama, she'd be moved off-screen, or maybe the male lead would appear before her. But reality was cruel, and the cameras wouldn't move away naturally nor would Ryuuji appear. It would be dramatic if she died of exhaustion, but humans don't die so easily. She in particular was made too tough.

She was miserable, bitter, sad, lonely, and pitifully stupid. But, she was alive. That was Taiga's reality. She wouldn't run away. She cried, but she wouldn't die here.

Because she wanted to become strong.

Because that was the truth.

She remembered the beauty contest at the Cultural Festival. She stood up that time. This time, she'll prove that she can stand up. Even without Ryuuji's support, even without Minori's support, she'll prove that she can stand up by herself. She'll prove that she can live on by herself from now on for the rest of her life. She'll prove that she can get up.

She lifted her tear-stricken face.

She will live, accepting and taking everything, no matter how shameful it was. She has already lost a lot, received a lot of pain, and been battered as she grew up, but one day, she will definitely become a truly strong adult.

She will get up, dammit, to reach that future. Even if she falls again and again, she'll stubbornly get up each time. So what if she was abandoned by her parents? Bring it on. So what if she got suspended? Bring it on. So what if Ryuuji is gone? Bring it on. Bring it on. Bring it on.

This will be the training she needs to live out the rest of her long life by herself.

Even so, she yelled out his name one last time out of lingering regret and,

"Ryu.....ACHOO! ....Ah..."

A powerful sneeze blew it away.

It was too cold to be outside with her feet and shoulders exposed. Her nose started running. Taiga clamped her back teeth down, sniffed, and stood up sluggishly. She brushed away the dirt on her knees. She rubbed her face which itched from the tears and mucus. She stood up, walked, and disgracefully returned to her apartment building.

And then, this time, she finally will be alone.


And then, and then.

Taiga wouldn't know until later, but when she ran out from the entrance of her apartment, at the same time, Minori had been there on the other side of the street. She hadn't just been passing by. She had come to the apartment to hear what Taiga's true feelings were.

And then, and then, and then.

After seeing all of this, Minori understood; what she had suspected hadn't been wrong at all.


  • *

Ah, I really did it this time.

The stars and the moon twinkled romantically in the midwinter sky, and shined weirdly on Ryuuji's contorted ogre face.

Ryuuji, still in the bear costume, stood in front of the school gate. The present he was going to give to Minori was still in the pocket of his suit and he didn't know the phone number of the guy he traded it with. He just now realized that it was someone from a different class. He bungled up at the last minute. Minori wasn't in the hall yet, but he still couldn't find that guy. He might have already gone home after Ryuuji had left the hall.

Thinking that maybe he was still hanging around nearby, Ryuuji scurried out of the hall and into the chilly outside weather, but there were no signs of people anywhere. He wondered what he should do as he carried the bear head under his arms, briefly exhaling a white breath. Just how was he supposed to talk to her without a present?

I screwed up, Taiga. The single mistake quickly shook his heart unsteadily. He suddenly became afraid and wanted to run away. But the reason why he wouldn't do that was because he felt like he received the imaginary baton from Taiga, who even kicked him in the back to get him to come. If he didn't hand it to the next person, Taiga's wishes wouldn't be passed on. The relay in his dreams will break.

He had lost the present, but his hand wasn't empty.

Ryuuji clenched the cheap synthetic fiber bear hand. In the cold midwinter wind, he quietly confronted the part of him that was becoming timid. What he wanted to show Minori was always inside him. Nothing was going to happen if he ran away. He stretched his back inside the baggy costume, stood up straight, and lifted his face. It wasn't a Gucci suit, but Taiga's present was definitely in his hands.

Then.

"Howdy!"

"....O, ou......!"

Arriving with light footsteps was a knit-capped Minori. Minori, whom he had been waiting for so long.

His mind went blank. His body stiffened like he was paralyzed.

Minori, wearing a down coat, denim pants, and a red-checkered muffler, sternly brought up her gloved right hand and smiled as her nose, red from the cold, sniffed the air.

Ryuuji hesitated, but it wasn't because of the cold. He was trembling from panic more than he thought. First, tell her thanks for coming. Explain why you're wearing that stupid costume. Then, tell her why you wanted her to come. ....was what he had been thinking, but the moment he saw Minori, all of that went flying away. Everything was about to come on. Everything inside his heart was about to come out, regardless of the order. He desperately tried to force it inside and simply stood there.

"That's a nice bear you got there, Takasu-kun."

The one who made the first move was Minori. Ryuuji, as stiff as a board, saw the expression on Minori's face in a normal conversation between the two of them, the first time in a while.

Minori noticed how he was looking at her, and pulled her cap down tight. Ryuuji automatically pushed up the knit cap which had been covering her eyes.

"......"

"......"

The two of them stayed silent. Minori, once again, grabbed her knit cap and pulled it further down. Ryuuji pushed it up again. She pulled it down again. He pushed it up. This unintelligible secret war continued, until finally,

"Ku, Kushieda!"

Ryuuji took off Minori's knit cap. Minori froze for a moment, and he wondered what she was thinking. She covered her face with both her hands.

He grabbed her wrist because he wanted to see her face. He tried to pull a hand away from her face, but Minori was very strong, and he couldn't easily pry it away.

"Wha, what's up with you!? What!"

"More like, what's wrong with you Takasu-kun!?"

"No, it should be what's wrong with you!?"

"Takasu-kun is the one, Takasu-kun is the one that..... Ah...I've had it! Deeeeeeeei!"

Habu! And thus, Ryuuji became unable to say anything next. Minori used both hands to unfairly grab and hold down Ryuuji's lips.

"Bubi.........be.......ua.........!?"

".....Takasu-kun....sorry. Let me say this first."

Saying so, she pushed her face through the space between her extended arms. She looked straight down. She wouldn't show what expression she had to Ryuuji. Then, she quietly went on.

"Hey....do you remember? Back at summer vacation, at Amin's villa. We talked about it in the evening, right. About that weird stuff. Like UFOs and ghosts."

"Bu.....bu......?"

While moaning "ububu", Ryuuji slightly tilted his head, thinking, What? He had no idea what Minori was trying to say.

If he recalled correctly, Minori once described love in terms of UFOs and ghosts. The people that could see them will see tons, but she didn't think they existed since she couldn't see anything, or something like that. Then, she said that it could be because she simply couldn't see them. That's right. That's why he had been wishing that it'd be great if Minori also could see UFOs or ghosts.

But there must be a lot of significance to remembering this now, right?

"You know, about the UFOs and ghosts. I think that I don't have to see them at all..... It looks like it's better that I don't. Lately, I've been thinking about it a whole lot, and I've come to feel that way..... I just wanted to say that to you, Takasu-kun. That's the reason I came here."

And a whole lot was turned rightside up, just now. A lot of significance.


"Sorry for saying just what I wanted to say..... Kushieda out."

Minori's fingers gently separated themselves from Ryuuji's lips. Her hand gently took back the knit cap from Ryuuji's hand.

She tightly fitted it on, pulled it down up to her eyes, and gave a salute with one hand. It looked like only her lips laughed.

Minori then turned away.

She strode away in big steps briskly and went home like that.

What?

In other words?

She could tell I was going to confess and then turned me down in advance?

"......Eh? Really?"

I was shot down?

Really?

Right now?

Seriously?

"....Is this heartbreak....?"

On the midwinter night street, Ryuuji stood as still as a rock. Popping up in his head were endless question marks. He needn't have even bothered worrying about the present. He had been totally rejected. The pain still wouldn't come. He simply stood there in a daze from the dull shock and looked at the sky.

"Things may break, but they can be fixed." I don't think it's going to be fixed anymore.

"And for each time something breaks, it can just be made all over again." I have the feeling that I can't make it again.

"That's why, there's no reason to cry if something breaks." I can't even cry at the moment.

Still, he looked for Orion which would surely be shining up above him.

He looked for someone within the call of his voice.

The sky...rotated....in a big way.


  • *

December 25th, 10 AM.

Ryuuji was discovered, sprawled on the kitchen floor by Yasuko, who had just woken up. Just when did he fall, nobody other than him knows. That was why, even now, no one knows.

Ryuuji had been hit by influenza, with a fever of over 39 degrees celsius.

He was admitted into the hospital he was carried to and was still not fully conscious. Informed by Yasuko, Taiga came to the hospital in a big rush and had strangely swollen eyes and a sniffling nose herself. It would be two days later, when Ryuuji became conscious, that she would find out what happened on Christmas Eve.

And thus, wounded all over, the year came to a close. Christmas, end-of-year cleaning, all of it melted away inside Ryuuji's fever-induced dream.

"....and then, i, demonically transmigrated....."

"Ryuu-chaaa~n, hang in there~! Get a hold of yourself~!" Despite the tearful voice of his mother in the background, Ryuuji's bubbling brain continued to babble about his delusion.

"....i fired killing beams with taiga bibibi, bibibi....i wanted to rule the world....i think.... but mom was the one pulling the strings and when i took off her mask, i saw kushieda's face....what...what, kushieda. what are you. then, the bachelorette's red string was cut, and she gave in to despair, and....bought...an apartment...."

Ryuuji was fighting something with a sword in one hand in a world of blazing magic. He jumped into the air, slashed away at shadows, shouted names of special moves, while somewhere inside regretting, "I couldn't take out the big trash!"

".....but it was an apartment with......anti-earthquake fraud......."

"Hang in there you coward!" A small hand gave him a slap. "Ah, his eyes opened a little!" shouted his real mother. Stop, it hurts. But, he couldn't talk. Ryuuji only continued to vainly slash away at enemies in the world of magic.

Ah, how stupid, how stupid.

If he opened his eyes, just what was he supposed to see?

After all, haven't all the stars in the sky exploded and disappeared a long time ago?


And then, there was darkness.

Light Novel
Main Series' Volumes

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