| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
Hearing a voice that seemed to be hiding a certain degree of awkwardness, Minori turned around.
In the freezing winter air, a group of fat sparrows squeezed together in a group, moving from a nearby bush to the ground beside the two of them, their mouths pecking at the asphalt road.
"......Yo! MAN! Good Morning!"
Minori's energetic reply startled the group of sparrows, and they took off.
Though the temperature was already sub-zero in the morning, the overly sunny weather gave an entirely different impression. The slightly strong beams of sunlight shone down onto Minori's fair complexion, and just for a moment, looking at that quiet smile of hers, Ryuuji felt that even the sunlight became softer.
Ryuuji caught himself staring at the girl, and quickly lowered his head in an attempt to hide it, the words that he had wanted to say suddenly disappeared from his mouth, as he merely stood there open-mouthed. No, I can't run away from this, or else it'll become like what happened yesterday.
"Umm, about, ye,yesterday......that, I'm sorry. Ah, you see......I, seemed to have ignored you......"
Minori didn't even hear out Ryuuji's stammering apology before cutting him off.
"It's nothing, Takasu-kun, I didn't mind at all."
Between that slight smile was a row of cute and pearly teeth. That kind of smile, coupled with the colourful square-patterned muffler on her neck gave off the image of a winter-blooming sunflower. The teenage girl used her finger to pull back a lock of her hair, and adjusted the strap of her heavy-looking sports bag.
"I thought that you probably had a stomach ache at that time."
As she spoke, she hopped in front of him.
She probably didn't think that, for she should understand the real reason behind Ryuuji's actions and his feelings about it.
"That's why, it's nothing!"
Even after something like this, Minori was still smiling at him with an infectious smile, causing Ryuuji to smile in kind. It felt like a long-awaited reunion between the two of them, for they were finally less than one metre apart from each other.
"......Well, it was rather painful......"
"Oh oh! What a sensational confession!"
Ryuuji's smile wasn't faked, and neither was it patronizing.
He smiled because he had gotten over that ditch. He got rejected, then got up and continued to go forwards. Though he had stopped for a while due to the rejection, Ryuuji was unable to give up completely. Because he disliked running away.
That's why, the only thing that Ryuuji could do now was to smile, to smile and wait for the new beginning after the storm. For some reason, he suddenly remembered a television show that he had watched. In a traffic accident, children had a higher tendency to avoid heavy injuries than adults. That was because of their comparatively more flexible bodies. Which was to say, in that moment of collision, after the instinctive body reaction of diving to the side, the flexibility of the child's body reduced the impact and damage to the minimum. Therefore, the flexible body acted as a lifesaver.
It was the same reason to keep smiling, to use this mental and emotional flexibility to endure. Ryuuji planned to endure everything gently, for if he faced everything serious, he probably would have collapsed.
Smile, Takasu Ryuuji. Smile, Kushieda Minori. No reason, no inner thoughts and motives, just to show the gentle side of yourself---Whatever expression that he was wearing right now didn't matter. Minori couldn't help but start laughing when she saw his expression, but a smile was still a smile.
Smile, it was better than anything to escape from those depressing emotions. Right, Taiga......Looking up at the clear, blue skies, Ryuuji couldn't help but think of Taiga's expression, is she still sleeping......thinking of Taiga placing a donut above her head, Ryuuji started to laugh.
Whereas, the Taiga in reality......
Completely ignoring Ryuuji's existence, Taiga waved to Minori from the other side of the road. "Hi~Hi~!" Minori was waving both of her heads, while Taiga was flailing all four of her limbs, 'Hi~Hi~Hi~!. The white-collar workers standing behind Taiga all looked awkwardly at Taiga's exaggerated actions.
Doesn't she feel embarrassed, Ryuuji sighed. And, why did even Minori follow her lead and do the 'Hi~Hi~Hi~Hi~!' thing?
"Hi~Hi,Hi~! Good~Good Morning~~Good Morning, Good~Morn~ing~Good Morning Morning~~Good Morning~!"
DJ Minori, who was swinging her bag around wildly, placed one hand on a set of headphones that only she could see, while turning an invisible disc in time with the beat, shouting 'Hi~Hi~Good Morning~Good~!' to an invisible audience......giving off the feeling that even her voice was on fire.
"What're you doing, Minorin! That's so weird!"
Taiga started to laugh uncontrollably, while the white-collar workers standing behind her started to look at Minori strangely as well. And then, Ryuuji, who was standing beside the crazy Minori, looked to the white-collar workers with a demonic gaze. The gaze that seemed to say 'I'll kill you if you dare to look at my Kushieda like that', not, Ryuuji was merely captivated by the DJ Minori, but......
"Stop it, Kushieda......the two of you really has no sense of embarrassment. I think I'll go first."
"Why~Ah, wouldn't it be better to go off together."
"I don't think that's such a good idea. I can't keep up with your pace."
With yesterday's incident already resolved, Ryuuji decided to hightail it out of there.
"Ah! Minorin! Ryuuji's running away, grab him!"
Taiga suddenly shot off an order. What's she trying to do, Ryuuji thought.
"Huh!? Grab him?"
Minori asked. Just as Taiga turned to make eye contact with Minori, Ryuuji's body instinctively dodged to the side. Instinctively, Minori also grabbed the arm of Ryuuji, who was trying to run away. The cold hands came into contact with each other as Minori's fingers grabbed onto Ryuuji's hand.
That feeling of contact seemed to last for less than a second.
Of course, Ryuuji jumped at the contact, but not to the extent of crying out. That feeling was like being struck by lightning, a sudden burst of energy towards one's tailbone. But surprisingly, Minori was the one who broke contact first.
Ah! Anyway, that feeling was indescribable. He was probably just lucky.
In that moment, Minori's fingers lost power and let go as though repelled by an electric field. She quickly withdrew her hand as though burnt by that contact, covering it with her other hand. The teenage girl was blushing furiously, as she wanted to say something to Ryuuji but stopped, coldly staring at him with an angry expression on her face, and then......
"Prey! See if you can take this!"
Minori roared before sticking out her hand once more.
"Argh-----! Gah-----! Kah-----!"
......Though the screams were exaggerated, but it was just Minori grabbing on to the collar of Ryuuji's school blazer. But right now, both of them felt extremely shy. If Ryuuji lifted his arm, he would have been able to shake off Minori's hand easily, but he meekly accepted defeat......In actual fact, he was afraid to move.
At that exact moment, the traffic light turned green. Taiga looked carefully to both sides of the road, and then ran over. She looked at Ryuuji's expression at being grabbed at the collar by Minori, and then looked at Minori, and laughed.
"The person who got caught will be in charge of carrying the luggage!"
Taiga threw her bag at Ryuuji, who instinctively caught it. Taiga then pointed at Ryuuji, hopping lightly in front of him. The teenage girl's body seemed to be weightless as she opened her arms and floated past the two of them.
"He fell for it! I'm going off first!"
She continued running off, her skirt waving.
"Going off first......Hey, Taiga! That's not funny!......What am I supposed to do with this!? Am I really supposed to lug this all the way to school!"
Ryuuji still held Taiga's bag in his hands, but luckily the bag wasn't too heavy. But right now, Ryuuji was just a weakling whom Taiga was bullying---even if it was the means to let him go to school with Minori together, but she hadn't really needed to do such a complex action, even if he was hoping for something like this, couldn't she have thought of something more direct?
Ryuuji stood there dazedly as he stared at Taiga's rapidly disappearing figure.
"......It's all Kushieda's fault for grabbing me......"
Ryuuji glanced at Minori, who didn't seem to react to his statement.
"Damn Taiga......Damn Taiga......Damn Taiga......"
She repeated under her breath over and over again, looking like a wet puppy shaking itself to get the water off its fur. Suddenly, she turned around and thrust out her chest like a transforming hero, '......No, it's alright even in this kind of situation!', and then.
"Come, give me one of the straps."
She took one strap from Taiga's bag that Ryuuji was holding. The bag swung between the two of them as they walked, looking like two little children carrying a large grocery bag to go shopping,
"Taiga's really gone too far. I'll should really scold her when we get to school."
But right now, Ryuuji was so close to Minori that he could smell the fragrance of her hair......he felt his entire body stiffening.
If only Taiga was here for this kind of situation.
The two of them walked for a while. Minori said 'wait up' --- and took out a pair of gloves from her pocket to wear on her hands before taking the strap of Taiga's bag to continue walking.
It was a sudden opportunity, but it looks like I don't have any chance to run away. Though I really want to run away from this awkward atmosphere. It won't do to continue like this, it should be better to talk about something. Ah, there's something. Ryuuji sifted through his brain to look for potential conversation topics as he walked.
"Hmm! Kushieda, did you specially style your hair like that?"
"No, Nope. Ah......I just cut it a little."
He finally found a viable topic of conversation.
"Oh god, actually if the hairdresser hadn't said 'Kushieda-san's hair is too messy, you shouldn't have such long hair if you want to play baseball', I wouldn't have cut it. And my hair's really hard, so if I don't take care of it, the messy hair would make my head seem abnormally large. I was slightly spooked after hearing his advice."
Kushieda said wistfully as she breathed lightly.
"Well, it would probably be a hindrance if you were to play baseball, but that's unavoidable I guess. However, you do look......how do I put it, manly! You look very imposing. No, I don't mean it in a bad way!!"
"......,but, even short hair looks good on you."
Minori looked at Ryuuji and smiled as if agreeing with his assessment.
As they spoke, Minori touched her short fringe with her gloved hand.
"Actually, when I was still in grade school, I was just like Margareta. I stayed in the same room as my younger brother, and even cut hair together with him. We went to the same hairdresser that only cut hair for men. They always called me 'Mr. Lady'."
"Mr. Lady......that's rather mean......Your brother? Hmm, I remember he was in a high school baseball team?"
"Yup, their next opponent is a school that routinely wins at Koushien, and he might even become a Koushien pitcher next year! A pitcher! That fellow!"
"I didn't know that you're brother was so good!"
"Tsk! He's actually the subject of my jealousy! Ah~~And to think that I was better than him when both of us were in the Dairenpo! He's kicked his elder sister off her seat as the little Mexican boss!"
"What are you talking about, and, little Mexico? Are you talking about the team?"
"Heh heh~Takasu-kun's words are really impactful, my hair's been zapped by it!"
As she spoke, Minori caressed her hair while making buzzing noises as though her hair was standing on its ends. Ryuuji looked at her and observed that the back of her pearly neck was exposed despite the best efforts of her mufflers. To be honest, there's nothing bad about having short hair, Ryuuji couldn't help but think.
For some reason, Ryuuji could suddenly smile naturally without forcing himself. Right now, Minori was beside him, carrying a bag with him, walking slowly to school with him. It was like his shattered emotions had been tightly meshed together like Onigiri, made into its original shape of a heart to give off the light that it was made to give off. To get him to pull himself together, and to not run away.
Ryuuji wished that everything could just continue like this. As though everything never happened, and that everything could start again from the beginning.
Right, there's still a chance during the school trip, he could try to face her alone again.
And then, maybe it'll be just like what Taiga had said, that Minori would give him a different answer.
This is what Ryuuji believed. At this time, he had started to think that this was positive, this was a step forward, this was correct, in other words, that this was a "good thing".
"Alright, let's go look for Taiga! Just where did she run off to!?"
"She's not here. Toilet? Or the Cupboard?"
"I've combed those places already, and even unearthed a hamburger!"
Minori started her hunt for Taiga the moment they reached the classroom. Though he was still half-awake, but Ryuuji quickly woke himself up to search for Taiga together with her.
Ami, who had come to school early, met Ryuuji's gaze as he searched for Taiga. But that was because she was surrounded by Maya, Nanako and the other girls, who were excitedly talking about something when she saw Ryuuji and Minori appearing in class together and looked over in surprise. But before Ryuuji could decipher her expression, Minori also discovered Ami's existence.
"Oh! Ami-senpai! Happy new year! Right, have you seen that fellow Taiga?"
"Ah~Good morning, Minori~No, I don't think I've seen Tiger today......And by the way, who's that......"
Right, Takasu-kun. She seemed to be saying.
What would happen if he just stomped over and slapped her?---Though Ryuuji didn't do it, but he really wanted to. What was she trying to say? But Ami stopped after that sentence,
"......What, who're you talking about?......"
Though it was an ambiguous and barbed statement, Minori still seriously considered the meaning behind it. And Ryuuji could only stand there. Fantasies were still fantasies after all, so he merely stood there.
"I won't know~~Who's that~~?"
A slight tremor surged up between Ami and Minori. Just at that moment, Taiga walked into the classroom. 'Ah! I've found Taiga!'......That slight tremor disappeared into the bustling atmosphere of the classroom.
The afternoon of the same day, homeroom period.
Class teacher, the single woman (30 years old) pushed the job of conducting homeroom to Kitamura while she hugged a large stack of magazines......If one looked closely, one would see that the magazines were all freebies given out at bus stops regarding real estate, as the single woman sank into her own world. Most of the students in class were also sleepy due to the fact that they just finished lunch,
"Alright, let's begin, open your eyes~"
Kitamura started speaking from the podium, though his aura was next to non-existent.
"You've all waited long for this today~We're going to decide the groups for the school trip now~"
Waited long? No one remembered saying something like that. Kitamura was probably the only one who was looking forward to it, but even then, no one dared to talk back.
"Each group will consist of four guys and four girls~"
As he spoke, Kitamura started scribbling on the blackboard, writing down the crooked numbers of 4,4,4.
The atmosphere in the classroom right now was extremely relaxed, with the exception of Ryuuji, who was sitting at his seat with a serious expression on his face. Like a samurai, or a gun-toting delinquent, anyway, the point was that he was the only one who seemed to be keen on deciding the groups for the school trip.
To Ryuuji, the school trip was an extremely important opportunity. It was the only chance to reestablish his relationship with Minori. But even then, his classmates all wore irritated expressions and were whispering among themselves, hoping that the school trip would be canceled. Not many people would want to go up the mountain on a ski trip during the winter. If he had known that things were going to turn out like this, Ryuuji would never had set such a stupid curse.
"Right, lets begin~Just give me a list of your group members by the time limit!"
Upon the order from the unenthusiastic Kitamura, everyone stood up to discuss their grouping. 'I guess we don't have a choice' 'Ah, let's start!', in an instant, the classroom was filled with lively discussion.
"Well, Takasu-kun'll obviously be in my group! The only one left is that idiot!"
Noto speedily walked towards Ryuuji's seat while pointing at Haruta, who was grinding his teeth and rolling his eyes at the injustice of not being able to go to Okinawa.
"Great Deity, why don't you join us too!"
Standing on the podium as though he was campaigning for an election, Kitamura elegantly pointed a finger towards them, saying something along the lines of 'I'm in'.
"That's it, we have four people! The guy's side is set!"
Looking at his enthusiastic expression, Ryuuji felt that maybe all was not lost after all. Though the trip to clear blue skies and pearly beaches had been canceled, it should still be an enjoyable trip as it was with friends. But if he wanted enjoy the trip to the fullest, Ryuuji decided that he should express some form of enthusiasm so as to infect his surrounding classmates with the same feeling.
Lifting his chin with his hand, Ryuuji let out a killing aura......no, or rather, Ryuuji enthusiastically opened his eyes. Though his intention was clear, but his expression looked like he was going on a killing spree.
"Oh! All that's left is the girl's group!"
But for the girl's group, it was useless to attack them with perverted expressions. Ryuuji's only wish was to be in the same group as Minori. But Noto, who was not involved in anyway to his wish, repeatedly poked Ryuuji's arm while making extremely uncute 'heh heh heh' sounds.
"We have to be in the same group as Tiger! Kitamura and Tiger! They have to be in the same group! You don't mind do you~"
"......Why are you doing such things again......"
"Don't you agree that such a small-scale and simple school trip needs to be nourished by a bit of love~"
Ryuuji inhaled deeply. The cloud of carbon dioxide that had gathered in the air disappeared immediately.
Looks like Noto had other motives for wanting to liven up the atmosphere. It was rare that even someone as slow as Noto would notice. Even Noto was scheming to get Kitamura and Taiga together.
Of course, Ryuuji also wished that Taiga could be in the same group as Kitamura, since she'll surely be extremely happy. But, why......why didn't I say it. Within such a noisy environment, he didn't need to express his interest in that pairing. And if there was a need for it, he would surely help Taiga. It was impossible for Noto to understand Taiga's complex and strange personality.
Looking at Noto's happy expression, Ryuuji wanted to say something along the lines of 'Don't get so excited about it!!' 'You're just meddling in other people's affairs~', but chose to keep silent.
Somewhere away from them, Minori and Taiga were stuck together, chatting. 'The school trip's so boring. But I'm happy to be with you~' 'Haha~~So Minorin feels that way too~!'......The two of them were chatting happily. Which was to say that if Taiga were to be in his group, then Minori would automatically be in his group. Why hadn't he noticed such an obvious thing earlier. He only had to go along with Noto's plan to get what he wanted.
"......Don't get too excited, you meddling oba-san!"
"Huh? But wouldn't it be really interesting? Tiger and Kitamura seem to get along well! And its about time Kitamura forgot about Aniki, so this is probably the best time for Tiger to make her move~"
"Don't interfere in other people's private lives!"
What he wanted to say was, those two are totally different things.
"Takasu's really......forget it. And speaking of that, is there only Tiger and Kushieda? Are they going to be in the same group as Ami-chan? If that's the case, then our group'll have the strongest formation!"
Ever since her strange outburst, Ami had completely ignored Ryuuji's existence. Ami-chan, who hated him for the simple reason that he was an idiot---Ryuuji casually looked around the classroom, quickly finding her in the middle of the bishoujo three woman team. For some reason, Maya was excitedly saying 'It'll be really really good, let's invite him~', to which Ami reluctantly replied 'Are you serious?', while Nanako looked at the two of them interestedly. The three of them were completely surrounded by other guys, who looked as though they were silently chanting 'please be in our group!'.
No, no, Ryuuji shook his head to Noto.
"That's impossible! Kawashima and Taiga are mortal enemies, and she has already grouped herself with Kihara and Kashii, so there's only one place left in their group."
And I'm being hated by Kawashima......It was better not to say that part.
"Ah! Kitamura and Tiger, Ami-chan and I, it would have been the perfect plan."
"Your plan's really bold and shameless."
"That's nothing, I'm merely flying freely with the aid of my limitless imagination! That's right, Kushieda and Tiger, are you interested to be in our group?"
Minori and Taiga stared unblinkingly at Noto, who was beckoning them to go over, as they slowly walked over.
"What to do, Taiga~~Looks like this man wants to become our nakama~!"
"Give him an oba-san chop! Minorin!"
Taiga nonchalantly looked at Ryuuji before turning her gaze back to Minori. I want to be in the same group as Minori too, Ryuuji wanted to turn his head to mouth, something that was impossible. He merely pointed towards the podium, as if he was asking 'don't you want to be in the same group as Kitamura?'
"Hey~Hey~Maruo, join our group~~"
Oh no~Ryuuji merely took his eyes off Kitamura for a moment!
He was too careless! But it was too late, as Maya had already stuck herself onto Kitamura. And Kitamura, not knowing that he was to be paired up with Taiga's group, was happily agreeing with her while saying things like 'I don't mind being in Maya's group either'. Things were not going to plan.
"Ah!! Wait!!!!!!!! Great Deity!"
Noto also felt that things were going the wrong way, as he sprinted onto the podium to separate Maya and Kitamura. 'Alright~That's a big no no! Off you go now! I'm sorry, Kihara, but Great Deity Kitamura's in our group, who's going to be together with Taiga's group~!"
As if to say, you're not needed over here---Maya's face showed that line of words. In her eyes probably only Kitamura was needed for the school trip.
Noto forcibly grabbed Kitamura shoulders, 'let's go put our names onto the list.', planning to drag him over as soon as possible. At that exact moment,
Maya shouted for him to stop as she reached out towards Kitamura.
"......group members are, Maruo, Noto, Takasu and Haruta right?"
Together with Ami, Nanako had also walked over. Under the pressure of the seemingly generous tone, Noto couldn't help but stop walking.
"Shouldn't you at least consult the opinions of your other group members. Hey~Haruta-kun~Wake up~~ Wake~Up!!!"
Nanako shouted into the ear of Haruta, who had already lost consciousness. Like a zombie, or like he had just been stepped on by an elephant, Haruta, slowly opened his eyes and took back his consciousness.
"Hey~Haruta-kun......Us, and them? Which side do you like more......?"
Haruta opened his eyes. He looked at Nanako and Ami, then at Maya. And then he turned towards the direction in which Nanako was pointing at and saw Taiga and Minori. And then......
As though he was being pulled to Nanako's side, Haruta stumbled towards here.
"Thank you~Please continue sleeping~If you can......continue sleeping forever......"
Nanako twirled her finger as Haruta rolled his eyeballs in accordance to the twirling of her finger before falling to the ground, unmoving. Ami nodded her head while saying 'Nanako's really good!', with Maya clapping in agreement.
"You're just like a hypnotist!"
"Haruta's brain's like that of a dragonfly......?"
My friend has the brain of a dragonfly? Dragonfly? Noto wailed despairingly, while Ryuuji helped the pitiful Haruta to his feet.
As though challenging him, Maya looked at Noto from behind Kitamura, while Noto immediately returned the favour. Taiga and Minori was already unable to follow the pace of this exchange and looked at each other exasperatingly, while Kitamura subconsciously began to rub the bridge of his nose upon realizing that this situation was largely the result of his answer.
Ryuuji suddenly thought of something. If it was normal for Maya to want to be in the same group as 'Maruo', then what about Ami? That would place her in the same group as him. As he peeked at her, Ryuuji thought, does she really want to skip this once-in-a-lifetime school trip?
Ami either didn't notice or pretended not to notice Ryuuji's gaze, as she determinedly looked in Maya's direction.
"Ah? Wait, isn't this just nice!"
On the other side, the popular Kitamura suddenly realized an important truth,
"Kihara has three people on her side while Kushieda and Taiga's two people. There are sixteen guys and seventeen girls in this class, which means that one group will have four guys and five girls, which solved this problem."
'Eh!?', Maya was the one who screamed. Though she got her wish of being in the same group as Kitamura, her almond-shaped eyes looked at Taiga suspiciously. To Maya, in Aniki's absence, the final boss of the fight for Kitamura was Aisaka Taiga.
Taiga, who was finally able to be in the same group as Kitamura, was similarly unable to give a natural smile.
"Ah~~? I'm in your group!? That's really bad! Ah, why don't you just give Minori to us, you can roam around by yourself like the lonely tiger you are!"
"I should be the one saying that, Baka-chi, enjoy the lonely process of finding a partner! Ah, there's someone like you over there."
"Why is the single woman (30 years old) like me?"
As Taiga and Ami blasted each other, no one noticed the strange look in Maya's eyes as she walked towards Ryuuji.
"......Looks like it'll be rather tiring, let's work hard together! And, that fellow, Noto......! I hate him!"
She opened her eyes to their widest capacity as though looking for the agreement of the other party.
"......Umm, you've misunderstood, since last year, I've never, towards Taiga......"
He had wanted to explain everything to Maya, but she wasn't listening as she shouted 'Maruo! Lets fill in the group list!' with unnatural enthusiasm, running towards Kitamura.
Looking at her receding figure, Ryuuji couldn't help but sigh,
"The two of you are fighting again, be nice, Ami."
"Ah, of course, I would love to have Minori join us, just that you're. the. extra. one!"
"Baka-chi, your nakama's drawing red circles on matchmaking magazines, you should go and discuss your future with her."
"Which is why I've been saying, why is that single woman (30 years old) my nakama!?"
As usual, Taiga and Ami continued to quarrel while Ryuuji observed every one of Minori's expressions. What's that, it looks like nothing has changed, including Ami's relationship with Minori, Ryuuji couldn't help but sigh as he thought.
Ryuuji was dreaming of girls whispering and laughing softly among themselves.
Amidst the soft whispering, Ryuuji opened the eyes that were heavily wrapped up by a towel and lifted his head slowly, looking at the clock just in time for a flash of lightning to show him the time.
It was nine in the morning. But today was a Sunday, so he should be able to sleep in, since it wasn't yet time for his only activity of the day.
He closed his towel-covered eyes once again.
"......Looks like he didn't notice anything."
"Ah, he still wants to sleep."
The pair of eyes opened so quickly that the eyeballs threatened to burst out of their sockets, it wasn't an awakening of some long-forgotten memory, some people were having a conversation next to him.
From the 15 cm gap between the curtains from which the early morning sunlight streamed in, the window to Taiga's apartment could be seen, and there were two people standing at the window---
"Ah, he woke up."
"Not good, we've been compromised!"
Ryuuji got up and pulled apart the curtains to confirm what his eyes had seen a moment before: He immediately closed the curtains after looking out of his window.
Just now, just now, just now, just now......Oh! Ryuuji finally woke up and realized that he wasn't in a dream.
"Ryuuji! You're not allowed to hide from reality! Wake up!"
"It's alright, Taiga, he's looks so sleepy that its pitiful."
Taiga and Minori were standing on the balcony, peeking into someone else's bedroom---and they were wearing furry pajamas, compounded by the bad timing---
"......Ah......I heard Taiga-chan's voice......"
Yasuko, who should have been dead asleep at this time, stumbled into her son's room, looking and acting like a zombie. Ryuuji's 'Wait, don't come in' was already too late, as his mother stepped onto his bed and pulled apart the curtains that had just been pulled shut.
"Ah~~, it's Taiga-chan~~And Taiga-chan's friend, Good morning~~"
Yasuko said as she waved to the two peeping-toms.
"Ya-chan, good morning! Minori, this is Ryuuji's mother."
"Good morning! Ohai! Ohai! I'm Kushieda! Good morning Takasu's mother! Ohai! Ohai! Bomb a head! Bomb a head!"
"Minori, you're going to burst the blood vessels in my brain with your singing."
To tell the truth, there was no other word to describe Yasuko's hairstyle other than 'caveman' at the moment, which looked like the probable result of sleeping without washing off the hair gel on one's hair, even if she redeemed herself slightly by having taken off her makeup before sleeping, 'Good morning~~' Yasuko replied while swaying dangerously.
"Ah! Ryu-chan, it's so cold!"
"Isn't it all because you opened the windows! Go wear something!......Argh---Ah!!"
Under the slanted bra cups that could no longer prevent their contents from spilling out was a piece of flowery underwear, which was how Yasuko appeared on her adolescent son's bed, smiling nonchalantly. Even Ryuuji, who was already used to seeing his mother like this, got a shock, not good! We look like a perverted mother-son pair! Ryuuji hurriedly closed the curtains once again.
"Ah, why don't the two of you come over for breakfast, Ryuuji's cooking~~"
Pushing her son aside, the skimpily-dressed Yasuko pulled open the curtains yet again, earning a shriek from Minori in reply. Ryuuji could only feel embarrassed from the bottom of his heart.
"Sorry, Ya-chan, but we've just finished preparing breakfast."
"Oh~~Ya-chan's so lonely~~"
Taiga laughed, while Minori hid her eyes with her hands.
"The meeting time's soon, we better start eating, Minorin."
"Yes! See you later, Takasu-kun!"
---Everyone was going to meet at Taiga's house at noon today to discuss their class's school trip plan, something that every class had to do. Taiga surprisingly offered her house to be used as a meeting point as they were unable to go to a certain family restaurant due to the need for a computer. Which explained why Minori was at Taiga's house.
Ryuuji got up and nonchalantly blocked Yasuko's body with his own while shielding his own furry pajamas with the curtain, and said to Taiga,
"......You should ask Kushieda to help you clean up your room, it should be extremely dirty, seeing as it hasn't been cleaned in a long time, Achoo!"
It was probably the manifestation of Ryuuji's resentment, for his request to help Taiga clean up her apartment had been rejected by her numerous times.
"You're wrong, it's not like that, my apartment's so clean, its probably cleaner than your place, right, Minorin."
Mm, mm, Minori nodded in agreement.
"......That's impossible, but no one has cleaned the place in ages......"
"Of course its possible, I hired Duskin's cleaners, who spent three whole hours cleaning the place......"
Opposite the grinning Taiga, Ryuuji almost fainted, was she talking about the Duskin cleaning company that provided a complete cleaning service for thirty thousand yen? Those are professionals right, so they'd also cleaned the places that Ryuuji had always been worried about, places like the spot below the washing machine, the air-conditioner exhaust?
"Professionals really do the job differently! Ryuuji, you can come and take a look later. Minorin and I are going to the clothes shop beside the station at about ten after eating breakfast, which is to say, it's girl's only, so you better not follow us."
"Ah, Taiga, the buzzer just sounded, looks like the bread's ready!"
"Really!? I gotta eat the bread while it's still hot, so see you later, Ryuuji!"
The two of them walked away from the window, while Yasuko had already crashed onto Ryuuji's bed sideways, sleeping soundly.
The hand which Ryuuji put on the windowsill was shaking slightly.
Duskin, professional cleaners? He looked at the Takasu-stick that was placed beside the window, the professional probably have extremely powerful cleaning tools right? They would have used the power of electricity and machines to clean Taiga's house from top to bottom, and probably also gave Ryuuji's 'special spots' a complete makeover.
Stupid professional cleaners,......professional cleaners! Not wanting to admit defeat, Ryuuji started to wipe the windowsill with the sleeve of his pajamas.
It's been dirtied by Yasuko's fingerprints!
Due to her son's constant movement on the bed, Yasuko slowly slid off the bed.
'That's really good' --- Everyone sitting around the glass coffee table couldn't help but exclaim.
"I'll go get the computer and printer from my bedroom. Minorin, could you help me get a cord and the power supply."
Immediately after Taiga and Minori walked out of the living room,
"Hey hey! Hey hey! This apartment's really great, everything's so expensive!"
"This is a rent-out apartment cluster, so obviously the decor would be extremely beautiful......To be living by herself in such a classy place, Taiga's probably some kind of rich kid isn't she? I want to stay in such a nice apartment too"
"Me too me too."
Coincidentally, Maya, who was wearing a mini-skirt, a jacket and long socks, looked extremely compatible with Nanako, who wore a jacket, long stockings, and a one-piece dress. The two of them shouted 'kya!' in surprise when they saw each other. Ryuuji thought about his own excitement when he first saw Taiga's place as he passed cushions to everyone sitting around the coffee table.
Ah! This apartment's really high class......On the morning which he first went into Taiga's apartment, Ryuuji looked around and was stunned: All sorts of rubbish were piled up in the kitchen, giving out an extremely disgusting odour which made him feel like puking. 'That's really bad, I have to clean this up' --- That would be the oft-mentioned fork in one's fate, for if he had ran out because of the odour, what would things be like?
"Seriously, this is just like the apartments that appear in magazines......I say, Takasu, could you not wipe everything that we've touched?"
"Oh, sorry, I just subconsciously......"
To subconsciously wipe the surface of the table that the girls had touched, not even professional oba-san cleaners could pay that much attention to details.
"Wow, the television's so big!"
"The lighting is also really luxurious!"
Wowing at the television, wowing at the lights, Kitamura and Noto were really enjoying themselves, as Kitamura said to Ryuuji,
"Though I've already heard rumours, but Taiga's house is really beside yours isn't it."
"Huh? So Takasu's place is also in this complex? That's awesome!"
In response to Maya's surprise, Ryuuji could only shake his head vigorously.
"My house is the rented apartment block beside this complex, and our windows just happen to face each other, which is why I know Taiga so well......not really well, since we see each other in class as well."
"Enemies are bound to meet on a narrow road eh?"
In response to Noto's assessment, Ryuuji could only nod in agreement as everyone else, including Ami, gave an understanding look. Ami, who normally wouldn't join such a tedious and boring activity as making a school trip plan, was dragged here by Taiga's threat 'If you don't want to do it, then you can come and watch DVDs at my house'. She now sat cross-legged beside Maya, wearing a v-necked sweater that showed off her snowy-white complexion. The DVD in question was probably that legendary '150 imitations in a row' recording which starred Kawashima Ami, produced and directed by Aisaka Taiga.
'Ah, this is awesome!? Anyone would look cute in this princess-like dress"
Haruta, who had mysteriously disappeared for a while, suddenly appeared, having snuck into Taiga's cupboard and pulled that one-piece dress of hers which probably cost around a hundred thousand yen over himself, while also putting on a lace mini skirt whose price was probably around the same range.
Just as everyone was thinking 'where did this moron come from', a squirrel-like figure flew past them and took the clothes of the 'moron', slapping him twice in the process,
And then smashed the corner of the laptop into his head.
"Bio-contamination! Everyone, burn this set of clothes!"
"Hey, that's such a waste! It's only been worn by Haruta, and you, don't hit him with the machine, what if it breaks!?"
"Relax, this is a laptop that can withstand a fall of two meters."
"Takasu......what about me......doesn't anyone think about whether I'll be broken......"
'Shut up, moron!' Taiga shouted once again, giving him two more slaps to the face.
Everyone else also said things like 'it's your fault' 'you brought it on yourself' 'just die', while Minori, who was hugging the printer, helped Haruta to balance.
"Let's put Haruta aside and start on the plan! Salute!"
To Kitamura who specialized in such things, the response from the others was swift and immediate.
"Excluding the cover page, there are six pages of B5 paper, four of which are background information......which is to say, we should do the 'instructions' part first, and then just fill in the additional information later, then we'll do the reflections, and then print it out and give it to the teachers. For reference, I've brought last year's plan."
"Oh, good job, Great Deity! Now we'll be able to just copy the entire thing."
"Ah? Of course we can't do that, you moron. How can we copy the plan for Okinawa? What are you thinking, Noto!"
"That's right!" Maya gave Noto a cold look."
And then, as everyone flipped open the booklet, '......Ah......' and let out a hollow sigh simultaneously.
The memories of their seniors' school trip to Okinawa seemed so glamorous.
Discounting the background information part, the reflections section was incredible, as there were dozens of pictures, all showing off the impossibly blue skies and pearly beaches of Okinawa. Everyone was wearing T-shirts, caps, with towels around their necks, having fun under the cheery sun. Even the famous television scene of bringing a cow over the water was recorded in picture form. Their seniors really had fun in Okinawa.
Noto suddenly made a weird noise.
And closed the booklet suddenly. Everyone raised their heads to look at him, but Noto could only manage a stuttering explanation 'Ah......it's nothing......'. How suspicious!"
"No, it's really nothing, you see, there's no point looking at this if we can't use it as a reference. Let's start googling the relevant information......I seem to remember a website......"
"Ah, wait, Ami!"
'Let Ami-chan have a look!', Ami grabbed the booklet from Noto across the coffee table and smiled as she flipped to the page that they were looking at, which should have contained something interesting other than boring expositions regarding the activities of their seniors.
"What's that? Something to do with me?"
Ami gave Kitamura a cute puppy-like look, while Noto whispered 'wait, wait, don't do this.' to Ami, which Ami completely ignored while mumbling loudly,
'This is really something that Yuusaku shouldn't look at alone.'
"What? Let me see it."
"Well, I don't have a choice do I, since you really want to see it......but don't blame me when the tears start to flow....."
"You just want to pique my curiosity don't you, what's wrong with that picture of a cow?.....Oh!!"
In an instant, Kitamura froze, what's wrong? Everyone moved over to look and found out the reason behind Kitamura's response.
That was a picture of a group taking a cow over the water, where for some reason, a long-haired girl was the only one on the luggage rack, while the other members of the group were in the water together with the cow.
That girl was laughing while giving orders from her lofty position, a laughter which seemed to resound in their ears, ahahahahaha.......a boyish laughter.
The girl on the luggage rack was the Aniki which everyone trusted, Kano Sumire.
"Whoa, looks like its still shocking for Yuusaku to see the girl that had dumped him so publicly, even on film! So pitiful, are you alright?"
"That's good to hear! Speaking of which, Kano-senpai contacted some of her friends here recently, she seems to have gotten a boyfriend in America."
"......I heard from her younger sister that the president got into MIT without much trouble."
"Heh~~Grade-hopping female university student! Ah, that's awesome! But MIT? Isn't that the American-equivalent of Tokyo University? Can Yuusaku get into that school? Ami-chan doesn't know about that."
"......Mm......where's the power supply?"
Looks like he was completely floored by the vicious attack of his childhood friend, as Kitamura turned his back on everyone to fumble with Taiga's computer cable.
"Transformer, is it this one? Looks like it is, socket, where's the socket......"
Noto felt guilty for starting the whole fiasco and walked over to the wall to help. Maya and Nanako looked at each other quietly, while Minori exposed her front teeth for some unknown reason, looking at Kitamura out of the corner of her eyes. And Taiga,
She scolded as she hit Ami's wrist.
"Huh? But isn't it bad to get depressed over something like this, I'm just training him, you see, training him to be stronger emotionally."
As if she didn't notice Kitamura's expression at all, Ami continued to elaborate, 'I'm giving him pressure!'. At this time, Haruta finally regained consciousness, 'This is?......My room......?' --- Just like his usual self.
Ryuuji, on the other hand, encouraged his best friend mentally, saying that 'I understand your feelings exactly', though Kitamura didn't know that Ryuuji had also gone through the pain of having salt rubbed into the wound caused by rejection,
"......I'll, go make some tea! Everyone just relax! Alright!?"
Ryuuji said as he got up.
This is a sponge cake I brought from home, it's hard work, so let the wandering waitress Kushieda help you!"
"Oh, thank you, could you help me get three tea cups."
In the large and expensive kitchen, Ryuuji had to work hard to suppress the ripple of emotion welling up within him in response to his reinforcements.
After putting the cake aside, Minori started to fumble around the cupboards while saying 'start work start work'.
"Mm, looks like we're out of tea cups, would the normal cups be alright?"
"Then catch, this cup's really cute, and it looks like it can hold a lot of tea, I'll use this."
Minori balanced three cups on one hand, placing all of them in front of Ryuuji before hooking one of them with her finger, the yellow cup which had a whale drawn on it seemed to have been exchanged at the convenience store by Taiga using her mountain of receipts from that store. Minori smiled at Ryuuji after making those movements.
"What about the sponge cake? It's too troublesome to make another plate, so let's just use this box?"
"That......that's alright with me."
Minori didn't notice Ryuuji, whose legs had turned to jelly, as the two of them working as though they were a married couple, their elbows almost touching as she went about opening the box that contained the sponge cake.
"Sponge sponge sponge cake cake cake, sponge cake, sponge cake, sponge cake sponge cake~~"
As though chanting Buddhist scriptures, Minori cheerily took out a specially packaged sponge cake and placed it on the marble table.
"Hey, weren't you planning to bring it over in the box?"
"......Hmm!? Oh, right!"
Were her hands moving of their own accord? Looking at Minori hurriedly stuffing the sponge cake back into the box, Ryuuji couldn't help but smile.
Putting tea leaves into the cups, Ryuuji mustered all of his mental prowess to stay calm, Minori's naturally relaxed posture, and the beauty that was accentuated by the casual wool jacket and jeans, 'No, what am I thinking', those soft lips, the side of her face, her lips, her chin......
"......I'm not Golgo......"
"......Alright then I'm Golgo,......Don't stand behind me......"
"......I'm not standing behind you......"
She was always so honestly beautiful, the charming......Minori suddenly started to crack jokes at Ryuuji, causing him to raise both of his hands. Had she noticed how he was looking at her? Ryuuji peeked sideways as his heart rate increased exponentially.
"That's good......but I've already broken the box when I opened it, so we still need a plate to hold it, I saw one here just now."
Minori ended the joke with a smile, running to the cupboard on the other side of the kitchen, speedily turning up a silver plate,
"It's really heavy, and probably some extremely high class object, would it be alright to use this, Taiga? Taiga!"
Taiga quickly ran into the kitchen, her one-piece dress billowing out behind her.
"What? What happened?"
"Could we use this silver plate? I need something to put the sponge cake on."
"Of course you can, I thought you called me for something other than this."
"Ah, its not that, because this thing looks extremely expensive, so I just wanted to confirm."
Minori smiled at Taiga and Ryuuji as she placed the sponge cake onto the plate.
"The tea cups and the other cutlery have become so clean since I was last here, it's all thanks to Takasu-kun isn't it."
"......It's clean because I hired professional cleaners."
'I see' Taiga and Minori stood around the kitchen table like sisters, smiling at each other. The two of you are really close, Ryuuji poured boiling water into the teacups, and when he looked at the two of them again, he was already unable to follow their conversation.
"But I still think that Takasu-kun's been a great help, your apartment's been much cleaner since the last time I came about a year ago, you should really thank him."
'tsk' Ryuuji saw the look that Taiga threw him.
'This situation's not good' was the meaning behind that look. Because if that line of conversation continued, it would become 'Taiga can't be without Takasu-kun', do something, Taiga hurried him with her gaze, although to tell the truth, there was nothing that Ryuuji could do.
"Mm, This is all Takasu-kun's credit, I know because I'm the all-knowing God."
She even said that......all he could do now was to pretend not to hear and continue pouring water into the teacups right? The most he could do was to just give a small smile: What more could he say to 'Because I'm the all-knowing God.'
At that moment,
"Aisaka, could you come over for a bit, there seems to be a problem with the wireless adapter, I can't go online."
"Hmm? Wasn't it working perfectly a moment ago?"
Even the gods are on my side---though it wasn't anything big, but it was just the respite that Taiga needed to make herself scarce.
While Minori continued the topic with Ryuuji,
"I really think so, because last year, no matter how much I cleaned up, the rubbish situation merely got worse after a week."
Ryuuji suddenly felt like something was wrong,
"......You're so close to Taiga, and yet you haven't come here in a year?"
The words were already out before Ryuuji seemed to remember Minori mentioning it before,
"That's because, you see......I had a bit of a disagreement with Taiga over her father, though we made up almost immediately, but I felt that if I were to be so close to her, I might do something to hurt our friendship again."
"That......That's right, I remember."
Listening to Minori's monologue, Ryuuji couldn't help but draw parallels to his own situation, but right now, Taiga was trying to be independent, and had stopped asking Ryuuji to help her with household chores......
"I'm saying that, you've done very well, Takasu-kun!"
You have the force of will to not fear defeat, Minori continued. She also patted Ryuuji near his wrist in a boyish manner. Normally Ryuuji would have been extremely happy at such close contact, but today, he was trying to solve the problem of 'what should I say to her', by the time he had decided to open his mouth, Minori had already began to prepare the sugar and milk for the tea, her turned back seeming to convey the message: That's all for this topic.
Looks like there's nothing I can do, Ryuuji could only give up, and started to wipe his hand with a dry towel. The rest of the group seemed to have started chatting idly because the Internet was broken, while Taiga and Kitamura were trying to fix the problem at the far end of the wall.
--- In a moment of almost unnatural quietness, Ryuuji suddenly thought: When was Taiga able to act so naturally around Kitamura?
"......Don't stand behind me."
"Don't copy my words."
Pushing a lock of her hair behind her earlobe, Minori smiled at Ryuuji, as he tried to recall when she had started to look at him like that.
"Well, actually, this school trip, I'm kind of looking forward to it,......no, I'm really looking forward to it."
Desperately trying to hide his inner thoughts, Ryuuji forced out a surprised expression.
"Really? About skiing?"
"I'm rather proficient at skiing you know......And, this is the last time that everyone in 2-C will get to play together. Ah, I've had a really great time in this class, so I feel really lonely about leaving it, Takasu-kun feels the same way don't you?"
As if she was confirming the quality of the teacups, Minori lowered her head to look at the bottom of the nine teacups,
"How nice it would be if everyone could stay the same way forever."
Forever? Everyone? You mean---Something bothered him about this, but just at that very moment, Taiga and Kitamura's conversation was heard from the other side of the apartment,
Yeah. That's why, how about I......
Oh? Well, that's fine....but why? Just like I thought, did something happen?
He didn't know what they were talking about. It didn't seem to have anything to do with the internet connection. Kitamura still had that hurt look on his face from his old wounds, while Taiga, without stammering or panicking, simply smiled comfortingly at him.
The two of them looked so natural and comfortable with each other, as though they had known each other for years, seriously, when did they start to---
"......Oh, that's right."
The feeling that was nagging him vanished as if it had been solved.
"If only all this could go on forever."
Almost subconsciously, Ryuuji answered as he started to place the teacups onto a plate.
Had the knot in his heart finally been released, or had it become so tight and small that he was unable to see it anymore? Ryuuji didn't know.
To get all the relevant background information on the place, and to create a plan of movement for the according to the opinion of all nine of them. This piece of homework was only finished on the weekend of the second week. The only one who was enthusiastic to the end was obviously the model student, Kitamura.
And just like this, each day continued to go by, never returning ever again---
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6 • Spin-off|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6|
|Prologue • Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6 • Chapter 7|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5|
|Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Chapter 6|
|Prologue • Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5|
|Prologue • Chapter 1 • Chapter 2 • Chapter 3 • Chapter 4 • Chapter 5 • Epilogue|