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

This is Chapter 1 from Volume 9 of the Toradora! Light Novel series. The text is from Baka-tsuki.

Transcript

He woke up, clutching his head just as he thought that he was about to fall.

"Whoa!......That scared......me to death......"

He was so afraid that he was covering his mouth with his trembling hands. His palms were drenched in sweat, making his lips salty.

It was a dream. So everything was just a nightmare.

His hands weren't the only part of his body that were trembling uncontrollably. Including his breathing and speech, Takasu Ryuuji's entire body was trembling uncontrollably. His muscles were tensed up, unable to relax even a little bit, looking as if he was about to morph into a demon at any moment.

Luckily it was only a dream, but even then, it was too---

"......Hey, are you all right? Why don't you sit down first?"

Ryuuji was finally brought back to earth upon hearing those words. He also finally realized that he was standing in the middle of the classroom, his large, shaking eyes staring into the smaller ones of the single Koigakubo Yuri, who was standing on the raised platform in front of the classroom. His classmates were all sitting silently at their desks, looking at Ryuuji.

"Sor......Sorry! Umm......I, fell asleep, so......"

He hurriedly sat down, slumping onto his desk so as to cover his burning face. It was too embarrassing.

He remembered that he had dozed off out of the boredom of waiting for his class teacher to come for homeroom after an entire day of lessons. And then he fell asleep and had a nightmare, standing up abruptly in the middle of homeroom while shouting the name of a female classmate.

How could he have done such a thing?

"That's all right. You couldn't do anything about it anyway."

The single woman (30) crossed her arms in front of her V-shape collared sweater, appearing to be surprisingly calm at the disturbance. Her gentle tone did not sound like the tone used to scold a student who had been sleeping in class.

"You were merely traumatised by Aisaka-san's accident in the mountains."

To complement the gentle attitude of their class teacher, the rest of Ryuuji's classmates did not laugh at his actions. Everyone merely nodded their heads in understanding, waiting for Ryuuji to overcome his embarrassment and calm down.

Kitamura Yuusaku, who was sitting in the front row, turned around while nodding his head, as did Kushieda Minori, who was sitting near the corridor, Haruta and Noto who were sitting behind Ryuuji must have been nodding their heads as well, while only Kawashima Ami, who sat beside the window, was looking out of the window, seemingly unconcerned with the disturbance in the classroom.

"The Takasu-kun, who has just had a nightmare, please remember to hand this form in tomorrow."

Only at the reminder of his class teacher did Ryuuji discover the piece of paper that had been placed on his desk while he was sleeping. The form read: Higher education aspirations survey.

"This form will provide the basis for your scheduling next year's classes. I'll tell everyone again, please do not forget. Alright--?"

In the midst of the lazy replies of his classmates, Ryuuji sighed deeply. Clutching his head with both hands, he stared at the form on his desk. What higher education aspirations? And what kind of trauma were they talking about?

The school trip was over a week ago. As the muscle aches from all the skiing were already gone, only the memories of the trip were left. Be it happy or unhappy incidents, funny or unfunny happenings......Of all these memories; most were about Aisaka Taiga.

That fellow fell down from the edge of the snow mountain.

(It hurts......)

Missing in the mountain during a snowstorm.

(Fell down......It hurts......)

The blood that was flowing from her forehead, and the deathly paleness of her throat as she fell backwards.

(Ah......Kitamura-kun?)

In the end, Ryuuji climbed off the edge of the cliff to save her, but she mistook him for Kitamura and told him,

(No matter what I do, it's still Ryuuji......)

"Ah--......"

Ryuuji abruptly slammed his head onto his desk, crumpling the form in the process. Even though a loud thump was heard, everyone around him pretended to not hear anything.No matter what I do, I still like Ryuuji. --- That was what Taiga had said. And the person that she mistook for Kitamura was none other than Ryuuji, who was carrying her on his back. And Ryuuji was given no chance to correct this unbelievable mistake. When they returned to the top of the cliff and when Taiga was finally fully conscious, there was no time to explain anything as she was immediately rushed off to the hospital. So at the present time, the situation was that Ryuuji knew nothing about this, that Kitamura was the one who climbed down to save Taiga, and that Taiga didn't say anything at all. But in Ryuuji's memories of that snowstorm (or the mental trauma that everyone else calls it), Taiga's words were still clearly recorded.

And so, what are aspirations?

What is scheduling classes to a person who had been struggling in a snowstorm barely a week ago? What is tomorrow? What is the future? What are aspirations?

Ryuuji twisted his face, looking like he had just swallowed poison. How am I expected to consider my aspirations under such conditions---

"Hey, Takasu-kun, we're supposed to be bowing."

"......oh......."

The girl behind Ryuuji poked him in the back, making him lift up his head hurriedly. Everyone else had already stood up, waiting for Kitamura to give the signal to bid the class teacher goodbye. Ryuuji stood up noisily, bowing together with the rest of the students.

In the next moment after the homeroom teacher walked out of the classroom, the class of 2-C was immediately enveloped in laughter and conversations.

But Taiga's petite figure still had not returned.

Ryuuji abruptly turned to look at Taiga's empty seat, his mouth set in an inverted V-shape, looking even more like he had just swallowed poison. Taiga had abandoned Ryuuji to be alone in that world of raging snowstorms, using her image that had fallen down on the snow covered ground to ensnare him, even as she herself disappeared in reality---and it was possible that she was running away. Not once had she visited Ryuuji's apartment after the school trip. According to the single woman, Taiga's health had not been well ever since she had been taken away by her mother, so she had been recuperating in a hotel in Tokyo. Her cellphone had also been turned off all this while.

Ryuuji lowered his head even more as he bit his lip subconsciously. His triangular eyes stared straight at Taiga's empty seat. The chair seemed to be shaking slightly, but that was probably due to the footsteps of the people running around it.

Taiga could have remembered everything. She could have decided not to come back after remembering that it was Ryuuji, not Kitamura that she had told the truth to. Ryuuji had already thought of that.

What if it really became like this? The chair shook again......because the girl next to Taiga's seat jumped up.

Though school had already ended, Ryuuji was unable to move. Though he was able to shift his gaze from Taiga's seat, the snowstorm in his mind raged on.

The icy wind of that day, had ensnared the footsteps of today.

If only he could gaze upon Taiga's energetic figure, and listen to her normal voice, then he might be able to free himself from that world of raging snowstorms and icy winds.


  • *

"It's so cold! The queue's not moving at all! Ah!"

"Four people just came out a moment ago......the longer you stand here the colder it gets!"

"What time is it now?"

The clock on the cellphone showed that it was 5pm. Ryuuji checked if there were any new messages before closing the lid of his cellphone, and proceeded to rub his hands together vigorously, looking as if he wanted to produce fire from the resulting friction. The sun had already gone down, the cars and trucks speeding by on the main road produced numerous reflections of the white road lights. As February came, the weather had become extremely cold, the temperature dipping below zero degrees. The evening winds were cold and fierce, forcing these high school guys to close their mouths, feeling as though spring would never arrive.

Noto pressed his hands over his large ear lobes, squeezing his already small eyes into an even thinner line.

"Though it's a stupid thing to say, it's just too cold out here! Even if the saying goes that 'The colder the weather, the more one should eat ramen,' this is going a bit too far! How much longer do we have to wait?"

"We're about halfway there I guess, but the queue behind us is really epic, it even stretches past the traffic light."

"Hey, don't go out of queue or you'll get knocked out of position by the killing aura of the people behind us."

Ryuuji quickly pulled Haruta, who had strayed out of position, back into the queue, nodding to the students queuing up behind them. His bag was only nudged slightly, but the group of students behind him were startled into apologizing profusely, forcing Ryuuji to return their bows, resulting in repeated bowing on both sides for about 5 seconds.

The queue that had extended along the pavement by the main road had extended beyond the turn at the crossroads. What awaited them at the head of the queue was the extremely popular ramen restaurant. But, looking at the long queue in front of them, the three of them began to wonder if they'd ever reach the head of the queue. If the restaurant ran out of soup stock just as it was their turn, the three of them would probably weep to death. Ryuuji, Noto and Haruta were queuing up for an extremely popular restaurant opened by a famous chef, that had just opened near school a few days ago. Though it had been said that the restaurant was perpetually full, they never imagined that there would be so many people queuing up to eat.

To calm Ryuuji, who had been traumatized by the "TAIGA!" incident, Noto and Haruta had asked him to go eat ramen with them.

Noto, whose teeth were chattering, said, "I feel guilty for dragging Ryuuji along. Don't you still have to buy food for tonight's dinner? Will you be all right?"

Ryuuji shrugged, saying, "Even I feel like queuing up to eat ramen sometimes. Since we've queued for so long already, I might as well go back after eating."

"Ah, I really don't want to go back."

Looking at Ryuuji and Noto as they turned around in surprise, Haruta explained,

"It's not what you think, I still want to eat ramen, I just don't want to go back home."

"......Hey, what did you do? Break a vase? Deface a painting?"

"Smashed your grandfather's plants? Drew on your dog's face?"

"I don't have a grandfather at home, and I don't keep a dog. Not that, I'm talking to you guys seriously......Though it's not nice to say this about myself, but I'm an idiot, so......"

Ryuuji and Noto furiously nodded in agreement.

"My results are extremely bad......and we have to talk to our parents about the aspirations thing don't we, so I just feel depressed over the entire thing."

Oh, that form --- the higher education aspirations survey. Ryuuji sighed as he thought about it. Though he insisted that he didn't have time to think about it, he still had to think about it in order to complete the form. Haruta and Ryuuji looked at each other and let out loud lamentations, while Noto seemed to be enjoying the show as he looked at Haruta's tear-stained face and told him,

"You could always start to consider it seriously next year as you're preparing for the exams right? Since this is just a reference for the scheduling of year 3 classes."

"Speaking of that, are you planning to take arts or sciences?"

"Hmm......what's the difference between arts and the sciences for me......It'll be hard for me to even graduate......Yuri-chan just told me a while ago that I've finally hit the level where even promotion to year 3 is a problem......She even called my parents a few days ago, my parents almost killed me when they heard that. I guess I'll have to take arts, or I'll really die if I were to take mathematics. Noto-chan'll take arts right?"

Noto nodded. He was the classic "I don't need to study the languages to be able to pass" type of person.

"Yes. And then I'll go into the literature faculty in university, then become an editor for a music magazine, and eventually become a freelance writer.

I haven't thought of any alternatives."

"Oh, Noto-chan has told us that before. I'll be happy to just graduate. I'll study any course in any university that'll take me, since I'll have to work for my father in the end."

"What did Haruta-chan just say?"

"What did I just say?"

Nothing......?

"I'll just be a small office worker, it's not cool at all, although the perks are good."

......interior design eh? Ryuuji thought about it, looking back at Haruta and Noto.

"It's rather embarrassing to say this......but the two of you really have been seriously considering your futures, haven't you? I just realized it, haven't I been left behind by the two of you?"

"What nonsense are you talking about?"

Noto replied while he repeatedly bumped Ryuuji with his shoulder and, breathing white steam from his nostrils,

"Takasu has nothing to worry about, since you're so clever. Your mathematics are so good, so obviously you'll take sciences. And then go to a national university together with Kitamura right?"

Ryuuji's high school was a school that focused on the promotion to university, so theoretically, every student should be looking to go to university. In year three, there would be a total of six classes, three each for the arts and science students, and the twenty five top students would be placed in a special class aiming to go to national universities. Sumire Kano, who had gone overseas before graduating, was in that class.

"But I heard that the curriculum for the special class is extremely stressful. Rumor has it that they finish the entire year 3 syllabus in a single term, and then move on to exam strategies and analysis......I haven't even considered if I want to go to university or not. I feel that compared to someone like me, who doesn't even know if he wants to go to a university, there should be people that are better suited for that class."

Noto exclaimed in surprise,

"What!? With your kind of results, you're not planning to go to university, and you're getting a job instead?"

His surprise startled Ryuuji.

"It's not that, but you see, my family doesn't have money. And I don't have any university that I really want to go to, or anything that I really want to do......I don't really dislike studying either, and I can still go to university after I work for a while and save up some money.

"How can your family not have money? Hasn't your mother been working all this while?"

"My mum's merely an employee, and it's also not a long term job.......When I was taking my high school entrance exams, my mum was talking about how 'Ryuu-chan wants to go to a university, right, so how could you not aim for a promotion-oriented high school?'"

Noto hugged himself and looked up at the darkened sky. While the other two were debating about the disgusting way in which Ryuuji's mother still called him Ryuu-chan, the queue had moved forward by a significant distance. Noto pushed the two people in front of him forward.

"Alright alright, let's just move forward shall we!"

"So I guess Takasu and I won't be in the same class next year. Haruta's taking arts too, so we may be placed into the same class......oh, that means that we'll have to say goodbye to the great teacher Kitamura."

"One more step forward~just a bit more of the cold to endure~. Sigh~it'll be extremely boring by myself if I were to be separated from Noto-chan. Don't forget to keep in touch even if we're placed into different classes, alright? What about the girls? Taka-chan, have you asked them?"

"......Who?"

"Who else besides Minori? She's arts right? She looks like an arts student~"

"Should be, arts......"

Ryuuji pretended to be casual about Noto's question.

"I remember Taiga, talking about, something like that too."

Ryuuji thought that his stuttering speech was due to the cold gust of wind that blew past. Haruta muttered under his breath, but Noto curiously had a deep-thinking look on his face as he nodded.

"So Takasu and Minori would be in different classes as well. That won't be good. And speaking of Minori, how has she been? It looks as though she hasn't been talking much.

"......She's still the same as that time."

Back then---on that night during the class trip, when only the two of them were in the long corridor in the hotel, was the moment when Ryuuji's heart beat madly for that last confession of love. At that time, Ryuuji also finally realised that Kushieda Minori would never like him.

And at the same time, he understood that he could never continue to like her.

"It's awkward isn't it?"

"It's not awkward......it's just that......and it's not like I'm avoiding her on purpose."

"So you've given up?"

"More of......I don't have the strength to carry on anymore."

Putting aside the possibility of his desired outcome, Ryuuji still did have the option to continue liking Minori. If he prepared himself to continue to get hurt as he continued to like Minori, then perhaps his feelings would change her. In actual fact, to like her secretly, and to sacrifice everything in the name of his love was good, was beautiful, and was something to be valued. He knew and understood that.

But---

"I see......"

"You can't do anything about it either, so just let nature run it's course~"

Ryuuji didn't do that, and couldn't do that.

Compared to the moment in which he was rejected by Minori, he remembered even more clearly how he finally understood why he didn't, and couldn't do that. Ryuuji had finally experienced the hidden facet behind the love that was rejected, and the love beyond that.

Just flip over to a new page, and be revived......It wasn't like that either. Everything wouldn't be so easy.

Just as Ryuuji had abandoned his one-sided feelings towards Kushieda, he accidentally came to know about Taiga's feelings for him. Taiga had simply revealed her true feelings and disappeared. Ryuuji also did not know the reason for her disappearance. In the end, the one who was left behind---the one who was abandoned was Ryuuji. Only Ryuuji was unable to walk away, and only Ryuuji was still left behind, all by himself.

Ryuuji felt as if he was still lost in that snowstorm, ensnared by the things that had happened in his past, preventing him from moving forward. He felt as if he had become a criminal, and was locked into a snowstorm that shouldn't be there, together with the words of Aisaka Taiga that he shouldn't have heard. And he was now knee-deep in that snowstorm, forgetting his dreams of tomorrow, abandoned by the present that was moving on. Don't talk about the future when he didn't even understand his own feelings, his own situation right now.

"......ah---so cold."

Ryuuji locked his jaw and breathed white steam, as the chill spread straight up his body along his spine. He rubbed his shoulders while thinking about how at ease he would be if he could just rip off his past like he was able to rip off the pages of a calender.

"Cheer up~Taka-chan, it'll be our turn soon."

Haruta laughed while rubbing Ryuuji's back in a disgusting fashion.

"It's been really hard on Taka-chan recently~ You got dumped by Kushieda on Christmas eve, and then went into the hospital, and then got dumped again during the school trip, and Taiga-chan went missing at the same time. And after that, she's been taking leave from school, so~it's gonna get even colder."

"On the other hand, Kushieda hasn't changed at all. If we hadn't heard it from Takasu, we wouldn't think that she had just dumped a guy. Why is she so stubborn?"

"I really don't know what's going on with that girl, she even got into an argument with Ami. We're just in the dark about everything concerning those girls.

"Speaking of girls, has Noto-chan made up with Maya-sama?"

"Sigh......of course she has been denying my existence......"

The three of them looked at each other and were too ashamed to speak for a moment. Ryuuji rubbed his frozen nose as he stared at his fingernails.

Minori should be at her club activity right now. Taiga didn't come to school today either, and her cellphone was still turned off, all these things have been said before, except just this bit.

Just this bit---that there would be nothing much to say from now on. The criminal that had been locked up in the snowstorm now confirmed the cause of his pain. It was only that the one-sided love had not quite yet ended. But he understood how he felt right now.

"Oh, it should be our turn soon."

A number of people walked out of the ramen restaurant ahead, instantly making the long queue much shorter.

"Yah! The next three customers, please come in!"

Hearing that energetic roar, Ryuuji and the others looked at each other. They put aside those depressing thoughts, for a bowl of hot, steaming ramen was waiting for them on the other side of the door. As they walked into the smoky and slightly dark restaurant, they immediately heard the welcoming voices of the attendants.

"Welcome!" "This way please!"

"Please sit at the counter! Ah!?"

Ah!? She's really energetic......Ryuuji thought as he turned towards the female waitress.

"Oh!?"

Ryuuji fell off his chair in surprise. To his right, Noto dropped his bag onto the floor in shock, while Haruta spit out an entire mouthful of water.

The female waitress standing at the counter turned away shyly, "Don't look-----------!"

And turned back with a loud bang, "Just joking! You can look if you really want to look......"

Kushieda Minori had her hair neatly wrapped up in a towel, and was wearing a black t-shirt with the restaurant's logo on it, and matching aprons, humming cheerfully as she laughed.

"You......"

Ryuuji couldn't help but point at that smiling face.

"What......what's wrong with you!?"

Wrong question. I should be the one asking. Although I see her in class everyday, the shock from seeing her dressed up like this was still considerable.

"I'm working!"

"Wait, then......what about your club activities!?"

"They're over! Because of the limited daylight in winter, club activities end early! But I'm surprised that the three of you actually queued for so long to eat here. Please order! But if you three were to order 'handsome guy ramen' then I'll poke your eyes."

"Handsome guy ramen." "Handsome guy ramen." "Handsome guy ramen."

Pokepokepoke, Minori used her finger to poke their eyes in order of seating. Noto quickly apologized and ordered three bowls of ramen.

"OK---, that's a smart choice! Three bowls of ramen!"

An even louder reply emanated from the kitchen. Under the bright lights of the kitchen, the restaurant workers milled to and fro, with a few pairs of hands showing the reflection of cooking fires in the deeper recesses of the kitchen. The workers were mostly male, with a few females like Minori. They were perpetually drenched in sweat, clutching the orders of the customers in their hands.

"......Why are you working here? What about the family restaurant?"

Minori was wiping the counter, but turned back to answer Ryuuji,

"I haven't quit, but the hourly wage is higher here, so I'm adding two hours here to try it out."

The V-shape hand sign.......no, it was the 2-hours hand sign. Her tireless smile was on display even today, and she appeared as energetic as always. Minori's smile was as forthright as ever, not affected by the changes in Ryuuji's heart at all.

"But do you know how to make ramen? That's such a disappointment~I queued one and a half hours just to eat ramen made by a trainee~"

"How can that be? I'm just a waitress. I only get to wash the plates and clear the tables."

Hearing a "waitress!" call from one side of the restaurant, Minori hurriedly dashed off. Looking at her receding figure, Ryuuji couldn't help but mutter,

"......we were still queuing up in the cold weather, but she rushed straight here to work after her club activities......"

While Ryuuji was still thinking about ripping off the pages of a calender, Minori was already seriously working today. Instead of stopping in her tracks like Ryuuji, Minori was moving forward, slowly leaving Ryuuji behind, the distance between them getting greater and greater. She was like an animal that would die if she just stopped for a moment, and even though she was talking to the Ryuuji whom she had just rejected, there was no trace of hesitation in her speech. They were the same age, and they were both human beings, so why was the difference so significant---The Ryuuji who was still trapped in the snowstorm shook his head vigorously. It wasn't the difference in natural intellect, or life would depend too much on luck.

Noto asked, "Why are you working so much?"

Minori was clearing a table, so she answered while wiping the table with one hand and clearing plates with her other and said, "My second year of high school is ending, so I must work harder."

She really didn't answer the question. Just as she didn't answer the question before when Ryuuji asked, and even Taiga didn't seem to know the true reason behind Minori's desire to work so much.

"That part-timer over there! Stop chatting! Quickly bring this bowl of ramen to that customer!"

Hearing that sudden outburst, Minori shuddered slightly, "That's the owner. He's going to open his eyes soon."......and then hurried away, leaving Ryuuji and the others slightly confused.

"What? Open his eyes?"

"You mean he had his eyes closed all this time? Wouldn't that be rather dangerous?"

The restaurant suddenly lapsed into total silence as the customers all shifted their attention to the counter, where the shadow of a middle-aged uncle appeared. The uncle had both his eyes closed. One of the customers said in a soft voice, "He's going to open his eyes."

Just as Ryuuji and the others were still confused, the uncle's eyes suddenly opened wide. But it wasn't that dramatic, for those were very common eyes.

"Secret technique---The cycle of the six planes!"-In a single moment, the uncle had already picked up a few netted spoons that already had noodles in them and threw them into a tub of boiling hot soup, stirring the noodles vigorously. The hot water droplets from the stirring flew straight into the faces of the three guys.

"Ah hot hot hot hot---!"

The three people did not know that this was the secret technique that only the owner of the restaurant, who normally had his eyes closed, was able to use.

Ryuuji turned his head around, thinking that this was a bit too dangerous. At that exact moment, the other customers pushed and shoved to stick their head closer to the counter so as to get some of the hot soup onto their faces.


  • *

Ryuuji reached home later than he expected after eating ramen.

Wrapping his muffler around his neck, Ryuuji hurriedly ran along the length of the sakura-lined road, carrying bags in both hands. The cold wind blowing into his face felt like knives.

The faster he was able to finish tonight's dinner, the better. Though he struggled over whether to buy raw cabbage or not, Ryuuji eventually had decided not to buy it, choosing instead to buy pork, carrot, and fried tofu to make a simple steamed pork. There was still leftover rice, so 20 minutes would be enough. Ryuuji turned a familiar corner, walking on to a familiar street, and then stopped for a moment to look up at the window on the second floor of the condominium.

This had become a habit over the past week.

The window still had its curtains closed today. The living room was dark, with no signs of life within.

She hasn't come back---Ryuuji continued to look up, unaware that his mouth was open and his eyebrows were knitted closely together. Where had the owner of that home gone to, and why wasn't she back yet? He slowly breathed out a plume of white steam. He continued to stare at the darkened window, and his imagination began to run wild again. Soon the whispered words that he had heard that day began to resound in his head once again.....Ryuuji, I still......This was the last sentence that Ryuuji had heard Taiga say. As he looked into the empty apartment, Ryuuji wondered if there were any clues, any hints as to why she still hadn't come back.

Was what the class teacher had said about her being in bad health true? Though it had been said that she only suffered minor injuries, were her injuries actually very serious? If it wasn't like that, was it because she thinks that things are going well between Minori and me, and therefore felt uncomfortable about it?

Could she have found out about Ryuuji's feelings, and thus decided to never appear in front of Ryuuji again? It was hard to say. Ryuuji whispered,

"......Such an idiot......"

While Taiga wasn't there, Ryuuji spoke the words that he had been wanting to speak for a long time.

If the story about her being in bad health wasn't true, and the real reason was just like what Ryuuji had guessed, then Taiga would really be an idiot. What was the point of running away from everything? Would everything be all right if she just abandoned Ryuuji like this, never to see him ever again, pretending that nothing had ever happened, never knowing what had actually happened between Ryuuji and Minori?

If it was really like this---but Ryuuji shook his head at this thought, throwing it out of his head.

Everything that he had just thought of was built on shaky assumptions of 'what if'.

Nothing would come of staring at the luxurious condominium and letting his imagination run wild. He wouldn't be able to know the truth unless he went to ask Taiga herself. So even if he thought of 'if I forgot about everything, then everything might go back to normal, and Taiga would come back', it was meaningless. And it wasn't like one could simply erase memories.

A gust of cold wind blew across, making Ryuuji shudder, sighing in the cold. He calmed himself down and began to move his footsteps. No matter what, he still had to make dinner. Just as he sneaked a peek at the entrance of the condominium out of the corner of his eyes.

"......Argh!"

In that instant, his field of vision turned black, his throat constricted so that he couldn't breathe. As he was pulled down by the person behind him, Ryuuji finally saw the identity of the demon behind him.

......with a loud thump, he dropped his bags on the floor. "Tai......"

Taiga---is going to kill me.

"Ah, it's over......"

The hands that had held Ryuuji's muffler in an iron grip suddenly let go. Ryuuji, who was ambushed by a surprise choke from behind, gulped the ice cold air gratefully.

"Cough! Cough......Coughcough!"

"Don't you think you're being a bit over dramatic?"

Ryuuji half-kneeled on the ground, throwing the words that he had wanted to tell her towards Taiga with tears in his eyes and a scary look on his face,

"You......You idiot......! How could you choke me just because you weren't able to get my attention!? I really couldn't breathe! What do you want to do to me!? Don't you think your way of making an entrance is a bit too weird!?"

Ryuuji pointed his finger at the tip of Taiga's nose, but Taiga merely put on a 'that's too bad~it's not my fault~' face.

"Ah, that's too bad~it's not my fault~"

......She said it! She actually said it! Ryuuji's eyes started emitting red light, but Taiga arrogantly thrust out her chest, sticking out her chin, saying,

"I saw you around the corner but I was a bit too embarrassed to call out to you. But no matter how hard I waved, you didn't even see me. Is there a problem with your eyes? Is there a layer of oil on your eyeballs? Did you wash your face?"

"What are you talking about.....!?"

Ryuuji's voice sounded like one which was used to recite curses as he quickly covered his throat with both of his hands to prevent a repeat of the choking.

But Taiga still pulled on the two ends of Ryuuji's muffler, as she climbed onto Ryuuji's back like a monkey. Like this, obviously Ryuuji's neck would be constricted, obviously his breathing would be difficult, obviously his life would be in danger.

"Don't joke with me! What have you been doing for this period of time......"

......nothing more to say. Ryuuji swallowed the rest of his sentence. The finger that was almost touching the tip of Taiga's nose was shaking uncontrollably, but here were no words left to finish off the sentence. "Tai,Tai,Tai......"Isn't this Taiga!?"

Ryuuji turned around while saying that, the small hands that had control of his muffler loosened as Taiga slid down from his back.

"Huh? I don't get what you're trying to do."

Ryuuji shook his back and thought, Taiga's back!

She stood in front of Ryuuji, pouting, "Could you hold in your sleep talk till you get to the other world?" Staring at him as if she wanted to send him there herself.

Taiga wore her school uniform under her coat, her bag was slung across her body with both hands in her pockets, her muffler was wound around her body several times.

There was a white piece of plaster on her forehead.

"Tai......Taiga......"

She's back. She, is really back---Ryuuji didn't know what to say, or how to react. Taiga asked,

"Just what is wrong with you?"

Taiga slanted her eyes 45 degrees downwards while admonishing Ryuuji.

"......You, you......"

"I'm asking you a question. What's wrong with you!?"

"Where......where have you been---!? Why didn't you come back earlier!?"

"Argh"

Ryuuji subconsciously grabbed Taiga by her muffler. It was definitely a coincidence, not revenge. The end result was that Taiga began struggling to breathe, as if she was being tortured.

"Do you know how worried I was! Such a long time, what, have you, been doing, and, with who!?"

"You're......you're killing me, you idiot!"

Taiga's right hand slammed into Ryuuji's chin as if it wanted to rip apart the very fabric of reality. It hurt, but, but, but.


(No matter what)


"Just what is wrong with you!? You fat dog!"

"Oh! Oh!"

Taiga started to slap Ryuuji's face with her hands, but Ryuuji dodged, making Taiga even angrier. "Why are you dodging!" Taiga shouted as she flew forward to grab hold of Ryuuji's collar, forcibly pulling his face towards her as she took a deep breath, preparing to hurl her usual insults at him.

Under the light of the streetlamps, Ryuuji looked into Taiga's eyes.

Her brown eyes were shining like the scattered stars in the night sky.

The tiny hands which were on Ryuuji's hands suddenly became hotter, her breath was on his lips, her skin was close to the point where he could almost feel the heat of her body--

"......Argh!"

"......Oww......"

Ryuuji pushed her away roughly.

This was too stimulating. Ryuuji couldn't help but struggle to get to his feet, pushing Taiga's warm hands away.

The two of them stared at each other without saying anything. The cold street was swallowed by the quietness.

In front of Ryuuji, Taiga opened her mouth as if she was confused at Ryuuji's sudden outburst of resistance. She looked at Ryuuji wonderingly, not knowing why he was showing such resistance, when she did this to him all the time. Ryuuji still refused to speak, though his ears and face that were touched by Taiga felt like they were burning. Ryuuji couldn't take it anymore, and shifted his gaze away from Taiga. Taiga stood with her back to the purplish-blue night sky, looking at Ryuuji.

Ryuuji did not know how he should face Taiga, and with what kind of expression. But Taiga seemed to have sensed something while looking at Ryuuji's face, and breathed in lightly.

"......What's wrong......?"

Ryuuji saw that her pearly face was now tinged with a light shade of pink.

With every breath that she took, the tinge of pink on her face would get deeper. And then.

(Still like him the most)

"What, is, wrong!?"

Taiga suddenly opened her eyes, letting off the aura of a desperate beast. "Huh!?" "What's wrong what's wrong what's wrong!"-- She pulled back her hands as she prepared to attack Ryuuji once again. Taiga was like a child who kicked and destroyed anything she could get her hands on, slowly forcing Ryuuji into a corner.

"......Just what, are you trying to say......!?"

"......"

She closed up the distance between the two of them once again, punching his chest with a loud thump.

And then she attempted to grab hold of Ryuuji's collar again as if she wanted to erase the awkward atmosphere that had been created. But the blush that was on her face refused to go away, even spreading to the tips of her ears. Taiga held her breath and bit down on her lip, still glaring at Ryuuji.

Was it the throat that had been grabbed that was hot, or the hand that grabbed the throat that was hot? Was the loud thumping coming from my heart, or from Taiga's heart--

(Still like Ryuuji the most)

--In that moment.

Taiga's hands grabbed Ryuuji's throat and shoulder, pulling his face inwards. Ryuuji didn't even have time to resist before his body was lifted up.

What happened, was everything suddenly became white.

It was like being smashed on the head by a meteor, the shockwave that he was hit with was many times stronger than a simple choking. He even felt that his body was smashed into nothingness. The world had disintegrated, the heavens and the earth had been reversed, stars had been burnt out, and every living creature on earth had been swallowed by the raging flames of destruction.

Nothing could be seen, nothing could be heard, as only one thought echoed throughout the universe, "What just happened!?"

"Sweeping kick!"

"......Oh!?"

Taiga was looking at him from above......Ryuuji seemed to be lying on the road like an idiot.

"Ah......the sweeping kick......!"

The heavens and the earth were reversed because he was hit by Taiga's sweeping kick. If not for Taiga's grip on his collar, Ryuuji would have hit his head.

"What, What are you doing!? Who do you think you are!? Murderer!? Robber!? What's so fun about attacking me all the time!?"

"Well, I'm sorry. But it's your fault for revealing such a murderous look, I just instinctively felt the danger of a young maiden!"

"I was merely shocked by your sudden return! And you attacked me first! I should be the one feeling afraid!"

"Weren't you choking me?"

"But you choked me first!"

Ryuuji finally got to his feet, questioning Taiga with two outstretched hands. Taiga turned around, totally ignoring him, further angering Ryuuji.

"It's been so long, what's wrong, what happened, why didn't you come back, I've been worried about you! And in the end you just came back so suddenly to choke me! To hit me! And even threw me! What is going on!? Tell me everything! Where have you been all this while!? Did you not come back because you lik-ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"

"......ah......?"

Upon hearing the hideous scream, even Taiga was scared speechless.

The atmosphere was unexpectedly quiet, as Ryuuji looked at Taiga, who was merely a step away, while thinking about how to cover up his mistake.

How could he say something like that?

"Because you like me. You mistook me for Kitamura and confessed your feelings for me. Do you remember? You didn't come back because you remembered, right?"

He could never say that out loud.

Ryuuji swallowed the sentence that he could not say, holding his breath. His brain was numb, his whole body was numb, but for some reason, his heart was still thumping with surprising vigor.

Taiga wrinkled her eyebrows, looking at Ryuuji as if she was looking at something scary--and kept the distance of about two meters between them.

But, this girl, she actually, likes me. "Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li........-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li-Li......"

By coming back, did it mean that she was mentally prepared already?

She had accidentally confessed her feelings to Ryuuji, and now that she had come back to him, it meant that she was ready to listen to his answer......that's why she came back?

If that was the case, then how should he reply--

"Like eating carrots......!"

He whipped out a stick of carrot from his bag, waving it in front of Taiga's nose. Taiga swallowed her saliva in surprise, staring straight at that stick of carrot.

"......Hey, are you really all right?"

"I'm all right!......This is pork......! This is......fried tofu!"

Ryuuji flipped out the contents of his bag for Taiga to see.

"And this is frozen fried rice!"

Taiga pressed the plastic bag with frozen fried rice into Ryuuji's face. Ryuuji screamed in agony at the cold.

"Argh, it's cold! What are you trying to do!?"

"Now are you awake?"

How should he answer Taiga's casual tone? He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

"The doctor said that this would heal in ten days. So it'll be fully healed soon."

--But

Taiga pushed up her bangs, pointing at the white plaster on her forehead. Looking at her, Ryuuji forcibly swallowed the words that he was about to say once again. He felt as though all the sweat that had been on his body had been blown dry by the cold wind. The castle of Ryuuji's chaotic memories and imagination crumpled as reality stood in front of his eyes.

One week ago, Aisaka Taiga had hurt her forehead in the accident. Though he had not forgotten about it.

"Was it......sewn up?"

He was already unable to distinguish imagination from reality......probably. Perhaps that's why he was so bothered by the sight of Taiga's wound. Ryuuji stared at the plaster unblinkingly, but Taiga merely shrugged.

"This kind of wound doesn't need to be sewn up. Though the doctor said that it would heal faster if that big needle was used to close the wound up, I rejected his suggestion because it wasn't required. That thing was extremely scary. And now that the wound is healing, it's not painful anymore. Now I can wash my hair, it's just a bit itchy sometimes."

"Hey, don't scratch!"

He quickly grabbed her hand, afraid that she would open the wound. Taiga threw Ryuuji's hand to one side, putting one hand on her plaster as if she was relieving the pain of her injury.

"......It's my fault I guess. I know you were worried about me. See, my injury's not serious, and the thing about me being in bad health was fake too, I just didn't want to go to school."

"Is that so, you're all right? Then......huh?.......Huh!?"

Ryuuji's eyes almost cracked from the shock. Taiga shuddered at the sight of that inhuman figure in front of her.

"It's not my fault that I haven't seen my mother in a long time. I was so touched that she came for me. So I just stayed with her in a hotel and went shopping, watched movies, and just caught up with each other."

"......You were......having fun with your mother......? That's why you didn't come back......?"

"Yes. I'm very close with my mother. Probably because I haven't seen her much for these few years. You see, even though I keep telling the old man that,'you don't care about me even though you're my father', but if not for such things, they might not be so honest about their feelings, right?"

Her words were like previously prepared words that served only to convince herself. Taiga nodded to herself.

".......You're really an.......idiot aren't you......"

Ryuuji felt even more awkward. He clutched his head, breathing out deeply as if he wanted to breath out everything that had happened in the past week.

"......I was really worried about you......!? And, why did you turn off your cellphone!? You could have told me if there was something going on!? You could have sent me a message!"

"My cellphone battery ran out of juice."

"You could have just charged it at any convenience store!"

"Ah so I could, I didn't know."

Hearing Taiga's casual answer, Ryuuji's shoulders slumped. Looks like he was the only one still trapped in the snowstorm of his dreams.

"Wh, What......Seriously.......! Seriously!"

Though he felt mistreated, Ryuuji was still happy to see that Taiga was safe and sound. Only Ryuuji was frozen at that moment in time. Wasn't it a good thing to have only one victim? He stood up and patted off the dust on his uniform.

And---That's right, it meant that Ryuuji's assumptions were all wrong.

Taiga didn't stay away because of that "confession".

"Alright, it was my fault that I didn't update you on my situation, really......right, didn't you come and find me together with Kitamura-kun and Minorin?"

Taiga suddenly asked Ryuuji, her large eyes boring into his.

"......how did you know, since you were unconscious at that time?"

"This was what Yuri-sensei told me at the hospital. She also said that the three of you were too rash, and was rather angry. But, I was really happy at hearing that.

Taiga miraculously thanked Ryuuji honestly.

"I'll promise you. Next time if you're buried in the snow, I'll come and look for you."

And then, she nodded her head seriously as she used her nose to take a deep breath. Ryuuji saw it, and thought, that's right.

That's right, Taiga doesn't remember anything. Ryuuji confirmed that fact once again. And her reason for coming back was just that her holiday with her mother ended, and not because she was making her own mental preparations for the answer to her confession.

Which was to say---that if Ryuuji acted as if he never heard any of those words, everything will return to normal. All it required was for Ryuuji to forget Taiga's confession. Just like that, it would be like nothing had happened. Though Ryuuji was unable to control his own memories, he could at least pretend to forget. Just like how Minori ignored Ryuuji's feelings.

Though Ryuuji was hurt at that time, Taiga won't be hurt this time. Because Ryuuji would act according to Taiga's wishes. Taiga surely wished to have 'never spoken'.

Ryuuji confirmed yet another time, "......You really don't remember anything?"

Taiga nodded, "but, " Taiga's long eyelashes drooped, as she continued in a low voice, as if she was talking to herself, "I had a dream. Kitamura was carrying me on his back, and I said a lot of stupid things. That......was a dream, right?"

Ryuuji answered unhesitatingly, "It was a dream."

At that moment, a gust of freezing wind blew past. Taiga wrinkled her eyebrows as she used one hand to keep her hair in place while pulling her coat

tighter around her body.

"......Kitamura carried you up to the cliff, that is true. But he said that you were unconscious the whole time."


"Really?......That's good. I thought for a moment 'What!? What if that wasn't a dream!?' and I was worried for a while."


--The stone in Ryuuji's heart finally dropped. He looked down at Taiga, thinking that the lie actually worked on her. Why was her usual sensitivity not on display today?

"Clumsy."

That was Ryuuji's true opinion, but Taiga merely pouted.

".....humph, even though I'm unhappy about it, I have nothing to say. Yes, I'm clumsy. This accident led me to understand that. But,......though I'm clumsy, I still have some good points."

She looked at Ryuuji as if she had made up her mind about something, and said,

"I've been thinking about this......have you asked Minori about what she really thinks?......Don't tell me you couldn't even ask her about that because of my accident?"

Ryuuji suddenly thought of something.

If he could see the wound in his heart and the blood that is flowing out from it, his entire field of vision would probably be saturated in red.

"There's nothing between Minori and me anymore."

"......Why?......Ah, you're trying to say that I shouldn't be going in between the two of you anymore? Then I'll......"

"No, no. Who'd think of that, I'm not talking about this. It's got nothing to do with you......There's nothing to talk about, really."

Taiga was speechless for a moment, she had once cried because Minori had dumped Ryuuji, but now she merely stared at Ryuuji quietly.

Though she was staring at him with steel in her eyes, his words would not change. Do you really hope for the development of the relationship between Minori and me?--the words that couldn't be spoken, the feelings that couldn't be revealed, still had not changed.

"......I really don't know what you're thinking......"

Taiga's gaze flickered slightly,

"But, just a bit.....If you ever need me, you must tell me. Though I'm clumsy and stupid, I'll surely help you with all my might."

That promise was true. Taiga was that kind of person. Even if she knew that the person she liked was in love with another, she would still help him to the best of her ability. Ryuuji knew that. He had seen everything Taiga had done after she found out about Kitamura's agony from being in love with Sumire Kano.

That's right. At the same time as Kitamura's love was shattered, Taiga had left her own one-sided love behind. And now.

"......I don't know what you're thinking either."

Right now, why, me?......Ryuuji thought.

What kind of closure had Taiga reached about her feelings towards Kitamura?

Though he wanted to know about these things, what good would it do? Would he then forget what Taiga had told him, and start encouraging Taiga to go for Kitamura once again? To persuade her to continue chasing after Kitamura? To tell her that all she needs is to put in a bit more effort since there are no competitors anymore? Did he really want to tell her these things?

"I'm, really cold~! It's stupid standing out here talking. I'm going back before I catch a cold."

Taiga attempted to end the conversation as she turned towards the entrance of the condominuim.

".....Wait."

"Don't want to. It's cold out here."

"You're only eating frozen fried rice? Come over and eat, Yasuko'll be happy too......She's been worried about you."

Ryuuji couldn't help but say that to the retreating figure. But Taiga half-turned and shook her head,

"It's alright. I like to eat frozen fried rice. Just go back and send my regards to Ya-chan, and tell her that Taiga's alright already."

"Don't force yourself."

"I've forgotten how to force myself already."

Taiga turned and walked up the steps to the entrance, smiling as if she just told a joke. On her pearly and almost-transparent face, her nose was red from the cold.

"Let's stop here tonight, you should go back too. I'm tired and want to sleep as soon as I finish this. Don't worry, I'll be on time for school tomorrow."

Taiga's coat was blown back as it fluttered in the strong winter gusts. The auto-locking door closed with a loud clang.

Light Novel
Main Series' Volumes

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