| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
Taiga slowly blinked twice before squeezing out an answer,
"The cake shop? Ya-chan?"
"Yes. Monday to Friday, from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon, nine hundred yen an hour."
"But doesn't Ya-chan usually only wake up in the afternoon? It's already four, five o'clock in the morning when she reaches home, and......"
"I tried to stop her, but she wouldn't listen. She started work last week."
"......It'll be really tiring wouldn't it."
Taiga's gaze held a hint of disapproval, but Ryuuji couldn't do anything to stop her since Yasuko was working during school hours.
After school, Ryuuji and Taiga went to the interview room that was also known as the 'reprimand room' to wait for their class teacher to appear.
Ryuuji sat at the four-person table that was placed in the middle of the room, while Taiga, who was originally standing by the door, opted be as far away from Ryuuji as possible, making one big detour to sit on the counter in front of the window, swinging her legs back and forth violently.
The enclosed area that was a little larger than two tsubo (Japanese method of measuring area) was awkwardly silent, with the only sounds being the muffled voices of the students having club activities in the sports field. As long as no one spoke, the entire space was like a soundless vacuum, making its inhabitants feel an inexplicable sense of pressure.
"I hear that--"
Tap! Ryuuji drummed his fingers on the table as though playing the piano.
"--That the shop that I always go to in the shopping district is looking for part-time workers, and that part-timers get to take the unsold cakes home at the end of the day......"
"You're really noisy."
"......What do you mean by noisy?"
"That tapping sound you're making."
Taiga leaned on the window frame as she wagged a finger from each hand at Ryuuji. He understood what she was referring to, and promptly crossed his arms, placing them on the surface of the table.
Yesterday evening, Ryuuji found out about Yasuko's new job after meeting her in front of Taiga's apartment.
"But why did Yasuko suddenly get another job?"
"Because I told her that there won't be enough money for me to go to university. So she told me that she'll find a way around it and got a new job the next day."
"So it's because of your school fees......Looks like it's really hard to be a mother."
"......The reason I've been called here should be because I haven't turned in my higher education aspirations survey. Why are you here?"
"I haven't turned it in either, so I think I've been called here for the same reason."
"Why haven't you turned it in yet? Is it because you don't want to discuss it with your parents?"
"No, I was just too lazy to do it, so I forgot about it."
Taiga turned around to blow a breath of air at the windowpane before drawing the picture of a heart on the windowpane.
Ryuuji jumped in surprise at the Taiga's picture. Is Taiga hinting at something? A heart means LOVE, and Taiga's LOVE-- "......Ryuuji, look."
"A Praying Mantis!"
"So it's supposed to be a praying mantis......!"
Ryuuji suddenly had this insane urge to smash his face into the table in front of him. That heart was actually the head of a praying mantis. Taiga then filled in the eyes, body and the reportorial legs before labeling it 'KAMAKIRI'. Looks like it's really a praying mantis and not a declaration of love.
"Do you know how to write it in kanji?"
"Yes, you write the second kanji for church next to the kanji for insect......and then write the second kanji for ichiro beside the kanji for insect......"
"The second kanji of ichiro? The kanji for insect? It doesn't sound correct does it?"
Ryuuji couldn't help but sigh to himself. You idiot--Why do I have to think that Taiga was trying to confess her feelings to me?
"And you've also drawn the praying mantis wrongly. The body of a praying mantis is split into three distinct parts, the head, chest and the long stomach, together with a pair of wings. Have you even seen one before?"
"Yes I have. In fact I just saw one cross the road a while ago. Minorin used her umbrella to poke it and it ran off."
"A while ago? Was that really a kamakiri that you saw? It looks more like a person with a really long body. An insect's body should be more clearly segmented like this."
Ryuuji walked over to Taiga, stepping on the middle panel of the counter and leaning forward to correct Taiga's kamakiri drawing.
"Ah! My kamakiri!"
"It's nothing much."
The marks left behind by Ryuuji's finger slowly turned to drops of water, rolling down the cold windowpane. Ryuuji blew another breath of air at the windowpane as he began to draw a more accurate drawing of a praying mantis. Even though I don't look that part, but I was also a primary school boy once! I even caught an entire plastic bag of praying mantises before forgetting it in the apartment, scaring Yasuko to tears.
"And then the wings are here, and it's stomach should be this long--"
"Ah! What is this! A praying mantis doesn't look like this! What are you trying to draw! That's definitely wrong!"
"I'm telling you that it looks like this. And then there should be Nematomorphs wriggling around the stomach--"
"Wh, What's that wriggly line you just drew!? Why is it coming out from that kind of place!? It looks really disgusting!"
"Yes, it's really disgusting! And Nematomorphs will become like this when they come into contact with water--Ah!"
Crash! The middle panel of the counter finally broke down from Ryuuji's weight, one corner smashing into Ryuuji's leg.
"Ahahahaha, that has got to be the stupidest way of getting hurt in the world! Ah! You're bleeding......"
Ryuuji sat on the counter and pulled up his trousers to see that the cut on his leg was bleeding slightly. Luckily it's only a minor cut, so just some tissue will be enough.
"Damn these Nematomorphs......! They're still cursing me after what they did to me that time!"
"That time? What're you talking about?"
"When I saw Nematomorphs for the first time during my childhood, I was so surprised that I threw the praying mantis I had in my hand away and tried to run, but my feet got stuck in the mud, forcing me to go home without shoes as I couldn't get them out of the mud!"
"Speaking of your childhood......So you were a primary school kid at that time......still carrying those small backpacks......"
Aha, aha, aha! Taiga suddenly thought of something extremely funny as she suddenly started laughing uncontrollably. She covered her mouth while looking at Ryuuji as she spoke softly,
"A primary school kid with that kind of face......"
"What's so funny! Everyone's been a primary school kid before!"
"You're special! Ahaha! I really want to see you like that!"
Damn it! Ryuuji was a little annoyed at how Taiga kept laughing at him, so he shifted away from her to the other end of the counter. Taiga was still laughing as she clapped her small hands, saying 'A Ryuuji who's smaller than me."
Would one think that childhood version of the person one likes is extremely special?
Ryuuji looked at the side of Taiga's face as he thought. Was this how Taiga secretly enjoyed and treasured the memories of Ryuuji's childhood, and the time they spent together everyday?
(But I still like Ryuuji.) Did Taiga not tell anyone about that, only smiling to herself as she thought about their time together? Thinking about those memories over and over again, until the memories themselves faded away--
"......When do you intend to stop laughing?"
"Ah, I'm such an idiot for laughing so hard. Mm! Oh right, you!"
The two of them sat on opposite ends of the counter, Taiga clapping her hands together smilingly as she looked at Ryuuji,
"I'm in love with the ramen store that Minorin's working at! Minorin also told me that you've gone before!"
"Ah......You've also been there? With who?'
"By myself. Minorin dragged me there. I was reluctant to go at first, but she said that I needn't worry as there're bartop seats over there. The ramen's really good! Although the soup-flinging's really dangerous."
"Ah, the cycle of the six planes."
"The best combination is normal ramen with garlic! I've already been there thrice. You've only been there once?"
"Yes, I went with Haruta and Noto. We queued for a really long time before we got in."
"You should go more often! The queue won't be very long if you go before six. Minorin was really disappointed too, as she told me, 'Takasu-kun and the others only came once.'"
Taiga shrugged and smiled as she implied that, 'She said something like that you know. Isn't it good? Minorin's interested in you.' Taiga merely implied what she had wanted to say probably because she had already decided not to intervene unless Ryuuji specifically asked for her help. Ryuuji didn't answer Taiga, but continued to look at her face. Taiga helped Ryuuji to give the hair clip that he wasn't able to give away to Minorin for him; when the hair clip fell into the snow, Taiga even dropped off a cliff just to find it. Ryuuji thought about all these things as he looked at Taiga's facial expression.
Forgetting about how she confessed her feelings to Ryuuji, and still trying to get Ryuuji and Minori together, Ryuuji wanted to know what Taiga was really thinking. Even though he knew that she was trying to be helpful, but Ryuuji still wanted to know what Taiga was truly thinking. He wanted to tell her, if doing such things would make you bleed, then please stop doing such things.
Taiga didn't appear to be bothered by Ryuuji's silence as she turned towards the window, almost resting her forehead on the glass.
Her fringe was almost touching her nose, the shape of the side of her face was slightly illuminated by the light from outside the window. The slightly confused expression contrasted sharply with her petite figure, giving her a surprisingly mature look. The fingertip that touched the windowpane didn't look childishly round, but long and soft.
The praying mantis had turned into water drops on the windowpane.
Kushieda would never like me--if I were to say something like that now, Taiga would probably rebuff me. She would say, "That's impossible, Minorin likes you, she just has a misunderstanding about our relationship." She'll surely say something like that.
If I say that because Kushieda knows that you like me, that's why she'll never like me......Taiga'll surely answer immediately, "Then I won't like you anymore. I've already made a wish to the love god of rejection to erase my feelings towards you, so it'll be alright."
The wish was never granted; -Right, last year, she and Kitamura......No, she didn't. For the sake of Ryuuji and Minori, who weren't able to be together on Christmas, she decided to ignore her own feelings.
Ryuuji felt a sudden shortness of breath as he stared at Taiga's neatly cut and glossed nails.
When Taiga went missing, Ryuuji's thoughts were extremely clear; I'll never let go of Taiga's hand ever again, no matter how the people around us see our relationship, I'll never leave Taiga's side ever again--I did swear to myself at that time.
"......Koigakubo Yuri's really slow isn't she."
Taiga grumbled softly as she continued swinging her legs.
Ryuuji suddenly closed his eyes, trying to endure the snowstorm that was enough to freeze his body.
Taiga was the one who left me here.
Taiga was also the one who let go of my hand and became more and more distant.
Ryuuji's own heartbeat was searingly hot, as his ears and throat hurt, his face burning up, forcing him to cup his face in his hands.
"What's that single woman doing, calling us here and not showing up--Kyaa!?"
At that very moment, a 'crash!' that was even louder than the one a few minutes ago sounded in the room, as the entire counter broke down, throwing Ryuuji and Taiga forward--the counter was obviously not able to bear the weight of two high school students. "Wh-wh-wh-wh-what's going on!?" Taiga shouted as she performed a beautiful front flip, landing softly in a kneeling position. Ryuuji on the other hand, landed heavily on his knees, unable to explain the situation to her due to the excruciating pain in his knees. It was in such situations that the difference in physical ability was painfully clear.
Just as Ryuuji struggled to keep himself from groaning in pain, the door in front of them opened.
"I'm sorry for making the two of you wait......Ah! You broke the counter!"
Koigakubo Yuri, more commonly known as the single woman (30), gave a cry of despair (My God!), and deliberately dropped all the stationary that she was carrying onto the ground for dramatic effect. What an ice age reaction.
"No we didn't! This room is haunted!"
It's such a pity--! The single class teacher dragged Taiga to her feet as she sighed deeply. 'Now what do I do...' The class teacher glanced at the broken counter before sighing deeply for a second time, 'It's beyond repair.'
"How could the two of you--Ah how could the two of you do such a thing! The two of you must have been sitting on top of the counter right!"
It has nothing to do with us. Ryuuji and Taiga raised their hands and waved it in front of their faces in the exact same manner, but the fresh drawing on the windowpane was solid evidence of their previous presence. Even if the drawing had now become a few trails of water, Koigakubo Yuri was still able to deduce the exact manner in which the counter had tragically broken down. Looking as though she finally had enough, the single woman said in a voice that was three times louder than her usual volume,
"I give up on the two of you......Alright, sit down!"
"Never! Ah, it's past four o'clock! School has already ended, I want to go home!"
Looks like this approach was useless against Taiga.
"No No No---! It'll be over in a moment, so just sit down!"
Ne---ver---Taiga childishly twisted and turned as she expressed her displeasure, The single class teacher grabbed hold of her hand and forcibly sat her down in the seat beside Ryuuji. Taiga then crossed her legs and turned away to look out the window as a show of resistance. The single class teacher then sat down opposite the two of them, her eyebrows knotting together before saying,
"Do you know what I'm going to talk to the two of you about? Why haven't either of you turned in your higher education aspirations survey?"
"I'm really sorry......but I still have not come to a consensus with my mother."
Ryuuji answered awkwardly. Taiga didn't answer as she scratched the tip of her nose, looking as though she wasn't part of the conversation.
"Both Takasu-kun and Aisaka-san's results are extremely good, so the only thing the two of you need to do is to decide on whether you'll like to go into the science curriculum or the arts curriculum. Both of you should be posted to the high ability class."
"Wait a minute, I really--"
"Takasu-kun has already said that your main concern is financial, but this form is merely a reference, so you don't have to think so much about it, you won't get recommended into a university because you filled up the form nicely."
The single class teacher placed two pieces of the blank form and two pencils onto the table in front of them, just stopping short of saying, "Fill it out right this moment!"
But Ryuuji stubbornly pushed the form back towards his class teacher,
"......If I were to choose to go to university, and then if I were really posted to a class that will specially push for university admission, then I won't be able to persuade my mother to change her mind. And also......It'll be too hard on my mother if she were to have high expectations of me for the whole of next year."
Even now, if Yasuko were to find out that they needed even more money besides the exam fees, she would definitely look for a few more jobs.
"I don't wish to give her hope and then betray her expectations, and I also don't want her to be so tired, which is why I intend to persuade her to let me not go to university. I don't have a father, and I don't want my mother to continue to struggle to support me."
"So your only problem is financial right? Many other students who want to go on to university have their own problems too. As long as you're willing to word hard, there are still scholarships and financial aid to solve your problem."
"I hope to leave such aid for the people who really wish to go to university, and who need it the most."
"Which is to say--"
Koigakubo Yuri straightened in her chair as she looked Ryuuji in the eye,
"So Takasu-kun intends to work? Even though your mother wishes for you to go on to university, but you don't want to due to financial concerns?"
"Yes......My mother has an overly-simplified view of this matter, and only says things that are unrealistic. As such we're unable to communicate, and thus, unable to come to a consensus."
"Takasu-kun, I have to tell you one thing."
Bam. Ryuuji couldn't help but look at the hand that his class teacher used to slam the table.
"Almost no one has gone straight into work after graduating from our school these few years. Some students retake their exams, and some students become hikikomoris, but not one of them is able start work in April after graduating in March. Other schools have systems which prepare year three students to start working in spring through career counseling, career fairs, and talks regarding professional license exams, but our school does not have such a system. I hope that you'll be mentally prepared about this."
What the class teacher wanted to say was that, 'It's almost impossible to get a job after graduating from this school. Ryuuji wasn't sure of his class teacher's motive in saying this, and as such, was a little wary of her.
"I haven't thought that far yet......and I haven't decided what to work as, I just want to settle down quickly and get a steady income after I graduate."
"......If Takasu-kun really 'decides' to do that, then I'll do all that's in my power to help you. Right, would you like to work part-time after the term exams are over? It would be good to get an experience of working."
"Working part-time--You're right."
"But I'm thinking......Takasu-kun, have you ever rebelled against your mother?"
"......What? Hmm? Rebelled?"
Ryuuji tilted his head to the side, unsure of what his class teacher had meant by that word. He thought that she would continue with an explanation, but--
"Takasu-kun, please think carefully about everything I've said, and about my last question."
But Koigakubo Yuri's attention had already turned towards the other problem student, Aisaka Taiga,
"Aisaka-san, what about you? What is your opinion regarding your future?"
"......After hearing Ryuuji talk about his financial problem, I really don't want to say this, but--"
Taiga gazed at Ryuuji's face and stopped talking for a moment before continuing in a low voice,
"......My family's so rich that I can afford to not work for the rest of my life, and as such, I don't really need to study. I don't have anything that I really want to do, and I will definitely inherit my parents' inheritance, so I probably will live on that for the rest of my life......That's why I have nothing to write."
"How could......the two of you be like this......"
Koigakubo Yuri held her head in her hands, looking as though she wanted to bang her head on the table,
"You actually said that you don't have anything that you want to do......that anything would be alright? What about your interest, your dream......how about being a singer, or a mangaka, or a traveler. Right, how about a school teacher? Hoho! How about that? Eh? Not interested?"
Koigakubo Yuri exchanged glances with the pouting Taiga. Looks like Ryuuji wasn't the only one who was tired--and it looks like not only Ryuuji and Taiga were the tired ones. The three people in the room lapsed into a long silence that was only broken when Ryuuji finally decided to opened his mouth,
"......Is it really strange to decide not to go to university?"
"Of course not!"
The single class teacher shook her head violently,
"It's not like that......I only wish for the two of you to see yourself objectively, and to think for the 'you' in ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years later. I wish that the two of you understand that you will have live as your choices dictate. You will have to take responsibility for your own actions and decisions."
"I understand that."
Ryuuji grabbed a pencil as he began to fill in the survey form. He requested to be posted to the 'science curriculum', and wrote down his post-graduation plan as 'start working'.
The only problem was that he hadn't gotten the approval of his mother--That shouldn't be much of a problem.
I will try my best to let Yasuko realize the reality of our situation, to repeatedly communicate with her. If she still doesn't want to face up to reality, then why should I continue to try to persuade her? As long as it's my own decision, my own actions, it'll be alright. Even though the class teacher says that it's not an easy path to start work, but Ryuuji felt that it was 'the only path'.
If that is not my 'decision', then what is? I don't have a place that I should go to, nor a place where I want to go to. Then in what direction should someone like me move towards?
I don't have any other choice but this. Since I've come to this decision, I will move in that direction.
"Yasuko......My mother refuses to face up to the reality of our financial situation, and I intend to get her to understand it. She's been overexerting herself so that she'll be a good mother, so that I'll trust her......I don't want her to continue like this. My goal is to stop her from overexerting herself."
Takasu Ryuuji, 2-C -- After filling in his name and class, Ryuuji handed the survey form to his class teacher. The pink lips of his class teacher moved slightly, as though she wanted to say something--"......I understand. I'll keep this form for you for the time being."
She placed the form in her file, Taiga watching her actions with shining eyes.
"Then, if you could find a way to take care of that counter. Aisaka-san should fill in the form too, you can go home after handing it in at the staff room."
Ryuuji turned towards the counter that the two of them broke. Ryuuji had no idea how to take care of that mess.
But Koigakugo Yuri left immediately after finishing her sentence, leaving Taiga and Ryuuji in the room. Ryuuji sighed deeply as he prepared to fix the counter. This is my own fault, no one else is responsible for this.
"......I'll fix this, you should fill in the form now."
"Idiot, you'll just get in the way. Start now if you want to go home."
Taiga 'hummph'ed in disapproval before returning to her seat,
"It's so stupid, talking about our future......What can we change with a piece of paper......You should just continue to be the mother's boy that you are. Work? You've got to be kidding me. You've never even worked part-time before......"
"This is something that I decided after thinking it through. I've never worked part-time because Yasuko doesn't allow me to......You should think about your own situation."
Ryuuji decided to slot the middle panel of the counter back in it's place. Luckily it wasn't bent out of shape, so it would probably still fit. Ryuuji picked up the heavy metal panel and held his breath as he carefully slotted it back in it's place.
Taiga, who was unusually quiet, watched Ryuuji slot the middle panel back into the counter before she slowly bent over the table to fill in the survey form. Just as Ryuuji thought that she had finally decided to fill it in,
"......What are you trying to do! Hey! Don't do anything stupid!"
Taiga held a simple paper airplane in her right hand. Ryuuji couldn't stop her in time before Taiga stood up, stepping over the broken counter and opened the window,
She threw the paper plane into the winter sky. The paper plane flew an entire round in the sky before dropping.
"You......Idiot! What are you trying to do. Let's go! Let's go pick up the paper plane! How could you!"
"It's alright as long as we've taken care of the form."
Looking out of the window, Taiga acted as though she wasn't involved in anyway with the paper plane, and looked as though she had no intention of looking for it.
Ryuuji could even see the white mist that she breathed out,
"I don't need something like that......What future? What hobby? Who knows! Can anyone see the future? You can't see the future either, so stop acting as though you understand everything! What do you want me to write? What do you want me to hope for? It's not like what I hope for will come true anyway. I'll only fall off a cliff and cause a panic if I were to try to work hard even though I'm unable to do anything......The injury on my forehead made me see that clearly."
Ryuuji was unable to rebut the angry words that Taiga threw at him. Nothing you wish for will ever come true--His sentiments were exactly like Taiga's.
"It's stupid to even think about it......You asked me to stop saying such things anyway."
"I didn't say that."
Hearing Ryuuji's words, Taiga turned around.
"......I'm thinking the same thing."
Taiga looked at Ryuuji, who was nodding in agreement, as her eyes widened in surprise. Ryuuji continued,
"Although I don't want to say this, but we're really strange aren't we. I'm poor and you're rich--Even though we're polar opposites, the conclusion that we come to is the same."
"......Why? How? Aren't you intending to work?"
"If you ask me whether I really want to start work, I will not be able to answer a definite 'Yes'. Perhaps the single woman understood that, which is why she said those things to me. But this is my real situation, I have no other choice but to start work. This should be the 'right answer' shouldn't it? This should be my 'decision' right?"
Now that Ryuuji had voiced his own rationale out loud, he realized that it was an extremely irresponsible decision. No wonder his class teacher would feel uncomfortable.
Perhaps I'm preparing to blame everything on 'because I only had this choice!' when I fall down in the future.
"Because I thought that I was doing it for Yasuko, that's why it's the correct decision!"--To shirk responsibility in this way.
I think I've already prepared a path of escape even before I've began to move forward. For Yasuko--Of course it is a real reason, but the problem is that I think of the 'correct decision' as the only decision, placing myself in the safest position. Everyone, including myself, the entire world will think, 'Takasu Ryuuji made the right decision' 'He's a good kid'......I'm using the 'correct decision' that would bring about such sentiments as a cover.
In truth, Ryuuji understood that he merely lacked the courage--He lacked the courage to look straight into the terrifying empty hole in his heart, and also lacked the courage to face up to his sense of helplessness in not being able to move forward in any direction.
Of course, he didn't have the confidence that the ball he throws will end up anywhere. Although he was like this, but Ryuuji didn't hesitate for fear of the consequences of his actions, as he relinquished his future under the cold, wintry sky. This is Ryuuji.
"You must be thinking that I'm extremely useless right? You can start to scold me now, to scold me mercilessly, just like you usually do."
Taiga didn't call him a dog, pig, insect or anything like that, as she merely looked down at her feet, saying in a low voice,
"If you're useless, then what am I......?"
The palmtop tiger who shouldn't be afraid of anything in the world, now had no counter to sit on as she turned towards the window,
"You're still looking in front of you, thinking about solutions to your problems. But I......I can't even look at the present."
Taiga was trying to follow the flight path of the paper plane with her eyes. The sky was darkening, enveloping the town in a wave of darkness, like waves in the ocean.
"I've always,al---ways, al-ways been denying myself. I've been thinking, why have I become like this? What should I do to change myself?"
There's only one solution--Taiga said,
"If my parents were normal parents......If they lived together like a normal couple, if my family lived together in the apartment that I live in right now, how would everything turn out to be? What do you think?"
Taiga turned away from Ryuuji as she continued,
"A normal family of three lives beside you. We become classmates in April, in the normal way. If it were like this, what would happen?"
Taiga's repeated usage of the word 'normal' had Ryuuji confused. He then started to think--In April, he was really happy about being in the same class as Kushieda Minori, and at that time everyone still thought that he was a delinquent, and then he met Taiga.
"......You would probably still have put the love letter in my bag."
"Is that so? Perhaps you're right."
"And then you would come and take revenge in the middle of the night...... How could you be this kind of woman? Sigh, never mind. Anyway, you run over to my home, and we reach some sort of a compromise, after which you normally go home, normally......right, if you had grown up in a normal family, then you wouldn't break into my house to take revenge. And then I wouldn't get to know you, and you wouldn't get to know me."
And perhaps, you wouldn't like me -- Of course he didn't say that out loud. Ryuuji thought as he attempted to hold the top panel of the counter in place with his knee. But Taiga-
-"......Normal's still better for me."
After finishing what she had to say, Taiga still had her back to Ryuuji.
"Ah, I've got it!"
Looking as though she had thought of a prank, Taiga shouted in an uncharacteristically cheerful voice,
"I have something I want to do! I want to have a normal love relationship!"
"Bang!" The panel in Ryuuji's hands almost fell from its position.
Ryuuji quickly pushed it back into place, but was unable to stop his irregular breathing. What did she just say? A love relationship? Which is to say -- She wants to have a love relationship with me!?
His brain unable to withstand the impact of Taiga's words, Ryuuji lifted his head to look at Taiga warily. His stiff neck shaking due to embarrassment. Taiga, what are you trying to do? With what kind of expression are you saying such things to me? But......"To grow up in a very, very normal family, to become a normal good kid, to normally meet a certain someone, and then deepen each other's feelings, then normally......I want to have a love relationship like normal people! I want to fall in love with someone, and that the other person also falls in love with me, and then we'll be together. Just like this, just like this--"
But Taiga -- ".......Just like this, I'll be very happy. I want such a relationship."
Taiga didn't seem to have said that with a specific person in mind, a painful expression on her face. That expression's not right, is it? Ryuuji couldn't help but retort.
Why would she have such an expression on her face when she's together with Takasu Ryuuji, the person she likes -- With a sober look in her eyes, with slightly parted lips that breathed painfully, her eyebrows knitted together tightly--?
Why is it like this? Ryuuji suddenly realized that his nails were scratching the surface of the counter, giving out an uncomfortable noise. Ryuuji took his hand off the counter as he looked at Taiga's face before stiffening. He suddenly had a bad feeling about something, as though seeing a black shadow standing in front of him. Ryuuji immediately thought of the reason,
"......Are you getting along well with your mother?"
Would she be hurt again, or be lonely by her self--?
"Why do you ask?"
Ryuuji's hands were waving awkwardly in the air, 'What're you doing......' Taiga swatted Ryuuji's hands away impatiently. He couldn't touch her, and there won't be any point even if he could touch.
Ryuuji merely wanted to know the truth. Her father is that kind of person, and since she says that she gets along well with her mother, then why does she have that kind of expression on her face?
As though she had nothing, even more so than the first time I met--
"We're getting along well, really well."
"Is that so?"
"We don't live together. So right now, it looks as though we get along better than Ya-chan and you."
"......I didn't quarrel with Yasuko."
Taiga raised her eyebrows and said, 'Is that so? That's good to hear.' before turning around to walk away.
"Hey, where're you going? What about the survey form......"
"I'm going home. Who cares about that form."
Taiga didn't look back as she walked out of the 'reprimand room'. "Bang!" The door closed loudly, leaving Ryuuji behind once again. The hand that he reached out had been rejected, and now Ryuuji was alone. He wanted to step on the snowfield that he saw in his dreams.
But he didn't have the courage to chase after Taiga.
The good student, Ryuuji must fix the counter before going to the staff room to report to the single woman (30) that Taiga had already gone home.
Ryuuji went back to his classroom to pack his stuff before going to the staff room with his bag. Technically, Taiga's going home wasn't any of his business, but Ryuuji still maintained a respectful manner.
'I'm sorry for disturbing you', Ryuuji said as he stepped into the staff room. As it was long past dismissal time, the teachers were all at their desks, either writing or chatting. The sounds of conversation coming from the interview room in the office were so loud that even Ryuuji, who was standing at the door, was able to hear it.
Koigakubo Yuri had a red pen in her hand, as she seemed to be marking test papers. Just as Ryuuji wanted to call out to her--
"Koigakubo sensei should talk to her too!"
The year director stuck his head out of the interview room called out to her first, and so Ryuuji could only take a step back and keep silent.
"Kawashima refuses to listen to me."
"Didn't she reject your request a while ago-?"
Oh! Ryuuji couldn't help but widen his pair of demonic eyes to destroy the staff room, igniting a revolution in the school! I'll be the teacher from today onwards! Of course that's not possible.
Ryuuji was surprised to see Ami walking behind the year director and another teacher. Seeing Ryuuji, Ami opened her mouth a little, but didn't give her usual 'Ah, isn't that Takasu-kun?' in greeting.
"Alright, I think you should respect Kawashima-san's opinion......Ah, Takasu-kun! Where's Aisaka-san!?"
"Ah--Umm, She ran away."
"Even if you ask me......I'm sorry, but I'm going home now."
"Sensei, can I go home as well-? I'm going home too."
"Ahhhh, the both of you, wait!"
The single class teacher looked at Ryuuji and Ami, and then glanced at the teacher who looked as though he had something to say to Ami, and said, while still holding her red pen,
"Ergh, Takasu-kun, just wait here for a moment! AS for Kawashima-san......"
Koigakubo sensei! A voice came from some other part of the staff room. The single woman (30) seemed especially popular today.
"Ah, I'm sorry, please wait for a moment. Yes!?"
"The syllabus supplier is here."
"Ah, right! Please get him to wait......no, nothing, that's not good--"
The single woman (30) spun the red pen she held in her right hand, as she stammered. Ryuuji knew that Ami was looking at Koigakubo out of the corner of her eye--'Ah, Kawashima!' "Kawashima-san's running away!'--before running towards the entrance of the staff room. Seizing the opportunity when all the teachers had their attention on Ami, Ryuuji followed closely behind her. 'Wait!' The single woman (30) shouted after him. Never! Ryuuji had no intention of dragging Taiga back to school either.
Ryuuji and Ami stopped running on the corridor. Although they didn't think that the teachers would chase after them, but they still jumped down the stairs hurriedly, rushing for the shoe cabinets as though they were in a race. Ryuuji felt as though he was an accomplice in the crime, so he helped to pick up the shoe that Ami accidentally dropped onto the ground, preparing to return it to her, but Ami's first words to him since the school trip was -- "What are you doing! You're so meddlesome! Could you please stop following me--"
"Huh, how have I been following you!"
"Hey, return that to me! What're you trying to do to my shoe!? You pervert!"
I'm really angry! Does she have to say such hurtful things? Ryuuji's mind went blank for a moment as he subconsciously threw the shoe in his hand forward with all his strength.
Even now, Ryuuji still didn't understand why things became like this. It all started when Ami told Ryuuji that she wanted to 'break off' their friendship.
According to Ami, she disliked Ryuuji, and disliked herself, because both of them were idiots. And to Ami, the reason why Minori rejected Ryuuji was because of something she said.
Ami 'broke off' their friendship on the second day of their school trip, and it had continued to this day.
She openly avoided Ryuuji, and ignored him when avoidance wasn't possible. Ryuuji really wished for Ami to explain everything, and at least tell him why she was doing this, but had no opportunity to even ask her.
"You actually ignored me for so long."
"You've been treating Kushieda as a non-entity all this while too."
"......You have a problem with that?"
"It's really childish! Are you a middle schooler? No, that's the level of a primary school kid!"
"I'm sorry, but that's because I'm not as dense as you or Kushieda Minori."
"What are you talking about? What do you mean by dense?"
"Even though one rejected the other, and one got rejected by the other, the two of you could still act as though nothing happened and continue pretending to be friends. The two of you disgust me."
Ami's face was right beside his, the distance between the two of them so close that Ryuuji could feel her breath on his face. After her outburst, Ami deliberately shouted 'Wow! You threw it all the way to that kind of place.' in an attempt to cut off Ryuuji's retort.
Ryuuji held Ami's and his bags, the other holding Ami's elbow, supporting her as she hopped on one leg, even coming into close contact with her body that leaned into him, earning the wild admiration and widespread jealousy of the Ami-worshippers. But the real situation was that the two of the continued bickering while walking towards Ami's shoe.
The shoe that Ryuuji threw dropped in the midst of a group of guys. But unluckily, that group of guys belonged to the five-men soccer fans' club, and one of them, not knowing that it was the shoe of the school idol Ami, reflexively passed it around until someone shot Ami's poor shoe out of the sakura tree-lined path, bouncing on the roof of the bicycle park and out of the school compound.
"This is the worst! How can that happen! I can't believe it!"
"......I'm sorry. I'll go pick it up for you, just wait here."
Ryuuji let Ami sit on a bench near the park entrance as he went to pick up the shoe. Ami's shoe stood in the middle of a sand box like a Moai stone statue.
Ryuuji thought about his actions -- I went overboard. By living with the invincible palmtop tiger, he seemed to also have grown violent. Ryuuji patted the sand off Ami's shoe as he walked back to her.
"......What are you doing?"
Ryuuji's actions was a result of him worrying about the sand dirtying Ami's hand and uniform, but Ami didn't see it that way,
"Why do you keep staring at my shoe......hmm, it can't be true? It can't be?"
Ami seemed to have misunderstood something, as she attempted to snatch her shoe back from Ryuuji's hands,
"......Takasu-kun has a fetish for female shoes right? Yes yes yes, there're such people in the world, boots-fetish, high heel-fetish......oh, so Takasu-kun likes school shoes......Ah!"
"No! What is wrong with your brain?! Take it! Go dust the sand off yourself!"
"Huh? You're commanding me? Who do you think caused my shoe to be like this? And who do you think you are?"
"......Right, I'm sorry! It's all my fault!"
I'm really sorry! Ryuuji snatched Ami's shoe away from her as he grumbled loudly. He turned the shoe upside down and knocked it a few times, the sand caught inside the show dropping out onto the Ryuuji's shoes.
Although there were no children to be seen in the park at this time, but a few kids ran across the road. All of them carried the bag with the name of a famous remedial class as they walked towards the train station with a serious expression.
In the park named 'children's park', a beautiful long-haired high school girl wearing a dark blue overcoat sat on one of the benches, her socks showing on the foot that did not have a shoe on. Beside her stood a fierce-looking high school boy who was violently clearing a shoe of sand.
"Ah, right, today's the Twelfth of Feburary......The entrance exams for private middle schools should be ending soon."
Another one of those remedial class chidren ran past. Ami looked at them as she muttered to herself.
"How do you know so much about private middle school entrance exams?"
"I took it in the past."
"......That I really didn't know. So you graduated from a private middle school just like Taiga?"
"I didn't pass any one of the entrance exams that I went for, so I went to a public middle school."
......Ryuuji didn't think that his question would lead to such an awkward situation. Ryuuji wanted to apologize, but Ami, who was already in a bad mood, merely ruffled her long hair as she said softly,
"It'll be Valentine's Day the day after tomorrow, are you looking forward to it?"
"No, it's got nothing to do with me."
Ryuuji answered before continuing to clear Ami's shoe of sand. Most Japanese guys would have had their naively high expectations of Valentine's Day shattered between primary five and the second year of middle school. One saying goes like this, 'Never trust a guy who looks forward to Valentine's Day'.
Ami suddenly smiled, her eyes glinting like a chihuahua who just found a new toy, as she looked up at Ryuuji,
"Oh-? Are you serious? Shouldn't you be looking forward to receiving chocolate from a certain someone, but it's hard to say isn't it, since that certain someone is the woman with the densest heart muscle in the world."
Ami's irritating words was completely out of point, so Ryuuji merely answered her question nonchalantly,
"The heart is made up of muscle. And speaking of which, why were you made to stay back after school?"
"......How is that any business of yours? I should be the one asking you why you're still in school at this hour right? Ah, did you have a nightmare and shout out loud in class again--? 'Taiga-!' I can't believe how stupid you can be. Just what were you dreaming about? I should think that Yuri sensei's really worried about you."
"What are you talking about? I only stayed back to talk about my future prospects...... And, just what is wrong with you today? You seem to be emotionally unstable. So much that you don't even know that the heart is made of muscle? I don't want to say this, but to do so badly for your middle school entrance exams...... Were you made to stay back because you're at the same level as Haruta?"
"What are you talking about! You have such a lousy disposition."
Ami glared at Ryuuji as she stuck out her slightly glossy lips (they had transparent lip gloss on them). The two of them were of similar height and so Ami's glare felt especially piercing. But to be labeled as having a 'lousy disposition' by Ami was really hurtful.
"They call me 'the kind and thoughtful Takasu' you know!"
"Who would call you that!? You're not kind and thoughtful to me at all!? And I'll tell you, I was made to stay back because they want me to model for our school's uniform for next year's brochure, but I rejected them!"
"So that's how it is. Why don't you just accept them? You're good at such things anyway."
"What do you mean by 'that's how it is'!? To me......! I did accept in the beginning, but......I don't want to do it anymore! Never!"
"Because I don't know how much longer I'll be staying in this school for."
"That kind of--"
That -- what?
Looking at Ami, Ryuuji could only open his mouth in shock. 'tsk!' Ami knitted her eyebrows together unhappily, her expression showing her displeasure at talking too much. Ryuuji forgot what he was about to ask as he stood there in shock. So she intends to leave this school......?
Ryuuji suddenly thought of a scene from the past -- Ami was quarreling with Minori during the school trip, and it got so bad that the two of them start shouting things they shouldn't be saying at each other. Ryuuji remembered every single word of what they shouted at each other.
"......Could it be because Kushieda told you to 'go back to your previous school'? You took her words seriously......"
"Of--- Course--- Not--- Ah, it's getting harder and harder to explain."
Ami shook her head irritably as she roughly lifted her shoeless foot onto the kneecap of her other leg as she bent down, seemingly buying time to arrange her own thoughts. Ami mimed the action of holding a box, and then placed the imaginary box beside her, but this action didn't seem to mean anything.
"It's not because of that--It has nothing to do with whatever that girl said to me. Ami-chan's life will never be disrupted by someone like Kushieda Minori."
"Then why do you want to leave the school?"
"......I've been thinking about it since a long time ago. Really, I've had this thought since a long time ago."
Ami spoke as she stretched out her hand towards Ryuuji, asking for her shoe. Ryuuji couldn't help but lift the shoe out of her reach. Looking at his determined expression, Ami could only sigh helplessly, and stopped asking for her shoe. Ryuuji even thought, 'Might as well let the shoe fly another time.'
"How could you--"
She'll leave once she gets her shoe back, so I'm not giving it back.
I won't let you run away and continue to ignore me before saying everything I want you to say!? I won't allow you to quit this school! And I won't allow you to leave me behind!
"......To be honest, I had decided to leave the school after the end of the first school term. That was what I had originally intended to do when I first transferred here. I had wanted to transfer back to my previous school after settling the stalker problem."
"Last term......You didn't even mention anything like this. Don't tell me you were planning to disappear forever after coming back from your summer home?"
"But I decided to stay in the end. At that time, I thought to myself, why don't I just stay for a while longer. Either for tomorrow or for the foreseeable future, to just continue to stay with these people......Maybe something will change, maybe I'll be able to change myself--I had thought to myself at that time."
At that time--Ryuuji thought back to the Ami during last year's summer. She was just like she is now, pretty, devious, with a lousy character. And--"But I regret having that kind of thoughts back then."
And right now, she was more......How do I put it? Ryuuji couldn't understand his own thoughts, as he couldn't help but look away from Ami's pretty face.
Ami has changed. Ryuuji remember Minori saying that during their rehearsal for the school festival.
That's right, after that summer, Ami was much more friendlier with the people around her. Her relationship with Taiga was still an unknown factor, the two of them still bickering when they met, and their classmates also liked to watch them bicker. When everyone praised Ami's pretty girl image, they also subconsciously accepted her devious and vicious side. Everyone accepted her as a friend and happily passed each day noisily. Ryuuji felt that their classmates liked the 'real Ami'.
Ami's existence in class changed because she started to show the real side of herself. She stopped hiding and acting dumb, and started to interact with everyone in her real way.
This is how Ryuuji sees it, but--but Ami now denies those days, and that side of her, saying that she regrets doing what she did.
"So you're saying that you regret spending all these times with everyone......That you regret making friends with Kihara, Kashii, Kitamura, Taiga, Kushieda, and me!?"
"I'm really grateful to Maya and Nanako, and everyone. I never thought that everyone would be so good to me. I've been through a lot in my primary, middle, and high school days, but this is my first time making friends. I had some good friends in my previous high school, but they were only normal friends. I don't how they talked about me behind my back, and they never contacted me ever again after I transferred."
Ryuuji nodded in response to Ami's question. He had thought that a pretty girl like Ami would become the center of attention, the most popular person, no matter where she went, whether she wanted it or not.
"To me, school's merely a temporary stop, you'll only make fake social connections that are easily forgotten after you graduate. What I really care about is my job, the me that's a model, I think to myself, that I only need to endure school for a few more years -- How can someone like this make friends, then? Everyone understands that, no matter how childish they are. But after transferring here, I abandoned my previous way of thinking, and was accepted by everyone...... I'm really happy, really, really happy, and I hope that I'll be able to treasure these friendships."
"Since you think like this...... Then make an effort to treasure these friendships."
"It's too late, I've made too many mistakes."
Ami suddenly snatched her shoe back from Ryuuji, as she turned to sit sideways on the bench, her long hair falling over her shoulders,
"......How do I say this...... I may sound strange if I say this, but......I saw how tiger was getting hurt, and understood her feelings, so I thought, 'Since no one else notices it, why don't I help her'...... That was how I felt back then."
Ryuuji couldn't help but stare at Ami in surprise. Kawashima did know everything.
"In this period of time, I saw other wounds and injuries, not just tiger's. These injuries were everywhere...... Yes, I had wanted to help everyone, to move everyone towards a positive direction. Like this, I'll be able to protect this place."
After putting on her shoe and pulling up her socks, Ami stood up from the bench, playing with her long hair as she looked at Ryuuji,
"But on the other hand, I also got hurt, but no one noticed. Why was I the only one? Why wasn't anybody thinking about me? Did anyone even notice my existence?"
It would be useless to tell Ami, "I'm sorry. Who hurt you? Tell me, we'll start from the beginning." right now. Ami wouldn't accept something like that, because it's impossible to start over.
"I wanted to protect this place that was willing to accept me, so I told myself to not think too much about it, but the injuries got bigger and bigger, until even I wasn't sure that I could stop it. As I grew increasingly desperate, I made bigger and bigger mistakes, which only made things worse..... Which led to the current situation."
"I am an outsider who only brings trouble."
Everyone was willing to accept me, but I botched it.
"It...... It's nothing like what you say!?"
Ryuuji jumped up and shouted at Ami,
"Has anyone said something like that!? Stop joking with me! You're the only one who thinks like that! If anyone else says something like that, I will never forgive that person!"
In that moment-- Just for that moment, Ami looked at Ryuuji, before furrowing her eyebrows, her face looking as though she was about to cry.
But in the end, she merely sniffed loudly in the freezing winter air.
"But...... That's the truth."
Regaining her composure, Ami didn't cry or get angry, as she merely answered in a collected tone,
"Things that would have gone smoothly didn't because of my intervention -- Ah, I have to do something about this; Ah, I should intervene here, I have to save everyone -- My meddling led to a lot of problems, and in the end...... a lot of things changed for the worse. Takasu-kun got rejected by Minori because of my intervention. I quarreled with Minori, and now, we won't be able to go back to how we were. And furthermore, because of our quarreling, Taiga......Taiga almost died. Now that things have come to this......I, right now--"
Ami's lips were clearly trembling as she spoke,
"--So lonely, so lonely, so lonely, so lonely, so lonely that I can't take it anymore."
You idiot! Ryuuji had this insane urge to shout at Ami.
But the strength of his emotions overwhelmed him, preventing him from speaking. Ryuuji's shoulders were trembling as well, where should he start to talk about? How can he make Ami understand my feelings when I hear her say such things?
Ryuuji suddenly thought of how Taiga looked a while ago. A lonely person regretting over something that cannot be changed, something that made Ryuuji see the similarities between her and himself.
Taiga and I...... Not just the two of us, everyone is similar in some way. Perhaps everyone is the same.
Unable to move forward smoothly, unable to understand other people, and unable to find someone who truly understands yourself.
"......Since you say that you failed, then how can you just abandon everything and run away! You turn away, whining about how lonely you are, what is this!? Do you think that the people you abandon won't be lonely!?"
We can't even reach a common understanding, only able to shout hollow words at each other. Even though we all knew that such injuries burn the brightest.
I would think that everyone's like this. Me, Ami, Taiga, Noto, Haruta, and also Kitamura, everyone would surely have had their own moments of helplessness, I think that even the energetic and optimistic Minori would have thought to herself at some point of time, 'If only......', but this kind of pain was not for other people to see. Most people can only afford to care about their own injuries -- That is the truth.
"In your eyes, how many people are able to sail smoothly through life? Everyone has their own worries, everyone has done something that is uncalled for, everyone has experienced failure, embarrassment, everyone has stumbled through life to get to where they are now! So what if you failed! So what if you made a fool of yourself! A 'I messed up!' will be enough! Why do you have to be so--"
"And who do you think you are to lecture me like this!?"
Ryuuji was surprised by Ami's loud retort, and couldn't help but stumble a little.
"You've never noticed my worries and my injuries! You, you've never really looked at me before!"
"As if I have the time to notice you! How would I know what you're thinking! I'm not a perfect human being, so how can I cover all the bases!"
What age must a person live until to be able to refrain from saying such irresponsible words? How old must a person be to be able to understand other people, to think for other people, to accurately express their own opinion?
"Since it's like this, then don't say such irresponsible things! Someone like you......I really wish I never met you......!"
How long must it take to live without hurting the ones important to you? How long must it take to be able to live without getting hurt?
"If I had known this would happen, I should have quit this school last year!"
Ami shouted, her voice shaking uncontrollably as she ran off, wiping off her tears with the back of her hand. What good would it do to make her stay? Ryuuji had no ideas, and couldn't do anything. Ryuuji stared at Ami as she left the park, and then stepped off in the opposite direction.
When he finally took a look at his cellphone, he had ten missed calls.
|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|