| This article contains HEAVY spoilers. Please view at your own risk.
"......The landlord's still awake!? How can that be possible!?"
"Haven't I told you not to care about it already. The landlord says he'll bring some plum essence over some other day."
Ryuuji, who just came up from the landlord's apartment downstairs, replied as he arranged the three pair of shoes that were strewn around in the hallway. The landlord, who always slept early, had stayed up to inform Ryuuji about Yasuko's condition. Luckily there were oranges in the apartment to use as a gift for the landlord.
Ryuuji walked into Yasuko's room immediately after arranging the shoes in the hallway. Yasuko smiled at her son, but her pale face looked like it had been bleached, while her face and lips lacked their usual healthy pink.
"The landlord's worried...... What will happen to the store-? I'll call......"
Taiga, who was still wearing her uniform, stopped Yasuko from getting up and reaching for her cellphone. 'You have to lie down, or your blood pressure will drop again.' Taiga pressed her down by the shoulders as she pulled the blanket over Yasuko.
"I just called the store. The owner picked up."
Yasuko looked up at Ryuuji, who was standing at the door as she mumbled to herself, 'That's not good'; "Anyway, the owner wants you to rest well today. He says that he'll call again tomorrow afternoon."
"......He didn't say, 'I don't want to hire old women-?'"
"No, he didn't."
"......Did he say that Mirano's already an old woman, so he wants to look for younger and more energetic girls?"
"He didn't say anything like that, so stop letting your imagination run wild and sleep. Didn't the doctor also say that you'll recover in a night if you sleep well? I've prepared dinner, eat as much as you can."
"......Ya-chan wants to sleep."
Yasuko whined as she pulled the blanked over her head. Seeing her actions, Ryuuji switched off the light in Yasuko's room, while Taiga got up lightly and walked quietly out of the room, closing the door carefully behind her.
In the living room, Inko-chan, who probably had felt the moody atmosphere in the apartment as well, was hanging upside down from his perch like a bat, its veined eyelids only managing to cover half its eyes. And then, it asked in a weird voice 'How?', but was silenced by a glare and a fierce 'shhh!' from Taiga, and so Inko-chan could only nod it's head and shut up. This wasn't because it understood the language of humans, it was merely a coincidence brought on by fear.
"......I'm really sorry."
Taiga coldly replied to Ryuuji as she sat down beside the table. The right-sided position facing the television had always been Taiga's place. But now, she sat there, looking at the tip of her toes, seeming to be unhappy about something.
Taiga, who had gone home earlier, had nonchalantly looked towards the window of the Takasu-apartment and had happened to see Yasuko, who had just gotten off work from the cake shop. Taiga waved at Yasuko from her bedroom window, but Yasuko didn't react to her actions, her face looking extremely pale. A second later, Yasuko fell backwards.
Taiga immediately ran towards the Takasu-apartment, only to realize that she had forgotten the spare key. According to Taiga, she was in such a panic that she 'almost went crazy', so she ran to the landlord's apartment on the first floor, banging on her door heavily. Luckily the landlord was at home, so she quickly opened the door to the Takasu apartment and immediately called for a doctor after seeing Yasuko collapsed on the floor.
Taiga stayed by Yasuko's side until the doctor came, while the landlord helped to contact Ryuuji. At that time, Ryuuji the stupid son was busy throwing the shoe of his female classmate, getting into an argument with said classmate in the park, bringing the girl to tears.
"Is Ya-chan going to be alright? She should be shouldn't she? The doctor says that it's just anemia."
"It'll be bad if she's doesn't recover."
"She looks better already."
"I think so too."
When Ryuuji finally made it home, running at full speed the entire way, he found the landlord waiting for him in the hallway. At that time Yasuko's pale face was extremely frightening, and she was unable to speak. The strange old guy and old lady whose hands were on her wrist and chest looked to Ryuuji as though Yasuko was going to be dissected. Those people weren't wearing lab coats, so Ryuuji didn't know that they were doctors. If Taiga wasn't sitting beside Yasuko, Ryuuji would have screamed in confusion.
Seeing that Ryuuji had returned, Yasuko mouthed, 'Sorry that it turned out like this.'
Yasuko, who had drank a lot of alcohol, had only slept for three hours before going to work at the cake shop with a hangover, not eating anything due to her lack of appetite, resulting in her anemia. Naturally low blood pressure was also one of the reasons, but fortunately, Yasuko's condition was not very serious. As long as she eats and sleeps properly, and avoids consuming too much alcohol, there should be nothing to worry about -- The doctors left after saying those words.
Ryuuji listened to the doctors as he noticed 'that smell'. 'That smell' seemed to consist of brown-colored food that was cut into small pieces so that old people would have an easier time swallowing them, together with the smell of disinfectant, making Ryuuji slightly uncomfortable.
When Ryuuji was younger, before he moved to this town, there was long period of time when Yasuko kept going to the doctor. Even now, Ryuuji still didn't know what sickness Yasuko had at that time. Because he was young, the only memories were of that smell that burst into his nostrils when the automatic door slid open, and the pattern on the ceiling of the children's area in the hospital, together with the pictures of a mother hen and her chicks on the wall -- Ryuuji remembered how he felt when he was soaked in that smell, looking at the children's area.
The picture books whose content he could already memorize; The ceiling light which flickered and was darkened at the sides; the hair and dust in the corners of the walls; the pail that was placed beside the toilet that he didn't know what it was used for; the brand of that pail; the silent and lonely stairs to downstairs; there was a metal door with a horrifying sign on it.
I hated being bored, hated being together with adults and children whom I did not know, I hated it when other people talked to me, my heart beating furiously, my throat burning, making me feel like crying -- I must have been extremely insecure.
At that time, Ryuuji was an insecure, scared, and timid child.
Even now, that feeling of helplessness still had not changed.
"Dinner...... What should we do about that? There's nothing at home...... I'll go buy something before Yasuko wakes up so that she'll have something to eat."
"Then I'll stay and watch Ya-chan."
"It's alright, you should be tired too, so you can just go back first. I'll send dinner over to your place later."
Yasuko had mentioned that her stomach was uncomfortable, so should he make porridge or soup? Harusa soup sounds good, and then I should buy a bottle of Poccari, Yasuko's favourite pudding, ice-cream, almond tofu, and also a magazine for her to read tomorrow.
--That should be about it.
Although Ryuuji had the knowledge to choose the things that Yasuko needed, but was still unable to do the more important thing that he had to do. Though Ryuuji had grown up, had become wiser, but had still caused this current situation.
If Yasuko hadn't gone to work during the day, this wouldn't have happened. If she hadn't intended to let Ryuuji continue his studies, this wouldn't have happened. If he hadn't said something like that at that time, this wouldn't have happened.
"I'm fine, Ya-chan's more important. I'm also very worried...... Ryuuji?"
Ryuuji clutched his head, forgetting what he was about to do for a moment as his mind went blank......Wallet. Right, wallet.
Ryuuji grabbed his wallet. I'm going to buy things, to buy food. He walked out slowly.
"Hey, are you alright? Hey!"
Switching on the light in the living room, Ryuuji listened for movement on the other side of the door, hearing Yasuko's steady breathing on the other side of the door.
"I'm going out for a while."
Ryuuji walked out of the hallway and down the stairs in his slippers.
He only realized now that everything was dark around him; it was already night time.
The streetlamps cast circular areas of light on the asphalt road that was glittering from the reflection of small pieces of glass on the road. A woman breathing out white streams of air walked past Ryuuji with her dog. A white-collar worker wearing a face mask while talking loudly also overtook Ryuuji -- He wasn't talking to himself, but talking on the phone.
Hah -- The white mist that he breathed out refused to disappear as it started floating up in the cold air. Ryuuji moved his legs, feeling as though he was chasing after his own breath.
No wonder his vision was blurred.
He didn't even hear the footsteps behind him.
"Hey, you're not going to wear a coat!? You even forgot your keys and cellphone! And your shopping bag!"
The sudden impact almost threw Ryuuji off his feet.
Taiga had rammed into him from behind. Ryuuji turned to see Taiga breathing out a constant stream of white mist like an out-of-control train.
"Get a hold of yourself! Pig-head!"
Ryuuji only noticed how he was dressed when Taiga passed him his eiderdown coat. He was only left with his school shirt and pants on him and was only wearing a pair of slippers, having already taken off his school blazer and sweater. Looking down at himself, Ryuuji was shocked at the degree of his mindlessness.
"Seriously--Put it on this moment!"
Taiga stuffed the coat to Ryuuji while holding Ryuuji's shopping bag, which probably contained his cellphone and house keys. Taiga had realized that Ryuuji wasn't behaving normally, and so had grabbed his things and chased after him in the chilly night.
But Taiga, whose nose was extremely red--
"What......What's with your feet?"
Taiga, who wasn't wearing a coat, only had her school uniform on, her stockinged feet in a pair of Yasuko's sandals. Taiga looked down at her petite feet.
"I wore the wrong pair!"
Muttering softly, Taiga rubbed her forehead with her small hand.
"You should wear this."
Ryuuji took the coat from Taiga and attempted to place it over her shoulders. But Taiga twisted her body reluctantly,
"No! It's alright! I'm going home, so you should wear it!"
Taiga dodged to the side of the road, her sandals making loud noises as she moved. No, you wear it! Ryuuji wanted to reply, but was unable to speak, as he merely stood there, clutching the coat in his hands.
He couldn't speak.
His throat was dry.
Every thing has been a mess today.
Ryuuji knew that Taiga was looking at him with widened eyes, her long hair dancing in the freezing northern wind.
You should wear it and go home. I'll help you prepare dinner. Thanks for helping me take the shopping bag -- Ryuuji couldn't even say those simple sentences.
Ryuuji felt as though a foreign object was lodged in his throat. He forcibly placed the coat onto Taiga's shoulders before walking away without saying anything.
Ryuuji walked on the darkened road alone, his shopping bag in one hand.
What should I buy? Looking at the time on his cellphone, it was only eight o'clock, much earlier than he had expected. The supermarket is still open at this time. Ryuuji moved towards the shopping district, staring at his almost-frozen toes as he walked, the only sound being the clanking of a certain someone's sandals.
Ryuuji didn't need to turn back to know that it was the sound of Taiga's footsteps. Taiga was secretly following behind him.
She can't possibly be thinking that no one will notice? Ryuuji stopped in front of a road junction, Taiga immediately jumping behind a nearby electric pole to hide herself. When the traffic light turned green, Ryuuji started walking again, and heard the sound of Taiga's footsteps soon after.
I know you're there, so go back! Ryuuji wanted to say that to Taiga, but not just his throat that made him extremely uncomfortable, as he felt a tightness in his chest as well.
Ryuuji, who was walking in front, and Taiga, the spy -- Two foolish people feigning ignorance as they continued to walk on the darkened streets. That he didn't open his mouth was mainly due to the fact that Ryuuji didn't know what he would say if he was to open his mouth, which was why he was unable to speak.
You've never really looked at me before -- Ryuuji suddenly remembered what Ami had shouted at him in the evening. He wanted to tell her right now, 'And would you know about how I'm feeling right now? You'll never know how I'm feeling, wouldn't you?'
Because I will never tell you.
When I'm in pain, I will never tell anyone about it. Because I don't want anyone to see me like this, I don't wish for anyone to understand this side of me, I don't want to tell anyone, I don't want anyone to notice this. Because if someone notices, if someone hears about this--
--And the person who really cares will surely try to do something about it.
Ryuuji stopped and turned around, finally able to speak. 'Go back'. Taiga looked shocked, as she rubbed her nose with her eyes widened in surprise. Looks like she really didn't think that anyone would notice her.
"I'm serious, go back."
"......I don't want to!"
Ryuuji repeated those two words, even pushing Taiga back by the shoulders. Despite Taiga's small frame, she didn't budge, not even a little,
"I'm not going back! You're not yourself right now!"
Taiga's eyes narrowed as she shot a threatening look at Ryuuji, showing just how stubborn she was.
"Enough, go back!"
"I've already said that I'm not going back! I won't talk to you! I won't even walk together with you! I'll only follow behind you! Why can't I even do that! I'm free to do whatever I want to!"
Ryuuji didn't want to continue arguing with her,
"I'll feel disturbed if you do that! You can't do anything to help, so just go back!"
Ryuuji didn't wish for anyone to collapse because of him anymore. It didn't matter if it was anemia or any other sickness, he just didn't want to go through something like that ever again.
He never wanted to let anyone sacrifice for his sake ever again.
"I'm not going back! I want to follow you!"
"And I'm telling you to go back!"
"I want to stay here! Let go of me, you bald pig! Don't touch me!"
Ryuuji and Taiga started a mindless struggle on the road just before the shopping street. Taiga pushed Ryuuji tigerishly, while Ryuuji pushed back at her shoulders forcefully, biting hard into his lip at the same time. Busybody, annoyance, inheritance, self-centered -- A long string of complaints surfaced in his head, but Ryuuji was unable to force them out of his mouth. Ryuuji was fighting a losing battle against the impending scream that was trying to push itself out from his throat.
--What if she dies!? This foolish and childish notion invaded his heart. Ryuuji was so afraid to even think about it that he felt as though he was about to lose control of himself any moment, which is why he bit his lip until the skin broke.
Ever since Ryuuji was a child, he had always been afraid of something like this. 'What if my mother dies?' This thought was the root of his fear.
The evening that the two of them walked while holding hands, the night that they two of them spent reading picture books, sitting on his mother's lap while she sat on the swing under the sun -- Ryuuji had always believed in the magic spell that was 'Don't worry', but the spell was suddenly broken. Such scary thoughts dominated his mind.
"Enough, you better go back!"
Ryuuji threw Taiga's hands off him, and ran from her with all his strength, ignoring her shout.
Ryuuji looked as though he was trying to escape the crowded, brightly-lit shopping street as he ran into the darker alleys, running aimlessly around the houses that looked like dark waves from school. Ryuuji was panting like a dog as he swallowed the voice that had pushed itself up his throat painfully. But no matter how he ran, the trepidation and fear of his childhood followed closely behind him. If this continued, he will surely be caught by those feelings.
Is it impossible to escape?
From the very beginning, Ryuuji's world consisted solely of Yasuko. Yasuko, who became a mother at too young an age, left the safety of her boat to float aimlessly by herself in the darkened sea. Ryuuji held on to Yasuko with all his strength, trying to look for salvation in the never-ending waves that life threw at them. If he let go, then it will all be over. If the person that this pair of hands is holding on to isn't here anymore, then everything will end. I'll be alone for the rest of my life. Every time he thought about that, Ryuuji would always be extremely afraid.
But as Ryuuji grew up, he slowly gained confidence and strength after almost drowning a couple of times, feeling that it will be alright even if he let go of Yasuko's hand. He will swim away, find a safe boat by his own ability, and then pull Yasuko aboard.
Ryuuji had thought that way.
Which is why, when his mother felt that 'It's not time for you to leave.' and reached out to him -- "Takasu-kun, have you ever rebelled against your mother" -- Ryuuji wanted to push Yasuko away.
'Sit here', 'Be good', 'Wait for me to come back', 'Go study', 'Let's eat together', 'You're not allowed to work part-time' -- Ryuuji, who had always done what Yasuko told him to do, had wanted to disobey her for the first time, and that was to give up on university and start work instead. Because he wanted to let go of Yasuko's hand.
Ryuuji didn't know where he should go, but he wanted to try to swim by himself, he wanted to stand on the 'correct' side so as to win over the 'incorrect' Yasuko. He wanted to stand on an advantageous position, even though he knew that he was making an irresponsible choice, even though he knew that he hadn't seriously thought about his future, but just because he knew that he was 'correct' -- He was also mentally prepared to sacrifice for his own notion of 'correctness'.
In Ryuuji's eyes, going straight to work after graduating from high school wasn't exactly a sacrifice. Since he didn't have any specific goals, Ryuuji had used the difference between 'correctness' and 'incorrectness' as a basis for making his choice -- This was the sacrifice. To choose his future path in this way meant that Ryuuji would sacrifice his future, be it going to university, going to work, or going overseas to study.
He was afraid of not being able to meet his own expectations, which was why he had attempted to escape by moving closer to the 'correct' path. But Ryuuji was unable to deny that he was merely running away from his own insecurity, and the his future would be destroyed because of this.
He had also realised that he would hurt Yasuko by doing this, but he wanted to overtake that irreplaceable mother of his. He wanted to become stronger than his mother, even at the cost of losing her.
Ryuuji had thought that as long as he rebelled against and overtook his mother, then he would be able to overcome his fear of 'everything will end if I lose my mother'.
Did he really have the strength to swim alone? Ryuuji didn't know. But precisely because he didn't know, Ryuuji wanted to try. In other words, Ryuuji wanted to push the adults who attempted to intervene because they were worried, even if he sacrificed himself in the process. Perhaps he just wanted to do that.
It was because Ryuuji was unable to convince the adults to be completely trusting of him that Yasuko would try to prevent her son from leaving her. Which led to Ryuuji enveloping himself in the familiar bubble of fear and insecurity once again.
But this time, he wasn't worried that the freezing ocean would take his mother away, but that his inadequate swimming skills would only drag his mother down to drown together with him.
The finger that Ryuuji pressed onto his lips was trembling, and not just because of the cold.
"Got, Got you--!"
Ryuuji stumbled because someone grabbed his elbow from behind. He didn't think that the sandal-wearing Taiga would be able to catch up, as she pulled at Ryuuji's hand with horrifying strength, turning him around. Ryuuji made use of Taiga's strength to take a big step forward.
"Ryuuji! Stop, I'm telling you to stop!"
"It's enough, stop, you pig-head! It's really dangerous! Didn't you realize that you were almost hit by a car!?"
Even then, Ryuuji still wanted to run away, something that only earned him a kick in the butt from Taiga. Although it wasn't painful, but it stopped him from trying to run.
"It's my fault......It's all my fault isn't it?"
Ryuuji hugged a nearby electric pole pathetically, as he groaned soundlessly, 'let me go'. He wiped his face with the hand that was wrapped tightly around the electric pole, wanting to hide his face from Taiga.
"What are you talking about!?"
"It's my fault that Yasuko fainted. It's all my fault."
"You...... Are you trying to take responsibility for Ya-chan overexerting herself? But, but you couldn't have done anything about it! Ya-chan fainted because she had anemia, that's a body condition. No matter how careful a person is, there'll still be times when he or she will fall sick! What has this got to do with who caused it, and whose fault it is!? And Ya-chan is your mother, so no one can stop Ya-chan from working hard for you!"
Although she sounded winded, Taiga still continued to speak. Her parents had never worked hard for Taiga's sake before, which was why her words were too gullible with regards to the feelings of parents. Taiga was implying that Ryuuji 'honestly accept', which only served to confuse Ryuuji further, as he was forced to look directly at his weakness and naivety.
"You don't understand anything!"
A sharp voice was issued from Ryuuji's trembling lips,
"Yasuko became like this because of me. If I were able to be more reliable, then Yasuko would believe that I am able to do whatever I proposed to do, and rely on me more, which means that she wouldn't become like this!"
"I...... How would I know about that......."
Taiga could only put her petite hand onto Ryuuji's shoulder, lightly rubbing his back.
Ryuuji wanted to throw off that hand.
Just like how he threw off Yasuko's hand, Ryuuji wanted to shake himself free from Taiga's hand -- "What should I do......!?"
The moment of contact converted the warmth of Taiga's hand into a thunderbolt that shot straight into Ryuuji's ice-cold fingers. Taiga was still standing by Ryuuji's side. Ryuuji instinctively felt that this was his last chance at salvation, as all the figments of his imagination was burned up by the warmth of Taiga's fingers.
Ryuuji's instinctive reaction was to tightly hold on to the very hand that he had wanted to throw off a moment ago. Under the bright light of the streetlamps, Taiga's eyes widened in surprise.
She didn't say anything, as Taiga merely looked at Ryuuji with eyes that seemed to hold an inordinate amount of light, using her gaze to disrupt all the thoughts that were interfering with his heart. Taiga intervened with a strong force that others would never be able to muster, as she sliced open the ocean of Ryuuji's wild imagination with irrepressible might. Taiga's snowy-white face, saw through every one of Ryuuji's thoughts. From the opening that she cut open, Taiga offered her hand to Ryuuji, who was being beaten by countless waves. Grab hold of my hand -- "What should I do!? Just because they're parents, they think that they don't have to listen to the advice of others!? What should I do to convince Yasuko to stop pushing herself for me, to let her know of my feelings!?"
Taiga's hand felt extremely small.
"I really dislike--"
So small that it seemed as though he could crush her hand if he wanted to.
"This side of myself......"
But Ryuuji didn't wish to do something like that.
He didn't want to rely on Taiga, as he struggled to resist the temptation to tell her everything, to obtain the salvation he so desired from that hand. Because if he gave in to temptation, Taiga will surely want to do something for Ryuuji. Taiga would do anything for other people, for Ryuuji, for the person she likes. No, that cannot happen.
I cannot let her take action because of me.
I cannot drag Taiga into this.
I cannot let her drown because of me.
Because she's an important person, because she's an irreplaceable person, because I cannot be without Taiga. I understood that from the snowstorm.
Since she's important, then I should treasure her presence, and not let her sacrifice for my sake. Which is why I cannot let her see my pain, and why I don't wish for her to see through what I'm thinking.
The inability to understand each other will only make people feel pain. In a world where people are unable to understand each other, one has to look for ways to connect with other people, a process that is the joy of life. Who would have thought that there were people who didn't wish to be understood by others.
"......I want Yasuko to see my strength."
Strength? Hearing Taiga repeat after him, Ryuuji nodded his head vigorously, and continued with his lips trembling,
"I'm not a child anymore. Even if Yasuko isn't here to help me, I will be able to survive in this world. That is why Yasuko won't need to push herself for my sake. I want to show her cold, hard evidence of this. If I were to do that, I can only push her hand away once again. I will not fail this time, I will not let anyone drown or sacrifice for my sake, so I will swim out by myself. This is the only way I can be recognized."
Ryuuji reluctantly pried his fingers away from Taiga's small hand, and nodded lightly, 'Alright!'
It will be alright.
I will be able to do what I want to do.
Ryuuji then held his breath as he looked down at Taiga's snowy-white face -- Taiga was looking at her freed hand. Her doll-like features were too immaculate to deduce her exact expression. Taiga's soft fringe danced lightly in the biting winter air, as Ryuuji stretched out his hand to gently push away the hair that had gotten onto her lips.
Taiga silently looked up into Ryuuji's eyes, her gaze translucent,
"......Where are you going?"
"I just thought of something I have to do."
"I won't allow you to go."
Taiga shook her head as she spoke, her voice filled with uneasiness.
"Don't worry. I'll be going now."
Ryuuji took a step with his right foot forward.
Taiga continued to follow behind the under-dressed Ryuuji. Even if he asked her to go back, she definitely wouldn't listen.
It wasn't a lie -- That Ryuuji had suddenly thought of a place that he had to go. Ryuuji walked towards the crowded shopping street while paying attention to Taiga's presence behind him.
The imported goods department store and the stationery shop were already closed, but a small supermarket was still open, the road outside it's entrance crowded with office workers returning home. The convenience store was obviously still brightly-lit. The bookshop was still open, as were a few pubs, and the meat stall that was famous for its croquettes. Who would have thought that the meat stall would still be open at this hour?
But Ryuuji was going for the croquettes.
"......Just as I had expected. They're already closed......"
"You have something to do at this shop?"
Ryuuji stopped in front of the metal door. Albus - An ancient-sounding name jumped into his vision, the wooden call-plate stating that it was a western pastry shop, with a phone number written below.
Ryuuji punched the number into his cellphone and got to the answering machine asking him to leave a message after a few rings. He quickly spoke,
"......I, I'm really sorry for calling at such a late hour. Umm, I'm the family of Takasu Yasuko, a part-timer at your shop. That is......I have something to tell you......Ah!"
Click -- The answering machine cut off the recording abruptly. I have to tell them my number, should I call them again? Just as Ryuuji was hesitating, Taiga poked his arm lightly,
"What's with the 'Ah!'? Was that the answering machine? Your 'Ah!' must have been recorded as well. Is this the shop that Ya-chan's working at?"
Just as Ryuuji prepared to answer Taiga's question, the metal door was pulled up noisily. Within the brightly-lit shop, a middle-aged man wearing a white chef's uniform bent down as he looked at Ryuuji and Taiga,
"......Were you the one who just called? I heard your voice from inside the shop."
"Ah, yes. Umm......I'm Takasu Yasuko's son."
So, Son!? The uncle shouted in surprise as he walked out from the shop.
"I'm really sorry for disturbing you at this hour. The truth is, my mother just fell sick--"
"Hmm? Takasu-san? What's wrong? Will she be alright?"
"Her condition has stabilized, but--"
Ryuuji knew that beside him, Taiga's eyebrow had twitched a little; she seemed to have realized what Ryuuji was about to say.
"I'm very grateful that you were willing to hire her. I know it's extremely inconvenient to say this, but I would like to request for you to allow her to resign from her position here."
What--!? The exact same expression and voice as a few moments ago, this overreacting middle-aged uncle should be the owner. Taiga looked at Ryuuji out of the corner of her eyes.
Yes, Ryuuji was taking matters into his own hands. Yasuko had called Bishamonten Kuni to take leave, but she had not contacted the pastry shop, which implied that she was planning to go to work tomorrow. Although Ryuuji understood that his actions will be troublesome for the pastry shop, but he still went ahead to quit Yasuko's job for her without her consent. And furthermore, he was planning to hide it from Yasuko by telling her that he had received notification from the pastry shop, saying that she needn't report to work anymore.
The pastry shop was close to Ryuuji's apartment, which meant that the lie would eventually be found out, but he didn't care about that anymore. Even though Ryuuji knew that doing something like this won't exhibit his strength in any way, but he would still do it, as long as it stopped Yasuko from pushing herself. If he left her like this, Yasuko would surely ignore her own health and continue to work longer hours.
"Ah--I see...... This is troublesome, I was quite happy with her performance."
"I'm really sorry for troubling you like this."
"I guess I can't do anything about it, since Takasu-san is in bad health. But still...... Would it be possible to work around this problem? Such as shortening her working hours and such?"
"No, umm......I'm really very sorry."
"But it'll be Valentines Day the day after tomorrow, so we'll be having a special chocolate sale tomorrow...... What should I do? Hmm -- There aren't any other part-timers at this store......"
Just as Ryuuji was preparing to bow in apology once again --
"......Could you stand in for her?"
Looks like the owner was really desperate for him to say something like that.
"You're a high school student aren't you? It'll be good if you could come after school. Oh, and you only need to come and help for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. I'm begging you, we're really short-handed right now."
I'm sorry, but my mother prohibits me from working part-time -- Ryuuji had wanted to reject the owner's request, but then swallowed his words. Haven't I already decided to not live under Yasuko's wing?
Ryuuji quickly nodded his head before the owner had a chance to change his mind, looking to disperse his own doubts,
"......Alright, I'll come tomorrow and the day after tomorrow then."
Taiga looked at him in surprise. But this would also be good, because Yasuko wouldn't need to work here anymore. It was impertinent that everything return to normal as soon as possible.
If Ryuuji were to tell Yasuko that he was going to work part-time, she will surely attempt to stop him, so he planned to just tell her that the owner fired her. Yasuko will eventually find out that Ryuuji had worked here, but Ryuuji's top priority right now was to hide this from her during this period.
"Ah! That's great! You're really doing me a huge favour!"
"It's nothing, I......"
"When can you come over tomorrow!?"
Seeing that the owner had extended his hand, Ryuuji prepared to shake it, but only grasped thin air. 'Me!?' The owner had grabbed hold of Taiga's hand.
"This has got nothing to do with me has it!?"
"You're the younger sister aren't you? Of course not!"
Hahahaha. The uncle's cold joke echoed emptily in the winter air. "Isn't it obvious by just looking at our faces!?" Taiga retorted loudly.
"But it's always better to have a girl selling chocolates. And anyway, we don't have uniforms for guys."
"I'm unable to work! I'm really clumsy...... So I really start work, I may destroy the world......!"
"It won't be very hard, you just have to sell boxed chocolates! Tell me when you'll be coming over tomorrow!"
Umm...... What about, me......? Ryuuji pointed at himself, but the owner only had eyes for Taiga. Taiga, who was shaking her head intensely, looked over at Ryuuji --
"...... Then...... Then, he'll come with me. Together."
"Hey, wait a minute! Would that be alright!?"
Ryuuji jumped at Taiga's suggestion as he looked down at the Taiga's snowy-white complexion. The owner nodded, scratching his chin,
"Hmm, then it's decided. But I'm only paying one person's salary you know? And what should we do about your uniform?"
"We'll think of something. I'm only here to show my face, this fellow's the one who'll really be working."
Clad in Ryuuji's eiderdown coat, Taiga puffed out her chest and pointed at Ryuuji. It's alright, you don't have to do this. Just as Ryuuji wanted to say that, Taiga whispered to him,
"You're the one who'll be working. I'll only be standing there with you, so it shouldn't be too tiring. You're still a little dangerous right now, so I need to be watching you. And what did you just say? That I'm an annoyance? That I can't do anything? I'll make you eat your words. You just need to crawl over on your knees and worship my godly kindness."
And the secret part-time job that will last for two days was decided just like that.
"Work part-time! You!?"
Minori pointed her finger at the tip of Taiga's nose, her eyeballs looking as though they were going to pop out any moment.
"To be accurate, Ryuuji's working part-time."
Taiga pointed her finger at Ryuuji. 'So it's him!' Minori nodded at Ryuuji, her eyeballs almost popping out again.
"We'll be selling Valentines Day chocolates today and tomorrow after school. Any tips for selling things? The owner said that if we're able to sell everything, he'll give us a bonus."
"Tips you say...... Hmm -- even if you're met with something you really don't like, you must never let it show on your face."
Hmm. Taiga listened to Minori's suggestions as she tugged at the duffel bag that she had slung over one shoulder.
"You're really heavy."
Minori tugged her bag away from Taiga's hands,
"And most importantly, dodge when the owner opens his eyes."
"......That kind of thing will only happen at the ramen shop where Minorin works."
The day's lessons had ended, and the homeroom had also ended. The single woman (30) had dragged Taiga off during lunchbreak for a lecture, but there didn't seem to be any visible effect. Taiga had completely ignored the words of her class teacher, but luckily, it looked as though the single woman had let her off for the day, which meant that Taiga would be able to make it to work.
Minori happily looked at the two of them,
"I'll stop joking around. But if it's only selling things, then there shouldn't be much to worry about."
I'll throw -- Minori made use of her ridiculously high athleticism to throw her can of juice at the rubbish bin at the entrance of the class from the middle of the classroom.
"Good shot! It doesn't seem to be some suspicious job, so it should be alright. And speaking of selling Valentine's Day chocolates, today should be the busier of the two days, shouldn't it? Most people would probably buy the chocolate today. Where's the shop that the two of you are working at?'
"Gah -- I forgot the name."
Minori 'Oh!'-ed in reply to Ryuuji's reply, looking as though she knew about the store.
"I've bought apple tarts from that store before! So Takasu-kun is going to be part of the background at that trendy pastry shop."
"......I know that I'll look out of place."
"Ryuuji's the one who'll be working, but the owner had wanted to reject him because he didn't think that he would be suited for the job. Ryuuji'll be pitiful if that happened, so I'm going with him."
Taiga told Minori matter-of-factly.
"Isn't that really good?"
Minori slung her duffel bag over her shoulder as she smiled and looked at the clock on the wall. Looks like it's time for her club activities, as Minori thrust her finger at Ryuuji's face,
"Very good! I'll be rooting for you, Takasu Ryuuji! Work hard for the first part-time job in your life! Attack!"
"Oh...... What was that?"
Blood-red Poison Needle! Minori nonchalantly flicked her fingers a few times before walking out of the classroom.
After resting for one night, Yasuko's condition had improved greatly. Ryuuji had made her promise not to drink too much alcohol in exchange for letting her go to work at Bishamonten Kuni. Ryuuji would rather Yasuko stay at home to rest, but he thought that the regulars at Bishamonten Kuni would probably have more sense than Yasuko herself. And Ryuuji had also lied to her, 'I have a test coming up the day after tomorrow, so I'll be studying at the family restaurant with Taiga and Kitamura today and tomorrow.' Yasuko had believed him.
Other than that, there was another lie that he told. Ryuuji told Yasuko that after she fell asleep last night, he had received a call from Albus, saying that she needn't report for work anymore. Although a dejected expression flashed across her face for a moment, Yasuko still believed Ryuuji, as she lifted her face to smile at him, 'This often happens; Ya-chan will work harder to find another job', and patted Ryuuji on the head as though she was comforting a little kid. Although Ryuuji loved his mother a lot, that action still made him uncomfortable, even though he wasn't able to dodge it.
Because the guilt the came with the telling of a lie was much heavier than he had thought.
"There are only two prices, the big box is 580 yen including tax, you just have to press the yellow button on the cashier machine. The small box is 380 yen including tax, you just have to press the blue button. Then you just need to press the 'total' button after keying in the amount of money you receive."
Ding--! The cash drawer opened with a familiar sound, hitting Taiga squarely in the stomach, making her grunt in surprise.
"Then you'll put the products into a plastic or paper bag. Do you understand? There shouldn't be any problems right?"
"Yes, I think I should be alright."
Ryuuji stood in front of the cash register spiritedly. To let Ryuuji practice, the owner stood in front of the cart and said in an disgustingly exaggerated voice, 'Please give me one of this.', while handing over the bigger box and a thousand yen note. Ryuuji immediately pressed the yellow button, keyed in 1000, and totaled the amount, opening the teller. Ryuuji took out the amount of change that was shown on the cashier machine,
"Thank you very much!"
"Argh! I think we better......leave this to Aisaka-san!"
"Thank you very much!"
Responding to the owner's summons, Taiga turned and gave an exaggerated smile, showing that she was merely standing there not doing anything. But the owner still nodded his head, 'You should stand closer a little.' and positioned Taiga in front of Ryuuji, obviously trying to block Ryuuji. What does he mean by this?
"Please work hard! There won't be any breaks because the two of you won't be working for very long, please take your toilet breaks at your own discretion.
After finishing what he had to say, the owner went back into the store. Throngs of people walked to and fro in front of Ryuuji and Taiga. The enticingly-boxed chocolates and the cash register were placed on a push cart that was positioned by the shop entrance.
The winter sky began to darken. It wasn't the time where most people came out to do their shopping, so the shopping street was filled with high school students returning home from school, who noisily said to each other while pointing at the cart, 'Ah they're selling chocolate!' 'Tomorrow's Valentine's Day!' before walking off.
It was good that Ryuuji and Taiga were standing on top of a heater so that they weren't freezing -- 'There's more chocolates then I thought there would be......Can we really sell all of them?"
Taiga stood below the Valentine's Day decorations of the pastry shop as she inclined her head slightly, looking at the contents of the cart. The boxed chocolates were heaped into a small mountain, with two more boxes below the cart.
"Speaking of which, don't you think that I look suspiciously like a con-man?"
"Hmm--A little......You're right."
Taiga stood a small distance away as she looked at the way Ryuuji was dressed, her eyebrows knitted together worriedly. Ryuuji was wearing a borrowed chef's uniform -- Which is the same uniform that the pastry chefs wore in the kitchen. To sell chocolates while wearing that seemed to imply that Ryuuji was the one who made the chocolates. Even though it was printed on the boxes that the chocolates were factory-made.
"Your uniform's much nicer."
"You think so too? Right...... Help me take a picture."
Taiga took out her cellphone from her pocket and passed it to Ryuuji. Taiga was wearing a maid's apron on top of a black cotton western dress; Yasuko was probably dressed like that too. With her slightly curly hair tied up, Taiga really looked like a cute doll. But --
"......You want me to take a picture...... Wouldn't the owner get angry if he sees this? We're working right now."
"I'm not the one working, I'm only standing here. Just take the picture."
"It'll only be a moment."
Taiga pulled up her dress slightly in a pose. Seeing that, Ryuuji could only hide her cellphone behind the cart to help Taiga take a picture.
"Let me see let me see......"
Instead of looking at the picture of herself, Taiga aimed the camera at Ryuuji. By the time Ryuuji realized what she was about to do, the camera had already clicked.
"Wow! This picture is shocking, what a dumb expression."
"......Shall I get the old guy to fire you?"
"I'm not the one working anyway."
This fellow...... Ryuuji glared at Taiga as he breathed out steady streams of white mist.
"Excuse me, but do you have an even smaller box of chocolates? About three in a box."
A customer who looked like a housewife held up three fingers, surprising Ryuuji with her sudden question,
"Ah? Ugh, this box has six pieces, this has twelve pieces......"
Ryuuji mumbled in response, not answering the question at all.
"I see......Hmm, milk chocolate."
The customer lost interest after looking at the box for a while, as she left after placing the box back into its original position.
"Ah--ah, she left."
"Ah, I'm really nervous. I look really suspicious don't I?"
"You should be like this -- Welcome! Wouldn't it better if you say that?"
"Hmm, you're right."
Ryuuji nodded in response to Taiga, who had a weird expression on her face while he rearranged the chocolates on the cart so that they'll be more visible.
"Cheese, Tenin-san!" (Tenin = Shop worker)
"Gah! Wel, Welcom......It's you!"
Ryuuji almost fell down at the sight of a grinning Haruta standing in front of the cart. Ryuuji had told him about working at the pastry shop, but he didn't remember telling him to come.
"We're not here to play! Go back to where you came from! Your hair will drop into the chocolate, go away!"
Taiga swung her hands wildly in an attempt to chase Haruta away, her fingers hitting Haruta in the nose, but he continued grinning,
"Don't be like this, Tiger! I'm here to buy a box of chocolates!"
"We don't sell chocolates for insects here! Alright, now go away!"
"But I'm not the one buying! Right?"
Haruta turned around to smile at the girl standing behind him. That girl's a university student isn't she? No, what's more important is that -- Huh? Ryuuji and Taiga's eyeballs almost popped out of their sockets, as they looked at each other in disbelief, their jaws hanging open.
"Would Haruta-kun want the big box or the small box?"
"If I'm greedy and ask for the big one now, something bad will happen later!"
"Of course something like that won't happen."
"Then I'll have the big box!"
I'll have this -- The girl who pointed at the bigger box of chocolates was wearing a cotton hat, her beautiful hair going all the way down to her chest, her body clad in a figure-hugging light grey wool coat.
"Alright. I remember I had a 500 yen coin around here somewhere....... Let me look for it."
The girl took out a bulging wallet to look for coins, but her actions only served to shower the ground with receipts, 1 yen coins and other random things. Haruta helped the girl pick up her things,
"Ah! You're really clumsy! Take it!"
He intimately stuffed the things into the girl's pocket. If the two of them weren't close, Haruta wouldn't do something so intimate would he? Which is to say, they are --
"......I don't remember you having a sister?"
Ryuuji asked Haruta as he returned the change and receipt to the girl. If they're not siblings, then what can they be? Taiga, who was merely standing beside him, was so shocked that she was rooted to the spot.
"She's not my sister! Hehehe! She's my Girl! Friend!"
The girl also smiled at Haruta's declaration.
You're lying! I don't believe you! But no matter how Ryuuji wanted to deny it, there was something intimate about the way the girl looked at Haruta.
Ryuuji was speechless, as he looked at the pair of ivory hands that received the box of chocolates. She......She's an older-sister type beauty! 'Thank, Thank you very much!'
Hearing Taiga's voice, Ryuuji hurriedly bowed.
Just as he was leaving, Haruta ran over to Ryuuji and whispered,
"I really like her! Because there're no secrets between Taka-chan and I, so I wanted to introduce her to you!"
Haruta laughed embarrassingly before running off to catch up with the girl. Ryuuji thought, Maybe it's because he had told everything about his relationship woes during the school trip that Haruta would introduce his girlfriend to him. But--
"How can it be.......... Has this world gone crazy......!"
Ryuuji completely agreed with Taiga's assertion. Haruta was a decent guy, and Ryuuji also liked Haruta (how disgusting). But just how was he able to meet a beauty like that? The most curious part of the whole thing was how the two of the even met?
"......Maybe Haruta happened to pass by when she was drowning and saved her? If it wasn't something like that, then I really cannot accept it......! Damn it, Welcome! Please take a look! Valentine's Day chocolates! Please take a look!"
Ryuuji shouted at the top of his voice from the bomb that Haruta had dropped onto him. To his surprise, his shouting actually attracted a few customers, one of which bought four boxes at a go.
Ryuuji tore off the long list of receipts as he watched the customers walk off. He had originally thought that his face wasn't suited for the service sector, but he was doing surprisingly well. He temporarily forgot about Haruta, and loosened his lips into a smile --
"Hey, I don't think you should smile. That captain-of-a-ghost-ship look you had on just now was better."
"When, When have I ever had that kind of look......?"
"When you jealously watched that insect's beautiful girlfriend walk away. Yes yes yes, that's the look."
"This look shows that I've been hurt by your words!"
"And you should cross your arms in front of your chest, close your mouth, and spread your legs."
Ryuuji obediently crossed his arms, standing silently behind the cart. As a result, the two office ladies that happened to pass by--
"Ah, look, the pastry chef himself is selling his chocolates......"
"Wow, he's really young. But he looks really strict...."
"But it's really curious to see such a young chef making chocolate."
"I'll buy one for my boyfriend."
"I'll buy one for myself."
Why would they think that way? Ryuuji thought as he watched the two office ladies walking to the cart while whistling. What to do? If they ask me, 'Did you make this?', I would probably give in to temptation and lie.
Unconsciously, Ryuuji had transformed into the guard dog in front shrines...... No, He had transformed into Cerebus, as he stared at the two office ladies with widened eyes.
--If you dare to step into the realm of demons, then be prepared to be buried in cold, bloody soil, office ladies--! No, Ryuuji was not thinking anything like that.
Looking at his face, the two office ladies were a little afraid, but still pointed at the chocolate, 'Please give me the big box.' 'I'll have the small box.' Beside Taiga, who was just standing there, Ryuuji finished the increasingly familiar actions and passed the chocolates to the customers, saying in a deliberately low voice, 'Thank you very much.'
He succeeded in making them think that he was the chef. The two office ladies happily took their chocolates and left.
"You see, we really sold it away."
"We really sold it...... Are we allowed to do that!? It's stated on the boxes that the chocolates are factory-made...... We're cheating our customers......!"
"It's not like we lied."
But the hands of the law are far-reaching...... No, it should be that Ryuuji was merely lucky, as no more customers came after the two office ladies. Even though the number of people in the shopping street had increased as it was getting closer to dinner time, but the people in this age group probably won't buy chocolates sold from carts.
"Takasu--Tiger! How's it going?"
Hearing their names, the two of them lifted their heads. In direct opposition to his cheerful voices, Noto's facial expression was extremely dark.
"I met Haruta over there....... Haruta and...... his girlfriend. He said that the two of you are really free, so I came over to visit...... Ah, what's with that......Girlfriend......Girlfriend!"
"Sigh, here comes the pitiful glasses-boy."
Seeing that Noto was alone, Taiga's shot a barb at him, her arms crossed in front of her chest,
"The long-haired insect has already bought his chocolate and gone back. Since you've stopped here as well, you'll have to buy at least one box before you can go."
"No, never! This is bad, Takasu, have you known about it for a long time already?"
"No, I just found out."
"Exactly! What's with that! How could he go and get a girlfriend from another place behind my back...... Ah--I've had enough! Damn it! What am I trying to do...... Has anyone else came before me? What about the Grand Master?"
Ryuuji shook his head. Noto should know that Kitamura was still busy with the student council in school, what was he trying to get at?
"Sigh -- Have Ami, Nanako and the others come already?"
Hearing that, Ryuuji finally understood. Ah, could it be...... He sought to hide the fact that he already knew, as he answered in a collected tone,
"......Kihara hasn't come yet."
Ryuuji attempted to get his friend to speak the truth.
"Ah...... Who, who cares about her...... I'm, I'm just saying that Kihara may start to harrass the Grand Master by giving him chocolates! Just that! She's got nothing to do with me! I'm alright, but Tiger should be really worried right...... about those kind of things!"
"What should I be worried about? And what kind of things are those kind of things? And also, even if Kihara gives Kitamura-kun chocolates, why do you have such a huge reaction to it? Ah -- I see, you like Kihara Maya don't you."
Ah! Ryuuji turned to look at Taiga. One simple sentence from her was enough to destroy Noto's care and concern, and to cruelly remind him of the truth. The pitiful-looking Noto immediately blushed a deep shade of red.
Taiga had already been extremely irritated recently by Noto's show of 'support'. Noto teased Taiga at every chance he got, so Taiga was taking revenge by lashing out at Noto's confused and fragile heart.
Well, it wasn't surprising, that Taiga, the vicious palmtop tiger, would be able to smell the blood on a weakened prey.
"When you quarreled with her during the school trip, you realized that you actually cared about her...... didn't you? Tsk -- Hmm, this kind of situation is extremely common.
Since even your good friend the stupid long-hair has already gotten himself a girlfriend, you could just try to woo her. Perhaps the two of you will look good together? I wouldn't know about such things."
"Wh-wh-wh-wh-wh are y-y-y-y-you talking about!? Don't talk about things that you don't know!? You're not normal, not normal!"
"Ala, you're panicking. Looks like I'm right, your face is really red."
"I'm begging you, no more! Don't say such inaccurate things!"
"And how are my words inaccurate? This is merely the course of nature that the male stamen and the female pistil will--"
"You idiot--! There's something wrong with with your brain! Arghhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"
"Alright, you'll have to be stay in the same class as Kihara Maya tomorrow and the day after tomorrow as well. From now on, you'll have to carefully maintain your distance from her. I want you to feel the frustration! To feel agony!"
Hearing Taiga's relentless attacks, Noto's face was so red that Ryuuji felt sorry for him. Ryuuji couldn't help but think, Taiga's in a similar position herself, and yet she's doing such a thing to someone else--
"......Why are you blushing as well?"
"Eh!? Me, Me!? I'm also blushing......!"
Doesn't Taiga like me? Am I not the one who's making her frustrated and distressed? Ryuuji was also affected by Taiga's words.
"E-E-E-Enough! Damn it! You middle-aged uncle--! You pretender--!"
Hearing Noto's angry shouts, the owner of the store immediately lifted his head. Ryuuji shook his head, 'We're doing our jobs properly!' While Noto took the opportunity to escape.
Although the owner wasn't affected by Noto's shouts, but he still came out of the store to check on the two of them. Looking at the amount of chocolate left on the cart, he didn't look too happy,
"It's almost six, so it's not very positive that we still have so many boxes left. It's not your fault that you'll meet friends from school since the two of you are standing in front of the store. But since your friends are coming, perhaps you could get some friends who will actually buy the chocolates."
Ryuuji and Taiga looked at each other awkwardly. To be honest, their present earnings could only pay off their salary.
"Hmm...... Even though I'm only standing here, I'm still a little responsible for this. Since it has come to this, I can only summon my secret weapon."
Taiga seemed to have thought of something, as she flipped open her phone to call a certain person.
"Geh, you're not by yourself?"
Hearing that Taiga was working, Ami had come over to laugh at her, but instead glared at Ryuuji.
Ami turned around to walk off.
Even though she was casually dressed in jeans and a eiderdown jacket, together with a baseball cap and spectacles, Ami still turned heads wherever she went. 'That girl's really cute.' 'Is she a model? She's really tall.' The slim figure, together with the long hair that flowed out from the baseball cap, was so captivating that everyone knew she wasn't a normal person.
"Ah, since you're already here, don't leave so quickly. Here, baka-chi, hold this."
Taiga looked around carefully before passing five boxes of chocolates to Ami.
"Eh? I don't want these, don't ask me to do something strange. Ami-chan's so pretty, everyone will notice my actions."
"Yes yes yes, baka-chi's really pretty and stands out in a crowd, which is why I called you here. Here, hold these and shout, 'I love these chocolates!"
"What? So you want me to cheat for you......"
"Something like that."
"No way! Why must Ami-chan do something like this!? And there's an extra fellow beside you...... Don't joke with me!"
Hmph! Ami glared at Ryuuji out of the corner of her eyes, looking as though she liked nothing better than to spit at him. But Ryuuji--
Although he felt extremely awkward, Ryuuji still raised a hand in greeting,
"How have you been?"
You haven't quit school yet? -- Ryuuji shot a questioning glance at Ami, but Ami merely tutted at him and said 'Go away.'
Of course Ryuuji would be angry at Ami's attitude, but Ryuuji continued to face Ami, even if he would be given the cold shoulder, just like how the loyal customers of that ramen shop hoped for the boiling hot water to satisfy their inner masochist. Because despite his appearance, Ryuuji was the type of person that liked to be treated coldly by pretty girls, to satisfy their impossible requests, he was the type of passionate loyal masochist -- Of course not.
Ryuuji only did that because he did not want to fulfill Ami's hope that he will disappear from her life. He didn't want to give up just because Ami said 'I failed!'. He felt a surprising and unknown emotion in his heart.
That kind of emotion wasn't exactly kindhearted thoughts like 'don't say that you want to quit school' or 'I'm sorry for not making the effort to understand you', but a harder kind of rebelliousness, something like 'I will not accept you giving me the expression of knowing everything single thing'. It seemed as though Ami was saying -- I understand you, but you don't understand me. This point was what Ryuuji could not accept.
I don't want Ami to look at me like this, I won't accept that she looks at me like this, that she gave up on me without even taking my future development into account. The main point is that I wish to be 'acknowledged' by Kawashima Ami.
Taiga looked at Ryuuji and Ami confusedly.
"......I never knew that baka-chi's on such bad terms with Ryuuji? Could it because of what I said to baka-chi before the school trip that you took it out on Ryuuji?"
"Of, Course, Not! We just don't click. We're not friends anymore."
Hmph! Ami turned her face away, wanting to take the chance to leave, but Taiga grabbed hold of her sleeve.
"Ah, baka-chi, don't say such serious things! Right, why don't you just be more honest and buy this box of chocolates to give it to Ryuuji to make up? It's Valentine's Day anyway, the timing's just right."
"What are you talking about!? And......Eh......You want me to spend my own money...... This is worse than cheating......"
"Alright, I'll give it to you. Ah, but I can only give you one box! And, why don't you buy one for yourself, and buy another for Minorin to make up with her. I've seen everything...... I know that you actually want to make it up with Minorin...... If you're afraid of feeling awkward, why don't I go with you to call her out? Hehe, who would have thought that I would be the one helping the proud baka-chi, life is so unpredictable."
Ami took off one of her gloves and slapped Taiga in the face with it. In the middle ages, this would signal a duel between nobles - no. As for Ryuuji, who knew what Ami was thinking, he could understand why she would do such a thing -- even though he didn't dare to intervene.
"That hurt! Baka-chi, that really hurt--! Stop it! If you continue like this, I'll upload your imitation DVD onto the internet!"
"Like that's any of my business! Do whatever you want to do!"
"Then I'll let you see something that will inflict serious psychological damage! Take this!"
Taiga flipped open her cellphone.
"Eh.......? This can't be......Hah!"
Ami, who was looking intently at the picture on the cellphone, suddenly became extremely weak, so much so that her cap dropped off. She glanced at Ryuuji for a moment before starting to laugh again.
"Hey......Hey! I want to take a look too, just how bad is it?"
"I would advise you not to look, or you may never be able to pull yourself together again."
"Let me see it! If it's that bad, then I'm going to delete it!"
"How could I let you delete something as interesting as that!"
Ryuuji had completely forgotten that he was currently working, as he attempted to snatch the cellphone from Taiga, even using basketball movements to block her. At that moment --
"Ah! Isn't that Kawashima Ami!"
A middle school girl shouted loudly. The shopping street was crowded with middle school students who were going home after their club activities. The number of people kept increasing, as wave after wave of middle school girls appeared.
"So it's true that she lives near here!"
"Eh! Who's that!?" "A model! She's really cute! Can I use my phone to take a picture?" -- In the blink of an eye, a huge crowd of girls had gathered around the cart. Can I shake hands with you? Which school do you go to?
"Kawashima's really popular......"
"I was like them not long ago. Now I feel that it's much better to not know about her true colors."
"I didn't think that anyone would notice. Thank you for your support--" Ami carefully rejected any photo requests, going into watery chihuahua mode at the same time, as she shook hands and gave out signatures with the people around her. The adults who were passing by didn't recognize Ami, as they looked at the commotion with questioning eyes. But to the middle school students, Kawashima Ami was an idol.
"Right, is Ami-chan buying chocolates from here......"
"Ami-chan bought five boxes!"
Ami was holding the five boxes of chocolates that Taiga had stuffed into her hands. The girls who had noticed the chocolates immediately surrounded the cart.
"I want one too! I want the same one as Ami-chan!"
"I want one I want one too! Ah, it's so expensive--! But I still have to buy it!"
Everyone took out their wallets. Hearing the shouts of the middle school girls, even the housewives who didn't recognize Ami gathered around the cart.
Even though they weren't able to sell everything, but the sales record was still rather positive. Taiga bought four small boxes when she went home, making the chocolate mountain even smaller.
"I had planned to return some favors on Valentine's Day. I had wanted to buy chocolate from the basement of the department store, but since I had to work, I'll have to make do with these chocolate."
"Favors? What favors?"
On the way home, Ryuuji and Taiga walked side by side with a small gap between them.
"I want to give chocolates to Kitamura-kun, Minorin, and you to thank you guys for saving me. Even though it's a little embarrassing to give this kind of chocolate...... Oh, and I have to thank baka-chi as well, since I called her down to help. I forgot to give her the box of chocolates that I promised her just now. So I'll bring four boxes of chocolates to school tomorrow. It wouldn't be very nice if I just used these wrappers would it?"
"You're giving me a box too...... It'll be a little too commonplace if you used the original wrappers. We're going to sell the same thing tomorrow you see."
"Then I'll try to change the packaging tonight."
"Why don't you melt the chocolates? Then you'll be able to say that you made it yourself if you melt it and let it solidify. You can just put the packaging out of the equation like that."
Two clouds of white mist rose up into the night sky. The two of them withdrew into their coats, their hands in their pockets as they walked on the road that they stepped on everyday. The chilly winter breeze was full of humidity, making them feel as though their nose were going to be frozen.
Taiga looked at the tips of her toes as she said,
"......Time really flies. I was still thinking about how time passed so slowly when we first started until the customers started coming."
"I feel the same way."
Ryuuji pulled his muffler to his lips as he lowered his head, making use of his breath to warm himself.
"Even though it's tiring, but I really feel like I did something significant."
"You're right, even though I didn't do much."
"You helped with the cello tape."
Ryuuji felt a little sad that his part-time job would end tomorrow, as he wanted to continue.
In comparison with just thinking about it, it looks like one sees things more clearly through actions. The sense of helplessness and insecurity that Ryuuji had felt the day before wasn't as strong due to his weariness.
"About what I said to you yesterday...... I'm really sorry."
It's also because of Taiga that he got to work. It wasn't just the moral support that she gave. In truth Ryuuji got the job only because Taiga was also there.
"Thank you. If I was alone, I would probably have just came up with a lame excuse not to work."
"What are you talking about, there's nothing for you to thank me about. I should be the one thanking you."
"It's rare to see you so serious. Since you're like this, then maybe you should seriously do some research on the internet regarding how to melt chocolate."
Looking at Ryuuji's joking smile, Taiga pouted at him,
"Speaking of which......Would you be happy if I gave you chocolates for Valentine's Day?"
Why would she ask me something like this? Ryuuji looked at Taiga with a surprised expression on his face. Taiga seemed to understand the question in his look,
"Because I don't know."
"What do you not know?"
It was Ryuuji's turn to pout,
"Of course I will be happy if you gave me chocolates for Valentine's Day...... Am I such an inhumane person? Do you really not know that?"
"I get it...... Then I'll work harder, and think of ways to work harder."
Taiga opened up the plastic bag that she was holding and nodded at the four boxes of chocolate in the bag.
She sounds like she wants to work hard to make me happy -- Ryuuji was a little stunned at that interpretation.
Taiga was working hard to make Ryuuji happy, because she liked him.
Looking at the side of her face, Ryuuji stopped walking.
Taiga had once said that it was useless to work hard, for the result of not giving up despite being helpless was to fall off a cliff. But now that she is ready to push to the very end, does it mean that she was mentally prepared for another probable fall of the cliff? To work hard for Ryuuji, even if she could fail and be hurt again, Taiga still wanted to work hard for Ryuuji.
Since it's like this --- What should Ryuuji, the person who rescued Taiga from the bottom of the cliff, do? The Ryuuji that wanted to grab hold of the falling Taiga and pull her up to safety, what should he do?
Ryuuji suddenly felt as though the ground that he was standing on was breaking up, as he stood there, trembling. If he hadn't heard Taiga's true feelings in that snowstorm, Ryuuji probably wouldn't have noticed the change in Taiga -- Ryuuji finally understood the meaning behind that.
Ryuuji had always felt that if he hadn't heard about Taiga's true feelings, then nothing would change. As long as he forgot about what he knew, everything would go back to normal.
In reality, he couldn't be more wrong.
Taiga fell off the cliff and got hurt again and again. But even then, she stubbornly refused to call for help, merely letting herself fall down, disappear, and go away. This was what she planned to do. She left Ryuuji on the cliff in the snowstorm, while she continued to fall until she was out of the picture.
Taiga hadn't realized that Ryuuji had stopped walking as she continued walking forward in the wintry night. The figure that was bathed in moonlight moved further and further away, Taiga's long hair swaying in rhythm to her footsteps. Right now, Ryuuji's hand and voice was extremely far away from her. Taiga had left by herself, this was the direction that she had decided on.
-- Then what about me?
Taiga made a mistake, as Ryuuji heard her hidden feelings. If something happens because of her mistake, then who should take the responsibility? Would it be alright if I forget about it? But......But, but, but, but......I can't. I can't do it, Taiga. Ryuuji wanted to say this to her. He was unable to just watch as Taiga walked away by herself. He was unable to ignore her feelings. Even if he was really able to forget it, and act as though nothing happened, Ryuuji wouldn't want to do that. He no longer wanted to see Taiga injure herself and turn away one more time.
Ryuuji wanted to save Taiga.
He was just like Taiga, forcing down the voice that cried for help. Wanting to grab hold, wanting to rely on someone, but still forcing himself to let go. Because this was something Ryuuji would surely go through.
As for Taiga -- She took everything that was thrown at her, continued to work hard even if she was covered in injuries, all for the sake of reaching the goal that is 'Ryuuji'.
No matter how many times he had to run into the snowstorm to grab hold of Taiga's hand, Ryuuji wanted to save her. He wanted to hold on to her hand tightly, to prevent her from being hurt again, or from falling again. He never wanted to abandon Taiga ever again.
Ryuuji wished that Taiga would understand that.
As Taiga pressed onto her hair that was being blown around by the wind, she finally realized that Ryuuji wasn't beside her, and turned around to look at him. Her snowy-white Angola coat danced in the wind, as her long dress billowed in the breeze. Her eyes blazing on her doll-like face, her cherry-petal lips moved slightly, and Ryuuji could hear --
"Ryuuji! What are you doing! I thought you were walking with me when in actual fact, I was talking to myself all this while!"
--That is Aisaka Taiga.
My classmate, and coincidentally, my neighbor. She is also known as the Palmtop Tiger, a brash, violent and self-centered daughter of a rich family, also a child who was abandoned by her parents. Clumsy and lazy, but also fragile and in need of careful treatment at the same time, and also as lonely as a paper plane that did not know where to fly to.
She is Aisaka Taiga.
Ryuuji thought to himself, I want to use this pair of hands to save you.
I want to hand that unique, radiant sense of happiness to you personally -- No matter what I have to do, no matter what that sense of happiness is.
That is why I don't want to forget, nor do I want to continue pretending that I never heard your voice. I want to always be able to listen to your true feelings.
|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|