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  1. Chapter 5
  3. "...So tired..."
  4. "...Mhm..."
  5. In the kitchen lit by the morning sun, a pair of shadows (one small and one large) sat at the dining table across from one another, staring gloomily at the bag of bread on the table.
  6. They had planned to make sandwiches, intending to take care of both breakfast and lunch. They had even made sure the others had bought ham and lettuce.
  7. However, Ryūji wasn't even lifting a finger, and his eyes were three times as horrible as usual, blood-shot from lack of sleep. Similarly, with her hair unkempt, her face unwashed, and having just barely managed to change clothes, Taiga was just sitting in her chair staring blankly out the window.
  8. Getting to the point, the two of them were severely sleep-deprived. They were really, really sleepy.
  9. Last night, they eventually couldn't stand being in that room any longer, and so hand in hand, they had lightly dashed out with their footsteps in unison, once again making their way downstairs. Turning on the light and the TV, "There's no way I'm sleeping tonight!", "It can't hurt to skip just one night of sleep, so let's pull an all-nighter!", and so on they had said to one another while watching the 6 o'clock news.
  10. "Shall we go walk on the beach?", he remembered suggesting to Taiga. He even remembered that she had nodded, saying "That sounds good". But before they knew it, the two of them had ended up collapsing at the table, falling into a fragmented slumber. He only awoke just now because he had rested his head on his hands and they had gone numb. It was already 7 am as he tried to awaken Taiga who was sitting beside him in the same position.
  11. Beyond the window, the beach in the morning was invigoratingly bright. Beneath the beautifully clear sky, the waves were gently lapping at the beach today as well, and the repetitive sound of the water itself seemed to have a cleansing effect. It would probably be the perfect time to go walking on the sandy beach, maybe even bringing along a golden retriever.
  12. However, rather than anything even remotely as fine as a retriever, only a mongrel and a tiger, who were both sleep-deprived, continued staring dumbly at one another.
  13. Rubbing at his eyes roughly, Ryūji called out "He~y, he~~y" to Taiga in a voice that sounded like some old senile geezer.
  14. "I'm sleepy after all... Forget breakfast, I'm going back to my room to sleep..."
  15. "Nn~", Taiga mumbled, sounding as if she too were growing dull as she lifted her face.
  16. "...Don't go...Because, I'm pretty sure, you'll end up sleeping until noon..."
  17. "Maybe...You're probably right..."
  18. He tilted his head. His stiff shoulders made a sound that shouldn't have come from a seventeen year-old boy. It was probably because he had slept in a weird position that his joints were all stiff, but despite how brief it was, his short nap still counteracted the stupefying effect of sleep deprivation, helping him to remember things and shuffle his brain back into order.
  19. So then here's what he was thinking. About yesterday, there must have been some sort of mistake, some sort of misunderstanding, probably at least. There was no reason to feel so scared like that---He really should have just slept in his bed anyway.
  20. Surely, the towel must have been one he had forgotten to wash and brought along anyway with strands of hair from either Yasuko or Taiga stuck to it all along, and concerning Taiga's clothes, she probably pulled them out herself when rummaging around in her bag after her bath and must have just forgotten. That sort of explanation made total sense. The wetness must have been drool...or maybe sweat from Taiga's feet.
  21. Yawning and giving a good stretch, Ryūji gathered his strength and stood up.
  22. "Ok now, let's make them, those sandwiches. Let's use a bit of the leftover curry and make curry potage."
  23. "Potage?... That sounds yummy..."
  24. Then, somehow mustering the strength, Ryūji finally opened the bag of bread while Taiga looked on. With an angry look in his eyes, he...stared at the bread. It wasn't like he felt some sort of perverted lust towards the bread, but that he had his dried eyes dumbly fixated on...hey, wait.
  25. "...What the heck am I doing, just staring down the bread like this. I have to get the ingredients together."
  26. Apparently, his mind was still a bit fuzzy.
  27. "Ingredients?"
  28. "That's right... Boiled and chopped eggs mixed with mayo, and there should also be a can of tuna, right? Then, the lettuce, tomato, and ham... Hey you, help out with something. What are you going to do to assist me?"
  29. "I'll cheer you on from over here."
  30. 'This girl', he was glaring intensely at Taiga's fair face with his bloodshot eyes when,
  31. Pitter-patter, came the sound of light footsteps coming down the hallway,
  32. "Hm? Huh? So you guys are up already! Morning Taiga!"
  33. The one who suddenly appeared was Minori.
  34. Standing amidst the dazzling white light and possibly having just washed her face, her bangs were pulled up with a turban to completely reveal her smooth forehead, and so while smelling pleasantly of facial cleansing foam, Minori pressed Taiga's nose upwards like a pig's. Then,
  35. "Hey now Takasu-kun! Are you already trying to get breakfast ready for us? I woke up thinking I'd make breakfast since you made dinner for us last night, but it looks like I'm too late!"
  36. In her sleepwear that merely consisted of a t-shirt and shorts, she was all smiles even early in the morning,
  37. "Ahh, it's so nice out today!"
  38. She faced Ryūji, greeting him as she energetically formed a splendidly even Y. However,
  39. "Y...yeah."
  40. Even just holding up the bag of bread was taking all of Ryūji's strength. Seeing her so suddenly first thing in the morning, Minori was simply too dazzling of a presence for Ryūji to bear.
  41. "Huh? Somehow, you two don't look so hot, you know? Trouble sleeping?"
  42. "Ah, yeah... Well, pretty much..."
  43. "We stayed up the whole night, watching television..."
  44. "Eh, what a thing to do! Will you be ok? Are you feeling sick?"
  45. Shake shake, Taiga responded with a few twists of her head. Taking the opportunity to nuzzle up against Minori, she seemed to have entered something of a 'pampered mode'. I want to do that too, Ryūji thought, unable to do anything but watch their display with an envious look.
  46. Emphatically rubbing Taiga's back while going "There there now", Minori affectionately smacked her just above her rear end and looked up, as if she had thought of something.
  47. "You two should go and take showers, don't you think? I bet you'll feel at least a bit better afterward. It seems like Ami-chan and Kitamura-kun are still sleeping anyway."
  48. Despite going "Ehh" and shrugging at first as if she couldn't be bothered with following that proposal, Taiga suddenly stopped. Then turning around, she met Ryūji's gaze for just a moment with mysteriously calm eyes,
  49. "...Actually, I think I will take a shower. Minorin, lend me your towel."
  50. "This one? It's a face towel, you know? Plus, I've already used it."
  51. "That's fine. Help Ryūji in my place if you don't mind."
  52. "Takasu, are you okay with Taiga going first?"
  53. As Ryūji sputtered "Eh, well I", Taiga cut in with a "Hmph",
  54. "Ryūji will leave behind hair and sweat and stuff, so no way!"
  55. She refused sharply---What am I, some stray dog that hasn't been washed in half a year or something? However, without hearing even a single objection, Taiga took the towel from Minori's neck and then quickly left the kitchen. It's not even like she's the type who'd recover just by taking a shower in the morning, Ryūji thought as he watched her go,
  56. "Well then I, Kushieda, will take Taiga's place and help tons!"
  57. I see, he suddenly realized. So that he could spend some time together alone with Minori, that's why Taiga had left like that... That she could occasionally do a good job like this, it seems like she's not one to be trifled with.
  58. "Hmm, so what's going on? What are we doing? What should I be doing now?"
  59. Smiling with her eyes like crescents, Minori was staring at Ryūji's hands. Suddenly, the sweet scent of Minori's hair wafted into Ryūji's nose, making his hands tremble.
  60. "W...well then... I'll handle boiling the eggs, so can you slice up the onions?"
  61. "Roger. What am I making it for?"
  62. "Sandwiches."
  63. "Oh, doicchi, how nice!"
  64. While seemingly unaware of Ryūji's nervousness, "I hate English more than anything else, y'know" Minori muttered (in imitation of one of their classmates from 2-C, Doi-kun, whose nickname was Doicchi), then immediately washing her hands and grabbing an onion, she quickly removed the top and the root with a knife. She then peeled the skin and neatly tossed it in the trash, and started humming while slicing away,
  65. "...You, really have great technique..."
  66. Ryūji couldn't help but think. Watching Minori rhythmically chop-chop-chopping away with the kitchen knife, it was the first time he'd seen anyone his age who could work in the kitchen as well as this. The uniform slices of onion she cut were so splendidly thin, they were even transparent. Of course, it couldn't compare to Ryūji's own godly technique.
  67. "Eh, did you compliment me just now? Woohoo, go me!"
  68. "Just like your skill at cleaning up yesterday, you're quite proficient at this, huh. Is this also from your part-time jobs?"
  69. "Well, it's been a while since I'd say that I couldn't cook. Because after all, my parents work and I've got a younger brother who eats a lot~"
  70. "Younger brother? I never knew..."
  71. "I'm a hard-working ballplayer. Fuhaha! Just look, the onions are so thin, like see-through lingerie!"
  72. Not taking her eyes off the knife, Minori smiled brightly. Although smiling,
  73. "Uh-oh, it got, my eyes~"
  74. She was crying heavy tears. Even the redness of her sniffling nose could be considered cute,
  75. "...Oh...I need to rinse the lettuce..."
  76. Ryūji was having serious trouble seeing straight. With Minori really and truly standing right next to him, he was simply more happy and embarrassed than he could stand. While it may not have been obvious to an outside observer, Ryūji was fidgeting quite a bit even as he chopped the lettuce. He went from chopping to rinsing. Taking care not to use too much water, he made sure to keep the water in a clean washbucket. He tossed in some ice. Finally, he wiped at the moisture around the sink with one hand. With his remaining he hand, he checked on the heat for the eggs.
  77. "Well, really, it should be me saying that Takasu-kun is truly good at cooking. I only found out because I heard it from Taiga, but I was really touched. Yesterday's curry was really delicious, and then even our slicing speeds are different. To begin with, there really aren't a lot of high school boys who would mention anything like needing to put the lettuce in water. Mm, I'm impressed."
  78. "I, is that right?... But that sort of thing isn't a big deal..."
  79. If you wanted, I'd even show you my technique to use cucumbers, carrots, and radishes as decoration... Ryūji could make a phoenix out of vegetables.
  80. "That's not true, you're really something. I think it's really wonderful how Takasu-kun can do this sort of thing so well... Fufu, I bet none of the other girls in our class know anything about this part of Takasu-kun, right? It's just Taiga and me, plus Ami-chan. I wonder how I should put it? It makes me feel, kind of superior."
  81. While cheering silently in his heart, Ryūji merely shrugged. What she said was a bit much. Or else, it seemed like she might have been trying to kill him through anxiety.
  82. "I'm sure that the girl who becomes Takasu-kun's wife will be really happy."
  83. ---That was the knockout blow.
  84. "What are you saying now, really", Ryūji merely said as he was opening the can of tuna and watching the fire for boiling the eggs. However, on the inside, he was already long gone.
  85. "Kyu...Kyushieda~!"
  86. "What is it Takyasu-kyun?!"
  87. Frantically taking her response, going "Wait, what?" for a moment and getting distracted and embarrassed, he was even more disturbed than before. And so, possibly against better judgment,
  88. "I, it's about yesterday!"
  89. He ended up saying. He wasn't even sure himself what it is he wanted to say. Of course, unable to follow up with anything, Ryūji clammed up in his confusion. What to do, what to do, this silence is killing me... What should I do?
  90. However, next to the paling Ryūji, Minori dropped the thin onion slices into the water to soak along with the lettuce,
  91. "Takasu-kun, it's about just that,"
  92. She took over the conversation in his stead. With a flick of her dark eyes, she sharply stared at Ryūji's face and placed her index finger on her lips. Then, going "Shhh" and lowering her voice,
  93. "...That whole thing, no one else knows. I haven't told anyone else about it. It was...well, I guess you could say...I messed up. It was a slip of the tongue, really."
  94. Her expression softened into a smile.
  95. "But even if it just slipped out, I'm glad that it was Takasu-kun whom I told... Thanks for listening to me."
  96. "...Kushieda..."
  97. Without meaning to, their gazes met suddenly while they were right next to each other. It felt like there was definitely something else behind Minori's smiling expression, as if time had stopped as---
  98. "Ah, uwawawa~! The eggs!"
  99. With a hiss, the pot boiled over. The hot water that spilled out extinguished the flame of the portable stove. Rushing over together, they flipped the switch and checked for the smell of gas,
  100. "I wonder...if it's ok?"
  101. "Yeah, it probably should be."
  102. Wiping the stand with a towel, he suddenly noticed they were at point blank range from one another. "Uwah!", Ryūji was just about to quickly retreat to open the distance when,
  103. "Takyasu-kyun's being clumsy. How adorable."
  104. Minori had suddenly said, bewitching him with a defenseless smile. "~---~", Ryūji went speechless, but he didn't want to be seen blushing furiously and instead, accepted the playful atmosphere,
  105. "...Oh."
  106. He went ahead and knocked Minori on the shoulder. It was the first time he'd ever done this to the girl he liked. "Fuhehe", Minori shook with laughter.
  111. * * *
  115. “…All right then, let’s do this like we planned.”
  116. Kitamura quickly said, wearing only his swim trunks and a towel over his shoulder while walking briskly just a bit in front of them. Nodding along, Ryūji and Taiga had their hands full with a bunch of stuff. At a glance, it would seem to be such things as sandwiches and drinks and a variety of towels that they were taking to the beach. But in reality, the transparent bag contained things like flashlights and Ami’s hand-drawn map, in addition to a variety of obscure tools meant for some unrevealed purpose.
  117. In the living room of the villa where the sun had continued to shine down pleasantly all morning, Minori called out “Ah, wait, wait” as she finally arrived, wearing a sweatshirt and shorts made of some glossy material as well as a pair of open-toed sandals that had a flower attached. She quickly made her way over to Taiga’s side, her hair that was up in a ponytail swishing side to side as she passed by Ryūji, wafting the pleasant scent of her sunscreen under his nose.
  118. Likewise, Ryūji was wearing a t-shirt and some swim trunks so it wouldn’t matter if he got wet either. By the way, he was wearing the t-shirt because he didn’t want to be compared to Kitamura’s stylish physique. Then coming to Taiga, in addition to her swimsuit with the padded breasts, she was actually wearing an airy dress with a gingham check pattern of green and white. With the shoulder straps, her white back was clearly visible, but he still thought that she had on more than she needed. After all, it’s not like she had any reason to be so self-conscious. Well, it could be she doesn’t want to be compared to Ami in a swimsuit---
  119. “…Huh? Actually, where is Kawashima?”
  120. “Amin is upstairs putting on sunscreen. I told her we were going but she said to just go on ahead without her.”
  121. “Geez, she said she was going to bring a beach umbrella…She probably can’t carry it by herself though. I’ll go see what’s up.”
  122. Having Minori and Taiga go on ahead, Ryūji hustled up the stairs by himself. Though they were ‘going to the beach’, it really only involved walking down from the wood deck, so it’s not like leaving without her would pose a problem.
  123. Thinking he could go ahead and take the beach umbrella out first, he looked around for it, but he couldn’t find anything that even resembled an umbrella. Wondering if it might be in Ami’s room, he knocked on her door,
  124. “Hey, I’ll carry the beach umbrella out for you. Where’s it at?”
  125. He asked, and from the other side of the door came the response, “It’s in here, so come in and get it~”. Thinking ‘What a sloth’, he turned the knob and stepped in,
  126. “It’s over there.”
  127. “…W, what are you doing?”
  128. “Enjoying the view.”
  129. He found a certain unpleasant narcissist (or maybe he should say ‘idiot’) standing in front of a full-length mirror in her swimsuit, laughing “Kukuku” with a satisfied smile as she shifted her hair up and down. Keeping as far away as possible so he wouldn’t get involved with her, he was slowly making his way to his goal of the umbrella, but,
  130. “So, what do you think of my swimsuit?”
  131. Turning around suddenly, Ami the narcissist struck a pose while facing Ryūji. The denim bikini matched her fair skin well, clearly accentuating her splendidly slim figure.
  132. “…It’s fine, I guess.”
  133. “Eh? Is that all you’ve got to say?”
  134. Saying “Is that all?”, was she really asking him to say more? Well, Ryūji was thinking a variety of things besides just ‘fine’. Like, for example, the alluringly curvy S-line that went from her chest to her rear, the beauty of her fair well-defined stomach that resembled a marble goddess statue, the possibility that she could become a top idol if she were to appear on the front page of one of those gravure magazines that lined bookshops nowadays, and that she was certainly beautiful enough that one couldn’t speak without showing some measure of admiration---However, if he were to voice all that, it would be tantamount to sexual harassment.
  135. “Mm, I went and showed up in a bikini during swim class, didn’t I… So maybe it’s kind of lost its fresh appeal now?”
  136. Ami was talking to herself while making a troubled face and tilting her head,
  137. “But this part separates, y’know?”
  138. “Ah!”
  139. With a tug, she undid the top part of her bikini top, a large ribbon strap that went around her neck. Seriously unnerved, he shrieked wondering ‘It separates where now?’, when in front of him, Ami’s bust jiggled up and down as if poking fun at him,
  140. “It’s much better like this, don’t you think~?”
  141. It was styled like a tube top now, leaving much more skin exposed than before. Her milk-colored cleavage was apparent as she bent over looking into the mirror, and seemingly on the verge of spilling out, the soft-looking swells looked strained,
  142. “Fix it, fix it!”
  143. Feeling something akin to terror, he screamed.
  144. “Why~?”
  145. “Just do it!”
  146. “Then…you do it Toradora vol02 heart.png.”
  147. “No!”
  148. Concisely protesting, he leaped towards the umbrella. I'll just hurry up and take this out, he thought, realizing that the atmosphere with just him and her alone had become somewhat dangerous. Even though he was fully aware that her angelic smile and moist Chihuahua eyes were simply a sham, it didn’t change the risk factor involved. Please, someone mark this girl’s hips with the word “dangerous”.
  149. “Geez Takasu-kun, it’s because you’re so cold~.”
  150. Pouting, Ami turned away with a ‘puh’. However, for just an instant, her expression as she glanced at Ryūji stifled her rejecting, or rather, trying spitefulness, and so,
  151. “…And I was being nice for a change too.”
  152. She said. If that’s what she considered ‘nice’, then I must be a saint, Ryūji readily scoffed.
  153. “Yes yes, thank you so~ much. Don’t just wallow in your narcissistic fun; hurry up and get ready. Or else I'll leave you behind.”
  154. “Ehh? What’s with that manner of speaking?”
  155. If you don’t like the way I’m speaking, why don’t I show you the act as well. Humming lazily with a “Hm (note) hm (note)”, Ryūji took up a spot in front of the mirror, and just like Ami was doing earlier, lifted his short hair up and down, stared at his face in the mirror, and spun around. Even he himself was disgusted by the display, but this was exactly what Ami had been doing. Just to drive it home,
  156. “Hey Kawashima, what do you think of this swimming outfit? Does it look good?”
  157. He lifted up his t-shirt to reveal his plain 4980 yen swim trunks. Ami’s beautiful eyebrows quickly knitted together and her mouth stiffened as if to cry “Noooo~~!” with dread, her twitching angelic face revealing her sincere horror.
  158. “So, tell me, you didn’t like that, right? That was troubling, wasn't it? But, that was you.”
  159. “…Takasu-kun, you’re starting to act like the Palmtop Tiger, you know?”
  160. “Hey, I could take this off.”
  161. “Don’t do it!”
  162. Of course, although he was touching his front button, he had no intention of undoing it to begin with, so he stopped the act and quickly removed his hand. Showing her natural face, Ami glared at Ryūji with hazy-colored eyes and cynically pursed lips,
  163. “…If this is how you’re going to act, then I’m not going to help you out today.”
  164. She went for his weak spot. Of course by ‘help out’, she must be referring to the plan to scare Minori. Ryūji hastily turned around to face Ami,
  165. “H, how can you say that?!”
  166. “Uwah. You’re acting as if I've betrayed you or something.”
  167. Guh, he couldn’t say anything. On the other hand, he could see that Ami had regained her angelic composure, showing a pleased smile. So then,
  168. “Okay now, I’ll ask you seriously here…Takasu-kun, just why are you going this far to entertain Minori-chan?”
  169. “…~”
  170. “Come on, tell me why, hm? It shouldn’t be so hard to answer, now should it?”
  171. Blinking her large moist eyes, she pressed up against him. I’m not letting you go until you answer, she seemed to be saying. Try as he might to escape, she just kept pushing him. She probably already knew the answer---Maybe. Even though she probably knew, it seemed she wanted to hear it from Ryūji himself. So then, she had to be merely playing with him…That, it was certainly likely.
  172. “Hey. Hey. Hey, I said! If you don’t tell me, I’m not going to help out. You’ve got ten seconds. 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4,…Come on now, don’t you care? Three~, two~, one~…Hey, are you really not going to answer~?”
  173. “…”
  174. Guh, he bit his lips, keeping his mouth shut. He couldn’t say it. He didn’t want to say it. It’s not like he had any reason to reveal his heartfelt secrets to a volatile girl like Ami, and more importantly, he didn’t want to just go and tell her his feelings after she played around with him like this and even tried to coerce him. It might be a worthless show of obstinacy, but he couldn’t allow himself to become a spineless coward.
  175. Ami’s eyes narrowed. Looking as if she were glaring or maybe laughing, she stared up at Ryūji from point-blank range. Then,
  176. “…Zero. Fine then, I’m out.”
  177. She suddenly pulled away, and Ryūji was finally free. Ami flipped her hair, turned on her heels, and quickly walked out of the room, leaving Ryūji to himself. He picked up the umbrella and quickly gave chase, but Ami didn't look back.
  181.  Blinding midsummer sunlight and oppressively stifling heat.
  182. Ryūji spread out a leisure sheet and laid it down on top of the hot sand that threatened to burn skin on contact, and then putting up the beach umbrella, he settled it into place,
  183. “Yahoo~~!”
  184. The first thing Minori did was fling off her sandals before dashing off towards the blue sea. While kicking up sand in her wake, she stripped off and tossed aside her sweatshirt on the spot, running nonstop all the way to the beach where the white spray of the waves glittered in the sun,
  185. “Hyup~”
  186. She did an amazing round off. “Ohh!” Ryūji let slip, watching in astonishment as she followed through with quite a bit of vigor, springing up quite high. Upon landing, she fell into a sitting position in the water and was soon engulfed by a wave,
  187. “…Ahahahaha~! It got in my eyes!”
  188. As her face went in the water, she rubbed her eyes like a kid. And waving her hands at Taiga while yelling “Hurry over~!”, Minori seemed just like a summertime goddess.
  189. Unveiled when she had stripped off her sweatshirt earlier, a striped bikini!...was what she was wearing. Her skin, upon which a layer sunscreen helped repel droplets of water, reflected a dazzling brilliance all over, so within the transparent blue waters, Minori seemed to sparkle. Each time she gave a great wave of her hands beneath the blistering midsummer sun, her apparently hefty breasts inside of her stripe-patterned bra (wonder whether or not I can say this) would bounce nicely, completely sucking in Ryūji’s attention. Concerned with her stomach area, she was wearing shorts to cover up, but really, her abs were quite taut and even her belly button was nice and vertical.
  190. On the other hand, sitting on the same sheet next to Ryūji while being beckoned by the goddess, Taiga was gloomily moaning with a knitted brow. Curling up within her long dress while full of melancholy and remaining entirely within the shadow of the beach umbrella, even her face was completely hidden with her long hair. What’s with this disparity?
  191. “What’s the matter? Is your stomach hurting again? Come on, look, Kushieda is calling for you.”
  192. “Mm, but, but you know…”
  193. She was worriedly rubbing through her dress, touching the area around her small chest.
  194. “I keep thinking…What if the pads get pulled out by the waves or something…”
  195. “…Stop that, it’s indecent.”
  196. Pulling her hands away for her, Ryūji nodded appreciatively.
  197. “That shouldn’t be a problem this time. After that accident before, I made sure to sew it with a proper lining rather than the hook method.”
  198. “…B, but that’s not all. I, I can’t swim.”
  199. “You don’t need to worry about that either. Everyone here knows about that. No one’s going to ask you to do any synchronized swimming with them or anything like that.”
  200. “…I’ve, never actually gone all the way into the sea before…”
  201. “So there’s that too huh…Wait, really?”
  202. The squirming Taiga nodded while playing with the hem of her dress and her toes. Hiding within the shade of the umbrella, her entire body was emitting an aura that said, “I want to try going, but the sea is scary; I want to go, but wearing my swimsuit is embarrassing”. Guess it can’t be helped, Ryūji thought, pushing her in the back and out of the shadow,
  203. “There’s really nothing to worry about, so just go. Today will be your ‘seawater baptism’. Here, put on some sunscreen.”
  204. “…Ooh~…What if I start to drown…?”
  205. “Kushieda will save you.”
  206. “…Don’t you think the waves are scary?”
  207. “You’re much stronger than they are, I’m sure of it.”
  208. As Taiga lifted both arms while nervously trembling and fidgeting, he pulled up her dress and removed it for her. Her pale skin seeming to blend in with the beach umbrella, her slender frame sporting a one-piece swimsuit patterned with scattering red blossoms---it was an XS-sized swimsuit that, the day before yesterday, they had spent so much time picking out at the station building at three o’clock, making a great fuss until she finally bought it. It matched quite well with the paleness of her skin, and from Ryūji’s perspective, she definitely looked good in it.
  211. So handing over the sunscreen, he made her lather it on, “Ok, put some on there, make sure you cover your neck, now look, you didn’t get your back, good, off you go then” he instructed her clearly. Fidgeting while looking for Kitamura to make sure he wasn’t looking her way (what's the point of her hesitating like this?), Taiga bundled her hair quickly and ran off towards the beach, making her way over to Minori,
  212. “…So cold!”
  213. Like someone accidentally dipping into an extremely hot bath, she quickly pulled back her foot that had been touched by a wave. She stared hatefully at the approaching waves. Of course, as Taiga was of the feline persuasion, it seemed she wouldn’t mix well with water…Although, tigers at least should be able to swim.
  214. Coming to what Kitamura was doing, he was a bit off to the side with Ami, seemingly arguing with her about something. Ryūji could occasionally make out what they were saying over the sound of the waves,
  215. “But, the plan calls for both you and me…”
  216. “Eh~? Whatever, I don’t feel like doing it~.”
  217. “If you’re not there, how am I supposed to find my way, huh?”
  218. “Didn’t I already draw up a map for you? It’s too troublesome~”
  219. ---The plan was, Taiga and Ryūji were supposed to keep Minori occupied while Kitamura and Ami headed to the cave to set up some surprising traps. However, just as it appeared, Ami was currently saying “I’m tired”, “So annoying”, “Don’t wanna do it”, and so on. It seemed that as far as Kitamura was concerned, she had no intention of acting the good girl.
  220. “I’m going to go take a nap~. Sorry Yūsaku, but good luck doing it on your own. I’m taking a pass on this and you’re not going to change my mind.”
  221. Cutting the conversation short at her convenience, Ami went back to the shade of the umbrella. Laying down elegantly on the sheet next to where Ryūji was sitting,
  222. “Hmm, did you overhear~? No complaining now, since it was Takasu-kun’s decision after all.”
  223. While her smile was flawlessly charming, she murmured with a sharply spiteful look in her eyes.
  224. “…Perhaps if you were to say ‘pretty please’, I might give you a second chance to answer, maybe? No~~t, that’s a complete lie. To begin with, it’s not like I was that interested anyway.”
  225. “…”
  226. Shall I break wind?
  227. Well actually, it’s not like he could do it on command though. Sighing while ignoring Ami and standing up, Ryūji met up halfway with Kitamura who was making his way over.
  228. “There’s no helping it with that girl, so I’ll go with you.”
  229. “Geez, that Ami…It’s okay, you just stay here Takasu. If it was Ami and I, we could make up an excuse like we’re checking out the villa’s breakers or something, or if it was just Ami, then we could say she’s just off on her own, but if you and I went, it would look suspicious. I’ll go by myself.”
  230. “…Will that really be okay?”
  231. “The preparations have already been taken care of. Piece of cake…so then; hey! Kushieda~! Aisaka~!”
  232. “Huh~?” Minori replied care-freely from the midst of the waves. She was holding onto the fidgeting Taiga’s arm as they walked within the sea.
  233. “I’m taking a crap~---~!”
  234. At Kitamura’s deeply uttered shout, Minori collapsed into the sea. Dragged along, Taiga also sank into the water. Wondering ‘Is this really fine with you…?’, Ryūji sighed somewhat, but it seemed like it was.
  235. “Well then Takasu, I’ll leave this up to you.”
  236. Kitamura gave a salute, then carrying the secret tools, he set off towards the villa. Pretending to go back, he was actually taking a roundabout path to the cove.
  237. Crossing paths with Kitamura as he was on his way,
  238. “Ahh, now my mouth is all salty…More importantly, what the heck Kitamura-kun?! After going nude and announcing you’re going to the toilet, what would people think of you?”
  239. “I’m tired…”
  240. The wet Minori and Taiga were holding hands as they returned from the sea. However, all Taiga had done was dip herself into the water a little, and only for a moment.
  241. “You just walked over there a second ago, so how can you be tired already?”
  242. “…Anyone would be tired after being rolled by the waves for five rounds on the beach!”
  243. Her cattish eyes were thoroughly red and bloodshot as she glared harshly at Ryūji, seeming as if fire would erupt from her gaze at any moment.
  244. ‘Is that so…?’, Ryūji fell silent as in front of him, Minori and Taiga chugged down the tea from the plastic bottles they had brought with them. Then, patting Ami on the shoulder, Minori spoke, “Amin should come play too! Or wait, could you have a physical condition? Are you worn out?”
  245. She worriedly stared at Ami’s pale profile.
  246. “…No, I don't…I’ll go later~.”
  247. Using only a little effort, Ami still put on the faintest of smiles as she gently refused Minori. While dribbling some of the tea down her chin (which was okay because she was in a swimsuit), Taiga stared at Ami’s face. Then as if she thought of something,
  248. “…Bakachi, go swim.”
  249. Placing a hand on her pale back, Taiga tried shaking her.
  250. “Eh? Why should I when I don’t want to? I want to sleep.”
  251. Of course, she immediately declined. However, that didn’t stop Taiga,
  252. “Come on, entertain me like usual with your ridiculously stupid and lewd antics.”
  253. “…Geez you…whatever. I don’t even know. I’m not going to stoop to your level.”
  254. “…Well then, try eating this.”
  255. Pulling out a single sandwich with her still wet hand, Taiga pushed it against Ami’s mouth. Even as she was being ignored, she pressed it against Ami’s lips repeatedly,
  256. “Geez, what the heck you?! You’re so annoying!...Will you be satisfied if I just eat this?”
  257. Ami stood up, and unhappily taking the sandwich from Taiga’s small hands, she took a huge bite out of it as if in desperation. However,
  258. “Ah. Amin, that…that’s one I made special for myself…”
  259. “Minorin seemed to enjoy eating them, so I was wondering how they taste.”
  260. “…Mngfh…Uguh…~”
  261. Ami seemed to be in agony. Inside the sandwich she had dropped, there was the color of death…rather, the pure yellow of mustard. Coughing violently, she gulped down some Oolong tea and tried to breathe normally again, and then taking Ryūji’s arm as he held his breath,
  262. “Ta…Takasu-kun…you…”
  263. While bending over and getting back up, she had a firm hold on him. Then she dragged Ryūji over to the sandy beach,
  264. “H, how can you blame it on me?! Don’t get angry at me!”
  265. “Quiet. Just shut up…That damned little tiger’s disobedience…It’s all Takasu-kun’s fault! You’re careless!”
  266. And kicked him in a surprise attack. Somersaulting and collapsing into the sea, Ryūji was captured by the waves, sent rolling on the sand one round, two rounds, three rounds…In front of his eyes was the white foam of the waves, and he became completely disoriented as he grasped at the sand and stood up. The next target of Ami’s ire was Minori,
  267. “…Minori-chan, we have something really fun in store for you.”
  268. Smiling, Ami looked at Minori with a face like a devil’s.
  269. “Wha~t is it Amin~?”
  270. “…Over at the cove, there’s a really pretty cave, you see. It’s a really wonderful place, so let’s all go over there this afternoon, on an expedition you could say; we can go for a stroll, so how about it?”
  271. “Eh~, that sounds fun! Let’s go, let’s go!”
  272. She was truly a malicious fiend. Making such a face, in the end Ami was moving the plan forward, and then continuing on, she grabbed onto Taiga’s arm,
  273. “I know~, hey hey Aisaka-san, I’ll swim for you. And I’ll teach you to swim.”
  274. “T, that’s okay. It’s fine, fine, fine…Fine I said! There’s no need to do all that Bakachi~! No! N-O-, I said~! Ryūji, save me~!”
  275. With a stiff expression on her face and dragging Taiga along, she trudged onwards to the beach, making her way to the open sea.
  276. Farewell Taiga. Well, of course that’s just a joke, seeing as no matter how far they went, the shallow beach would only be deep enough to reach Taiga’s belly button.
  279. * * *
  283. After playing at the beach for a while, they returned to the villa and took turns taking a shower, changing into clean clothes before taking some time to eat the leftover sandwiches and potage. By that time, the sun had gone down enough to where it was more pleasant to go out.
  284. Feeling that the mood wouldn't be right if they went when there was too much light, they had still taken their time getting ready,
  285. “Ehh, over here!, it…?”
  286. By now, they had probably walked along the beach for ten minutes since leaving the villa.
  287. “That’s right, this is it.”
  288. “…”, Minori was at a loss for words, looking back and forth between Ami, who was looking over her shoulder with a faint smile on her face, and the entrance to the cave.
  289. The cove gave way to a rocky area, and the rocks amidst the water continued up to the cliff from the mountains. Rather eerily, the pitch black cave at this time of day was like a gaping maw.
  290. The entrance was about three meters high as well as about three meters wide. It continued on inside for an unknown distance, and additionally, there was even a sign reading “Danger!” hung up in front. Truthfully, the sign was merely something that Kitamura had put in place.
  291. Peering in timidly, Minori was hugging herself while in a t-shirt,
  292. “…W, wait, didn’t you say we were going for a walk?...Isn’t this more like, a dare or something? What with the atmosphere and all…right? Ehh, it says “danger”. Ahaha…haha…I, I think I’ll wait here…”
  293. Acting nonchalant, she tried to turn on her heel. However, next to her,
  294. “Hey now, what are you talking about?”
  295. Kitamura firmly gripped her shoulder. Thoroughly tanned, he pulled her over and pushed against her back, laughing as he pressed her onwards towards the cave’s entrance.
  296. “Don’t you think this place would be perfect for a walk? It’ll be a great way to make memories for the end of summer.”
  297. “T, that’s okay…It’s just, you know…I, isn’t this too eerie? Somehow, this place…I’ve got a bad feeling about it…And, I don’t really need this sort of memory…Sorry, let’s not do this, seriously. It says “Danger”, right? So isn’t it dangerous?”
  298. “I used to play here all the time when I was little, so it can’t be too dangerous.”
  299. Ami responded immediately, and adding on in an almost accusing manner,
  300. “Kushieda, if you say that sort of thing, something might actually happen, you know?”
  301. Kitamura spoke determinedly without yet saying what ‘something’ meant as he looked intently at Minori. Her eyes twitched.
  302. “It’s not like you’ve never heard of such things, right? Like, if you call on Kokkuri-san, beings from the other side will appear, or what happened in Hundred Stories, or…”
  303. “…Is that really the sort of thing you should be saying to someone who scares easily…?”
  304. “Well, it’ll be fine as long as you believe you’re not really scared. There’s really nothing to be afraid of anyway. Isn’t this a good chance to see some of nature’s creatures? We might even find some sort of organism that no one’s ever seen.”
  305. “…I guess…it’s fine as long as it’s a normal creature…”
  306. Ryūji and Taiga were a bit off to the side, sighing as they watched those two.
  307. “I guess it’s a good thing that we got Kitamura to be our accomplice, huh?”
  308. “Acting all persuasive, he’s so cool.”
  309. ‘Is that so?’, Ryūji tilted his head, but he didn’t have any medicine nor the water of Kusatsu for the glittery-eyed and smiling Taiga. In any case, it was a sure thing that Minori wouldn’t be able to refuse Kitamura’s invitation, and while it was unfortunate for Minori, after coming this far, they were going to go all out to scare her for sure. Ryūji’s chance would only come afterwards, when he would protect the terrified Minori. Things had changed quite a bit from their initial plan, but now that it was like this, they simply had to see it to the end.
  310. “Alright then, we, the Kitamura Expedition Team, shall set off! I’m Red, Takasu’s Black, Kushieda’s Blue, Aisaka’s Pink, and Ami is also Black!”
  311. I-, I’m pink?...Why am I Black?!...You’re skin-colored, I guess…These were some of the things the others were saying, but Red ignored all of it.
  312. “Does everyone have their flashlights!? Do you want to see the golden cobra?!”
  313. Yes!, the members answered the first part while ignoring the latter half. Each of them turned on the flashlights they were holding, creating rather shaky beams of light that tried to penetrate the darkness of the cave’s interior. Continuing on inside wide enough that an adult could easily pass through with their arms fully extended, there was a depression in the rock where the ocean water flowed like a river. Being so wide and tall, it seemed like it would be safe to enter, but it was quite dark and went on for some distance, which apparently unsettled Minori.
  314. “Forward march!”
  315. “Ooh~, it’s so dark…Wait up, Kitamura-kun.”
  316. Minori followed hesitantly after him. Taiga and Ryūji set off after them as well,
  317. “…Come on Kawashima. Let’s go.”
  318. “…”
  319. Finally, Ami followed as well. Yeah yeah, she sighed forcefully while scratching her head with apparent exasperation.
  322. In the still chilly air, the sound of five people padding along the wet rocky surface in sandals resounded against the trickling of the stream of ocean water.
  323. “…Ooh~…It’s dark~, it’s cramped~, it’s scary~…”
  324. Practically sobbing for no reason, Minori was peering around nervously as she walked.
  325. Any second now they’d be where Kitamura said the first setup was, so Ryūji was glancing all about with sharp eyes. Simultaneously, he reached out with one hand and grabbed Taiga firmly by the strap of her dress. “So annoying!” and “Pervert!” Taiga clamored at first, but seeing as how she had tripped four times already and been saved by Ryūji each time, she held her tongue.
  326. Even Taiga was looking rather meek, giving just a single glance back at Ryūji. Just a bit further---a bit further until they would find out what Kitamura said was ‘the first obstacle…something that’ll come flying, a sudden strike.’
  327. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been able to learn of exactly what it meant, but in any case, according to what Kitamura said, it was a terrifying contraption of good conceptual design that required very little work to set up for maximum efficiency, or so he’d heard. With such a grandiose explanation, for some reason even Ryūji felt his heart quicken. Just what sort of amazing thing was in store for them? Would he even be able to protect Minori from it?
  328. Just then Kitamura, who was walking at the forefront, casually threw a meaningful glance back at Ryūji. It seemed like things were about to start. As Ryūji nervously watched on, Kitamura kicked at some sort of string that was in a gap in the rocks without Minori noticing. As a result, something came down from up front, swinging like a pendulum, but it just grazed silently by Minori on the right side as she muttered “I’ve got a bad feeling, kind of…” while facing to the left. Next to Ryūji,
  329. “Uwa~…”
  330. It brushed lightly by Taiga’s face, and then returning again,
  331. “Ah~…”
  332. Ami avoided getting hit by stepping back,
  333. “…Ack~…”
  334. Smacking Ryūji in the back of the head, it stopped.
  335. It was a block of fried tofu, suspended by a thread. Kitamura was looking back with a subtly stiff expression. Also,
  336. “Uwah~!...Ohh, what a surprise~! What the, if it isn’t a sea cucumber!”
  337. Clinging to the rock wall, there was a single sea cucumber. Minori was staring at it in shock.
  338. “M…My face…”
  339. There was a bit of grease on Taiga’s face from where she was grazed by the tofu, and somehow it was shining well enough that it was distinguishable even in the dark. ‘Too mean’, Ryūji had been scowling at Kitamura, but when he noticed Taiga’s situation, ‘…Pfft’ he unintentionally laughed. This in spite of the fact he had the same oil all over the back of his head. In any case, he was of course stifled by an elbow to his liver, which left him on one knee, but Minori apparently didn’t notice any of this.
  340. The first trap…was a failure. ‘Oh yeah’, Ryūji was reminded of a certain something. While Kitamura got good grades, when it came right down to it, he was an undeniable fool. “That’s Maruo’s charm Toradora vol02 heart.png.” “Maruo-kun is so lovable Toradora vol02 heart.png.” Visions of the girls from Kitamura’s personal defense squad fluttered about in the darkness.
  344.  They were making their way deeper into the winding cavern when,
  345. “Ohh~!”
  346. Kitamura suddenly exclaimed. It was the signal that they were at the second stage. After the failure of the first, it didn’t seem practical to stake much on this next attempt, but according to Kitamura, he had put a lot of work into this one. He called it “the drowned stranger”. At Ryūji’s side, the shiny-cheeked Taiga was bending forward. It seemed that at least she was expecting something from Kitamura’s scheme.
  347. At Kitamura’s cry, Minori whirled around full of surprise.
  348. “Eh, what is it?! Did something happen?! Was it a sea cucumber?!”
  349. “No, nothing like that!”
  350. Replying loudly and grabbing Minori’s shoulder, Kitamura pushed her onwards. Naturally flustered, she desperately dug in with the heels of her sandals,
  351. “No no no, wait a minute! Wait just a minute!”
  352. However, Kitamura would have none of her objections as he mercilessly pointed his flashlight into the crevices of a rock just a bit ahead. Then speaking very clearly,
  353. “Oh look, what in the world is that!”
  354. “So noisy”, Ami’s disgruntled mutter echoed, and then---a silence took over.
  355. “…Huh? What? I don’t see anything.”
  356. Ahh, Ryūji and Taiga were holding their heads. How come…ahh, enough already.
  357. “Well, just look, there’s something over there…you don’t see it?”
  358. “Hmm? I really don’t. Ah, I know. How good is your eyesight? Maybe I should get glasses too, because recently I haven’t been able to see far very well. I got my eyes checked in spring, and they said my sight was 0.5.”
  359. “Eh?! Doesn’t that make you legally near-sighted?”
  360. “…Really? Maybe I am? Aww, that sucks…And here I was thinking I’d be fine like this since I wasn’t having any real problems in class or anything.
  361. “But it would become a problem during our games, wouldn’t it? I think you should consider getting glasses or contacts.”
  362. Somehow, they had ended up talking about eyesight. Not even willing to come up with some sort of witty way to interrupt, Ryūji scratched his oil-smeared head. Not like it matters, but he had made sure to put the tofu from just before into his pocket (Ryūji always keeps some plastic bags on him).
  363. Another unimportant matter, about the drowned body that Kitamura had made…it was merely an odd human-shaped object constructed from old tossed out fish using worn out sheets. And as one more pointless observation, it would have been better if he hadn’t drawn a circle for the mouth. It looked like it was supposed to be used for some other purpose.
  364. “Hey Taiga, what should we do? Kitamura is a hopeless idiot.”
  365. “Don’t badmouth Kitamura. I’m sure he’ll have something after this.”
  366. Whispering in secret, Taiga scowled while staring down Ryūji,
  367. “Hmm, but you know, it’s rather cool in this cave, don’t you think?”
  368. Until she noticed Minori speaking so casually while completely ignoring the red writing on the wall, the third stage of [remaining blood spatters] that had been prepared with red paint,
  369. “…So what do we do now…?”
  370. She asked gloomily.
  371. Ryūji sighed, unable to bring himself to even criticize Kitamura. He was simply exhausted---According to what Kitamura had said, “The plan is a three-stage attack to scare Kushieda! We’ll make her scream with the first, faint with the second, then drive her to her limits with the third! At least, that’s the plan!”. Unfortunately, neither Ami, who was supposed to help with the preparations, nor Ryūji had gone along to help him. And so, this cave expedition would come to an end with such a dull conclusion. Similarly, Ryūji’s summer would end without any real progress.
  372. He came to a stop as he started seriously contemplating what he should do when,
  373. “Huh, what’s the matter Takasu-kun? If you stand around like that, you’ll get left behind---Ugyah!!”
  374. Minori, who had stopped as well, let out a fearful scream that echoed in the darkness. It couldn’t possibly be that…
  375. “…S, sorry! Takasu-kun…Umm…You know, in a dark place like this, you really shouldn’t shine your flashlight on your face from below…”
  376. So that’s all it was.
  377. He was shocked to a standstill. What the heck. So in other words, his face was enough to qualify as horror all on its own…
  378. “Kyakyakyakya~!”
  379. At his side, Taiga was laughing boisterously as if she were some weird bird from hell being amused as it peered curiously at this world. Pointing at Ryūji, she had on a genuinely amused expression, was clutching her stomach, and repeatedly letting out a laugh.
  380. “Ukyakyakya! Ryūji, you’re…I mean…Kyakyakya~!”
  381. “Geez you!...Oh!”
  382. Just as he turned his back angrily on her, he lost his footing on the slick rocky surface.
  383. “Wah, are you alright Takasu-kun?! You have to be careful!”
  384. Minori even ran over to help him. Feeling as if his face was on fire, he waved off her extended hand while saying, “I’m fine, no need”. And so, trying to get up quickly, he placed his hand onto the rock.
  385. Squish.
  386. “…!”
  387. He felt, something wet. Something entwining…Like a string…Lifting it up, he shone his light onto it,
  388. “Eeh…!”
  389. Minori fell in front of him. Without a word, she crawled over and clung to Taiga’s leg. Pointing at Ryūji’s hand, she was desperately mouthing something, but the words wouldn’t come out.
  390. We finally scared her---was not something he was in any position to say right now. Because at the moment, Ryūji was also scared stiff. Hanging from his hand was a long hair. Wet and clinging to his fingers, it was dripping a viscous liquid from where it hung. What the heck is going on, he thought in confusion, until finally he thought up the answer.
  391. That Kitamura, he actually was able to set up a trap that could scare someone. The one who set it off was Ryūji, but it had caught Minori as well at least. So there was a fourth part, huh? He’d probably call it [the hair, after it’s been pulled out] or something.
  392. “Ta, Ta, Takasu-clinic-kun…~! W, w, what is that…?!”
  393. “It’s hair…Ugh, it’s sick!”
  394. Shaking his hand to get the entwined hair off, he scowled immensely. But then, it finally hit him. If he thought about it carefully, it felt exactly the same as yesterday when he found that hair on his pillow---And he hadn’t told Kitamura anything about that hair.
  395. “Yah…Gya~! Gyah~! It’s really creepy! It really is~~! We’ll be cursed, there’s something here, wahhh~!”
  396. Without anyone to understand what she was going through, Minori quickly fell into a severe panick attack. She was beating the walls and yelling “Let me out of here!”, and as Kitamura was trying to calm her down, he whispered into Ryūji’s ear.
  397. “…Nice one Takasu! So I guess you prepared as well, huh.”
  398. Eh…?
  399. For a second, he felt as if someone had splashed his face with ice-cold water.
  400. But, it was different. It was more like his blood had stopped. All at once, all the blood pooled to his feet, and his face and fingertips were chilled like ice.
  401. “Ta, Ta, Ta,”
  402. He grabbed Taiga’s arm. He even grabbed at her shoulder. She shook him off, saying “Don’t act so familiar.” But, he tried again.
  403. “Geez, what are you making such a face for!”
  404. “…Taiga…Just now, that hair…”
  405. “Yeah, I saw it….It’s just like Kitamura to pull things off so well. See, Kitamura knows what he’s doing after all.”
  406. “You’re wrong. It wasn’t Kitamura. And also---I didn’t tell him anything about yesterday. Don’t you see, it’s the same! Remember yesterday, the hair on my pillow, this must be--”
  407. In the dark Taiga’s puckered mouth opened and her cattish eyes gleamed wide, and then,
  408. “Uwah! Taiga, hold hands with me! Let’s walk together! Kitamura-kun, why are we going back inside~~!”
  409. “No, this way is the exit. It’s true.”
  410. Following after Kitamura, who was laughing merrily, Minori pulled Taiga along with her. Left behind, Ryūji trembled. For some reason he couldn’t get his legs to move.
  411. “Ka…Kawashima!”
  412. Just then he noticed Ami, who was trailing the others looking bored. Desperately reaching out to her, he called out her name.
  413. “What? What’s the matter?...Could it be, you’re actually scared?”
  414. She asked contemptfully. However, right now wasn’t the time to act insulted or angry.
  415. “Think what you want, but let’s walk together! How about it?”
  416. “N-O.”
  417. “Why not?!”
  418. Hmph, Ami responded mercilessly to his pitiful speech, speaking over her shoulder with an expression like that of a villain.
  419. “Mm…Lots of reasons. All this noise and stupidity wasn’t fun at all, I’m bored, and I’ve had enough. I told you already, didn’t I? I’m done helping you. Well, I guess I came along in the end, but…Isn’t it enough that I came this far? I’m going to go a different route to get back to the villa faster.”
  420. “W…Hey, wait! Kawashima!”
  421. He tried to call her back, but he was unable to follow, so he turned back to where Kitamura and the others had been. However, as he had been standing still, the three of them had gone on without him, leaving him clearly behind. As it was, he only had one choice left to him,
  422. “…I’m coming too!”
  423. “What? Geez, you’re so noisy. Weren’t you going to look after the cute Minori-chan and the worrisome Palmtop Tiger, huh Takasu-kun?”
  424. “Just shut it!”
  425. While he’d been abandoned by the others, Ryūji was still looking back worriedly as he followed Ami along one of the paths.
  430. * * *
  434. “H, hey…Do you really know where you’re going?”
  435. “Of course I do. When I was little, I had a secret base of sorts that I made here where I’d play.”
  436. Making large strides with her long legs, Ami continued walking along despite the sea water that flooded the cave floor. Ryūji could only chase after her, but he couldn’t hide his anxiety. Looking around nervously, he pitifully followed along so he wouldn’t be separated from Ami.
  437. “I wonder if Kitamura and the others have noticed that we went off on our own? Maybe we should go look for them…”
  438. “What are you simpering like that for? Are you that worried about being separated from the others?”
  439. Ami suddenly stopped and turned around. The dim light of the flashlight made her eyes sparkle like stars.
  440. “No, but----“
  441. He almost went and said it.
  442. About last night’s strange events, as well as the one just now. Ryūji could swear that there was some weird thing breathing heavily next to him. However, if he were to tell Ami that, it would surely frighten her. In addition to being stuck alone with someone as unreliable as him in this dark place, if he told her something like that, there was just no way she would be able to keep calm.
  443. “---I just, don’t really like it. Being in the dark and the like.”
  444. “Hmm?”
  445. Lifting her chin just like Taiga would, Ami stared at him. Her expression was certainly beautiful, there was no denying, but no matter how hard he looked her in the eye, it was impossible to tell just what sort of thoughts and emotions were swirling behind her calm façade. His best guess was a feeling of provocation.
  446. “…Well then, if I were to walk off without you, just what would you do, hmm?”
  447. Her face twisted with a devilish smile.
  448. “Hey, are you scared? Are you worried I’ll leave you behind?...Feeling lonely?”
  449. “…Huh?”
  450. “Answer me…Takasu-kun, are you thinking that you don’t want me to leave? That I’m irreplaceable?”
  451. In an instant, Ami closed the distance between them. Narrowing her large eyes without dropping her gaze at all, she lifted herself so that her nose was practically touching Ryūji’s chin---But, he wasn’t in the mood to take this sort of teasing. Even as he trembled at the soft touch of her skin, he pushed her away,
  452. “This isn’t the time for this!”
  453. In fact, he was trying to think of a good way to tell Ami of their situation, about how they were currently in some weird circumstances. He wanted to tell her without scaring her that it wasn’t the sort of situation where they should be playing around. However,
  454. “Not the time, huh? Ohh, is that so? So what you’re trying to say is, you want to find the others so you can go back to scaring Minori, is that right?”
  455. Of course Ami wouldn’t be aware of his struggle. Murmuring “Ah, enough”, Ami put on a bitter smile towards Ryūji. Then, bending over slightly, she pressed her index finger to her lips and glanced up at him in her sure-kill pose,
  456. “…Takasu-kun, you and Minori just don’t match, you know?”
  457. What’s this nonsense she’s spouting now?
  458. “Wh,…I…It’s not…That’s just…What are you saying all of a sudden?!”
  459. “You look shaken.”
  460. Giggling devilishly as she moved aside, Ami turned her back on him before unexpectedly muttering in a plain tone.
  461. “Someone who suits Takasu-kun, that would be---“
  462. Suddenly pausing, she sighed. Then,
  463. “---Do you want to know?”
  464. Looking back at him, she asked provokingly. Her hair swaying over the back of her tank top, for an instant he was able to make out the delicate profile of her face. However, miffed at being made a fool of, in a low mumble,
  465. “…As if I care.”
  466. Ryūji simply replied.
  467. “Well then, I won’t tell you~~. I’ll, be, going, now Toradora vol02 heart.png.
  468. “Eh?!!”
  469. It was a lightning-quick teasing. So soon after finding out about Ryūji’s fear, she suddenly dashed off.
  470. “Ka, Kawashima! Hey, wait up! Kawashima!”
  471. She didn’t reply. She didn’t turn around. Like a mountain goat, she ran with light steps through the cave, splashing her way with great speed as she took a number of narrow side paths to get away from Ryūji.
  472. Chasing after her desperately with only a bit of light as his guide, he panted due to both shortness of breath and fear. The way Ami ran could only be described as a reckless dash.
  473. “Hey~! Wa, wait~! I’m begging you, wait! Do you really know where you’re going?!”
  474. He finally caught up to her, grabbing her by the elbow. Surprisingly, she didn’t try to shake him off, and as she looked around,
  475. “---Huh? I think I’m lost.”
  476. Is what she said. Panting, he held his hips. I told you didn’t I, Now what do we do, Do you even appreciate the seriousness of our situation, were the things he was thinking but couldn’t bring himself to say. Still, he forced himself into a standing position,
  477. “It, it’ll be okay. I’m sure Kitamura and the others will come find us! Don’t be scared, I’m right here!”
  478. Even as he verged on collapse, he put on a fake smile, in order to keep Ami from worrying. That was all. Unthinkingly, he tried placing a firm hand on her shoulder,
  479. “…Takasu-kun, I’m sorry.”
  480. “Oh, no need to apologize!”
  481. “No, I’m really sorry. Because I was lying about being lost.”
  482. He could almost hear his own jaw drop. Wriggling her body, Ami was glancing up at Ryūji with her moist Chihuahua eyes,
  483. “Uwah, as if I would really be so stupid to get lost so easily~. Use your head for once, why don’t you?”
  484. Foo~l Toradora vol02 heart.png, she called him as she tapped him on the nose with her index finger. Grabbing that finger, Ryūji,
  485. “…!”
  486. “Wah~! No~! Stop~! I said sorry~! No~~!”
  487. While making sure she didn’t escape, he took the tofu out from the plastic bag and started attacking Ami with it. He was really pissed. After he had gotten all worried---This girl, she’s just so…!
  488. “…Puh…Ahahaha~!”
  489. While being assaulted with tofu, something caused Ami to start laughing. In his opinion, the funny one was her. After all, her chin and cheeks were glistening after that series of tofu punch attacks.
  490. “This isn’t the time to be laughing! I’m seriously angry, you know?!”
  491. “Ufuh, ahaha! Sorry, sorry…But look! You know, Takasu-kun, you’re just like a kid! Ahahaha, cut it out with the tofu already~!”
  492. “Damnit…Making a fool of me…”
  493. Letting go of Ami, who was shaking with laughter, Ryūji looked at the tofu. Yeah, it was okay. As expected of tofu, it was still intact
  494. “Really Takasu-kun, hmm, how should I put it…You’re quite the ridiculous one, huh?”
  495. “Shut up.”
  496. Still in a fit, Ami used the wall to remain standing as she wiped away her tears.
  497. “But you know, that part…Like where you’d actually assault someone with tofu because you’re angry, is not something I dislike…Hey hey. Stop staring at the tofu. I’m talking, so listen.”
  498. “I am listening.”
  499. “Takasu-kun, I did tell you, that Minori isn’t suitable for you, right? That’s the truth. You wouldn’t be able to hit Minori-chan with a tofu. You wouldn’t be able to act like a narcissist in front of her either.”
  500. Ami finally quelled her laughter and peered at Ryūji with her normally cool-headed eyes shimmering.
  501. “And…Takasu-kun, you’re like the moon after all.”
  502. “…What’s that supposed to mean?”
  505. “Minori-chan is like the sun. If you’re next to her, you’ll just be burnt to a crisp…that’s what I think. If it’s only admiration, you’ll never stand to be her equal. For that, you’d need someone like---like me.”
  506. “…The only thing that’s the same about us, is probably our height.”
  507. Minori’s the sun---He could understand that much. Since she was a girl who shone like the sun, he had admired her from the moment he set eyes on her. He had fallen for her. But, that didn’t mean that Ami could criticize him for it.
  508. “…”
  509. “That’s just how I see it…Takasu-kun and I, we could be on par with one another, I think.”
  510. Before he knew it, her cool fingers were wrapped around his wrist. Standing beside Ryūji, Ami didn’t go any further than holding onto him with her fingers as she looked calmly up at him with an unadorned expression. Then,
  511. “As for Taiga Aisaka, there’s just no relation. That’s just what I think…And so I’m just telling you. It doesn’t matter how you interpret it.”
  512. Pulling away only took a moment. It was even faster than her approach. She had turned away almost as if dancing and spoke as she flipped her hair, looking back at him with an angelic smile.
  520.  They had started walking again, and after a while,
  521. “Huh?...The battery’s dying?”
  522. The flashlight that Ryūji was carrying was starting to go dim, even flickering.
  523. “Eh? Mine too.”
  524. Just as Ami said, her flashlight was repeatedly flickering on and off just like his was.
  525. “Ah, this is bad. If they go out, it’ll be pitch black in here.”
  526. “Geh…If that happens, I don’t think even I’d be able to get out of here…The exit is still a bit further.”
  527. “Let’s meet up with Kitamura and the others.”
  528. Looking at one another and nodding, they started running at the same time. It wasn’t a joke, they were in a real pinch.
  529. After running seriously for a while, the two of them finally heard the voices of the others.
  530. “Kawashima! It’s Taiga and the others!”
  531. “Yeah, I hear them!”
  532. Relying on the flickering light source, they went down another narrow path,
  533. “Uwah, mine’s dead!”
  534. “…Take my hand! Let’s hurry!”
  535. Ryūji, who was in the front, stretched out his hand. As Ami’s flashlight died, she took hold of Ryūji’s fingers. He gripped her hand firmly. He was scared, but Ami was a girl after all. He had to do his best to protect her. So finally the two of them made it out onto the main path,
  536. “Ugyahhh!...That scared me!”
  537. “Unyah!”
  538. They were met by Minori’s shriek as well as a thoroughly shocked Taiga.
  539. “Takasu and Ami! Where did you two go, we thought you were lost you know?!”
  540. “W, we were! You left us behind! Also, there’s something wrong with our flashlights. Kawashima’s is already dead, and mine isn’t much better.”
  541. “So yours are like that too huh!”
  542. Hearing Kitamura, Ryūji was practically speechless. Now that he looked closely, Taiga’s flashlight that was being carried by Minori was already dead and both Minori and Kitamura’s were flickering…and as they were talking,
  543. “…Uwah, it’s dead!”
  544. Ryūji’s light went out.
  545. “No way, hey, no, no, no! What do we do when they all go out?! Won’t we be stuck in here?!”
  546. Minori’s screams were on the verge of tears.
  547. “N, no, if we just stick to the wall, we can go back…Since we didn’t take any detours.”
  548. “What?! I’m tired of walking! There’s no way I’m going all the way back the way we came, just impossible! Also, if we stick to the wall, we won’t know if we’re still going the same way or not! We’ll end up walking in circles! Gah, uwahh, it went out~!!”
  549. Their bad luck was just getting worse and worse as at that moment, Minori’s flashlight flickered and went out. In the bit of light left from Kitamura’s remaining flashlight, Minori desperately clung to Ami and Taiga’s arms. Ryūji also moved closer to them to make sure they didn’t get separated, sticking close to the girls’ backs,
  550. “Hey, you too, get over here---“
  551. He fell completely silent.
  552. Kitamura’s light went out as well. They were left in pitch darkness. There wasn’t even a shred of light. His sense of hearing sharpened, he could hear someone gulp. The stream continued to rush by,
  553. “Sorry…I’m just, I…I used up too much energy and I’m not feeling so well…I can’t stand any m…”
  554. “Eh?! Mi, Minorin?!”
  555. “Oh no, Minori-chan?! Seriously?!”
  556. “Kushieda!”
  557. Thud, the sound of Minori collapsing resounded in the dark. As if compulsively, Ryūji started searching with both hands for the collapsed Minori, but,
  558. “…It’s okay, I’ve got Minori!”
  559. He was relieved by Kitamura’s voice. However---
  560. “W, what the heck is that…that sound?”
  561. “Yeah, it seems like it’s getting closer…Eh? What is it?”
  562. They could hear it, a deep sound that was very close by. Also, it sounded like breathing…Like something was crawling around.
  563. “Ryūji…Where are you? Ryūji…”
  564. “I’m here!”
  565. A small hand grazed his cheek. Knowing right away that it was Taiga’s, he reached out and grabbed her by the waist. Only for now did Taiga let him hold her without screaming at him. However, the weird sound didn’t stop and Ryūji felt as if he was going to faint.
  566. This has got to be a dream. A nightmare.
  567. If it were reality…Right now, they would be attacked by something and might even die. He could see Yasuko’s face in his mind. If something happened to him, Yasuko might just die from shock. Then there’d be nothing else left…If he had to die, he wished he could have confessed to Minori. Whether she rejected him, despised him, or if their friendship fell apart, it wouldn’t matter once he was dead.
  568. And if this was reality, even ‘that’ would have been much more preferable. By ‘that’, he meant the dog-filled future that had made Taiga and him shiver. It would have been pitiful, miserable even, but even that would have some shred of happiness---at least maybe. That’s how he felt about it now.
  569. Taiga, Yasuko, and even Inko-chan were all there, and though it was a doghouse, it was still a home. Though they were puppies, they had a lot of children, and Yasuko looked happy hugging all her grandchildren…He wished he had told Taiga. He’d probably be smacked silly, but saying just a few words would have been enough.
  570. That dream might actually not be so bad, he thought.
  571. “Kyah~!”
  572. A scream pulled him from his thoughts. The one who screamed was Ami.
  573. “You hear that?! Hey, you hear it don’t you?! Ah, no, what is it, what?!”
  574. Ryūji could hear it as well. It was a deep roar that crept along the ground. It couldn’t belong to a human; it was weird, fearsome, and could only belong to some sort of monster.
  575. “Damn… it all~~!”
  576. Unwilling to be defeated, Taiga grumbled in a low tone.
  577. “…If it’s like this…Then I’ll----~~!! Come and get me, you cheeky bastard!”
  578. Perhaps her tiger instinct had awakened, as after she let out a shout in the dark, she struggled to escape Ryūji’s grip and stand. Wait, please don’t fight, Ryūji tried his hardest to pull her back.
  579. “Stop it Taiga! It’s too dangerous, even for you!”
  580. “Shut up! As if I’m going to let it happen like this! If I’m going to die, I’m going down fighting!...Hey, I can see sort of!”
  581. “No way?!”
  582. So being born beneath the sign of the tiger, this girl was a true feline with even the ability to see in the dark. That was Taiga Aisaka for you.
  583. If she didn’t like someone, she’d show her fangs, and if she thought they were a real enemy, she would rip them to shreds with her claws. Full of ferocity and fighting spirit that was completely disproportionate to her small body, she was growling. Though it was strong, though it was a reliable strength,
  584. “Oryahh! Here I go~~!!”
  585. “Stop~~!!!”
  586. Even greater than Taiga’s yell, Ryūji’s shout echoed and permeated the cave. In a daze, he pulled back the raging Taiga and also frantically picked up Ami,
  587. “It’s alright, so everyone calm down! It’s over if we all panic! First, let’s do a head count! One~!”
  588. “T, two~!”
  589. Ami’s trembling voice replied.
  590. “Three~e!
  591. Came Taiga’s howl-like cry. But then,
  592. “…Four and five aren’t he~~re~!!”
  593. Ryūji almost collapsed on the spot. Four and five, in other words Minori and Kitamura. Taiga flew from Ryūji’s arm almost like a bullet,
  594. “Mi~no~ri~n~! Ki~ta~mu~ra~ku~n~!”
  595. She desperately called out to her nonresponsive best friend and crush, then,
  596. “…Uwah~!”
  597. She slipped. And fell. He couldn’t actually see her in the dark, but he was pretty sure. Beyond Ryūji’s reach, Taiga’s scream echoed. Then, splash, the sound of water.
  598. “Ta, Taiga?!! Did you fall?!”
  599. “…Puh~! Gupu~! Fueeehhh~!”
  600. Still out of it, Ryūji crawled on all fours through the darkness towards the sound of the splashing water. He desperately swept his arms around, and somehow he grabbed onto what seemed to be her arm; he had to pull her out quickly---
  601. “Taiga, are you okay?!”
  602. Minori’s voice echoed with a strange loudness. Then next,
  603. “Stop! Sto~~p! Kitamura-kun, there’s been an incident! We have to save Taiga!”
  604. “Roger!”
  605. It came on. A light. Two flashlights.
  606. Holding one of them, Kitamura was standing just a bit away. Then the other,
  607. “…Y, You…”
  608. “Kukuku…I guess we’ve been found out…I will not run or hide! I am Minori Kushieda, aka Minorin!”
  609. With the mic she was holding, that last sound…The sound he had thought was a monster that hadn’t seemed human was revealed. The mic was not pointed at her mouth, but, at her stomach.
  610. And, what Ryūji was clutching wasn’t Taiga’s arm, but rather her leg. With one leg grasped and lifted by Ryūji, she was desperately fighting to keep her panties concealed. She still didn’t notice what was happening. To be honest, neither Ryūji nor Ami had any clue what was happening either.
  611. Why? What? Alias Minorin, just what in the world is going on---?
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