Chapter 5
"What's happening so early in the morning!?"
"It's so scary...!"
It was 8 o'clock on Monday morning, at the beginning of school hours.
On the first morning after the weekend, greetings were normally either a cheerful "Morning!" or sleepy "Hey".
But on this particular morning, the voices at the school gate were slightly different than usual, for the cheerful greetings were replaced by fear and apprehension. The students who had just reached school were still unaware of what had happened as they squeezed into the crowd that had gathered at the gates, immediately forming a new layer of the human wall as they stood there breathlessly, and ended up totally clogging up the extremely narrow hallway near the shoe lockers. The students who had stopped walking in response to the initial commotion were now caught in an extremely chaotic situation from which they were unable to escape.
The human wall had formed around an air pocket about 5 meters in diameter, looking like a puddle of vomit on a crowded train. But there was no crowded train, nor were there any puddles of vomit to avoid.
"Are you sure about this?"
"No, no problem."
"Don't force yourself; I wanted to do it myself."
"No... I want to do it. This is my choice, so I'll do it. I've already promised to do anything for Kitamura-kun."
Ryuuji and Taiga stood in the middle of the crowd, whispering to each other in voices that only the other could hear.
The two of them stood side by side on a platform that was taken from the gym storage room. Taiga, who had opened her eyes extremely wide, was staring at the microphone in her hands, as Ryuuji tied the sash on her shoulder after confirming Taiga's determination. In the next second...
"It can't beeeeeeeeeeee!?"
Even before Taiga's speech, the first layer of the human wall around the two of them had already started wailing in despair. "Someone stop them!" "It's impossible to stop them!" "Have mercy on us!" The wails came from the students of 2-C who had strategically placed themselves in the crowd. Alright. Ryuuji signaled with his eyes to Taiga. Taiga nodded before taking a deep breath.
She shouted into the microphone, but her voice was not amplified by the microphone.
"Hmm? I forgot to turn on the power..."
Everyone around her, including Ryuuji fell to the ground, breaking the tense atmosphere. Taiga's face reddened, but she immediately steadied herself,
"Th, This isn't a microphone! It's a weapon to use against people who I don't like!"
Crack! Taiga suddenly swung the microphone at the guy standing in front of her, landing a sharp blow onto his head. The guy in question slumped to the ground, unconscious. "Hey, Haruta! Don't die! Palmtop Tiger, what are you trying to do!?", Noto shouted at her in an overly-loud voice. In truth, Taiga had actually lessened the force of the blow with the back of her hand. Haruta calculated the exact timing of the hit and had successfully pretended to faint, falling to the ground with the whites of his eyes showing and his body completely limp. In response to such an exciting performance, Ryuuji gratefully gave them a thumbs-up, and Haruta and Noto returned the gesture discretely.
"Some, someone call the teachers!"
"Someone's started fighting!"
The noise became louder and louder, gathering even more curious students. There were also random people who were taking photos with their cellphones in the crowd. Ryuuji licked his lips in appreciation of the huge crowd that had gathered, and the help of his comrades in 2-C. His terrifying gaze seemed to allude to his inner thoughts, Yes, just like this, be even more fearful, you pitiful sacrifices... Actually, he was indeed thinking about something like that; he wanted all the students in school to feel afraid and horrified.
"Shut up! Let me teach you what it's like to feel real fear!"
Taiga's voice was amplified in the small hallway by virtue of the microphone, which had finally been turned on. The students around the two of them could only stare with their mouths open.
"I hate all of you..."
Taiga scanned the crowd, remembering each of their faces. Her long hair hung in messy strands, her eyes glinting with an unnatural light. The sash on her shoulder read "Student Council President Election Candidate".
"With regards to those of you who've been making up rumours to humiliate me... With regards to those of you that have been spreading rumours about who I've been romantically involved with, I've been thinking of how to take revenge... And now I've finally thought of a way to have my revenge!"
Crack! Baring her teeth, Taiga raised her left hand, signaling in mid-air that she wanted to crush the students of the school in her hands,
"I, Aisaka Taiga will become the student council president, thus shrouding your high school lives in complete darkness, burying all of you and your blood-stained memories into the MO-MORG-MORGUE!"
"AH!!!" The students of 2-C started wailing again. Ryuuji wrinkled his eyebrows and stepped forward, giving the coup de grâce to the already devastated crowd,
"I will be the vice president... And it's all because you spread rumours about me... Saying that I'm pitiful, that I'm an abandoned male, that I'm a poor dog... I'll never forgive any of you!"
Without a microphone, Ryuuji was unable to project his voice across to the crowd, but his low voice, coupled with his extremely terrifying eyes achieved his intended effect.
"Wh-Wh-Wh-Who said that Takasu wasn't a scary guy...!?"
"He's so scary!"
"We, We'll be murdered...!"
"Those eyes, he's not a normal human!"
"Fu!" The sound of Taiga giggling softly added another layer of murderous intent to Ryuuji's eyes. The students who were looking up at the two of them started to scream for real. The Palmtop Tiger was forming an alliance with the delinquent Takasu to bring a curse onto the students by running for student council president. This fact struck fear into the hearts of the students.
Although the two of them were apologetic about their actions and didn't really want to scare their fellow students, just for a day, Ryuuji didn't intend to be kind. He shot a curse at the girl who was screaming "My high school life!". Although it wasn't intentional, Ryuuji and Taiga still felt as though they were criminals.
Yes, the method that they had chosen was to go over to the dark side. Their goal was to...
"Ah, that blond-haired guy's the student council vice-president, Kitamura-kun!"
"He seems to have said that he wouldn't run for student council president, and also wants to leave the student council!"
"Is that why the Palmtop Tiger came out to take over the school!?"
Among the students of 2-C, only Kitamura didn't receive the secret text message that had informed the entire class of the plan. Kitamura, who had come to school with his golden mane prominently displayed, saw Ryuuji and Taiga standing on the raised platform. His expression hardened for a second, but he almost immediately saw through their plan and walked away. A few students chased after him,
"Wait! Kitamura! Didn't you see what they are trying to do!?"
"Please run for the elections! I'm begging you!"
"If this goes on, my high school life will be destroyed by the two of them!"
That's right, carry on. Ryuuji and Taiga discretely exchanged looks, confirming the success of their plan. This plan was named the "Lure Kitamura out to run for the elections by going to the dark side" tactic. The more hated they were by the student population, the more pressure would be on Kitamura to run for the student council president elections, which was what the two of them hoped to achieve with this plan. They wanted to spread the notion that only Kitamura could defeat Taiga and Ryuuji in the elections throughout the school, so as to force Kitamura to run for the election. Since everyone knew that Minori and Taiga were best friends, Minori had already slipped away to class. She was the only one who wasn't able to act as though she was afraid of Taiga.
There was another extremely important point here.
"Ah! It's so scary! What will happen in the end!?"
That's good, the timing is just right. Ryuuji lightly nodded. It came from Ami, the important person in the plan. She stepped onto the stage with Maya and Nanako flanking her. It was Maya who persuaded a reluctant Ami to participate in the plan.
"Ah, Kawashima-san! It's dangerous here! Come and hide behind me!"
"No, hide behind me!"
"No, I'll escort Ami back to the classroom!"
Male students surrounded Ami on all sides, with some people who weren't even part of the plan trying to explain the situation to the three of them. Maya and Nanako gave an extremely natural reaction, shouting, "Huh!? That's terrible!"
"It'll be bad if the Palmtop Tiger were to become the student council president!"
"Why doesn't Ami run for student council president? Ami's very popular!"
The short skit by the two of them gave the crowd a new perspective. "She's right." "If Kitamura doesn't want to run for student council president, then we might as well let Ami run..." "Kawashima-san should be able to achieve a landslide victory!" Ami turned towards Maya and Nanako,
"Me? You're right, our high school life will be destroyed by the Palmtop Tiger if this carries on! Even though I'm not qualified to be the student council president, I'm willing to run for the sake of everyone!"
Crack! This time, the microphone showed no mercy. Taiga had held the wire connected to the microphone and thrown it at Ami's forehead. Ami immediately dropped to the ground while clutching her head in her hands. "Ah! Ami! Ami, hang in there!" The students who were part of the plan and those who were not were united on common ground, making the disturbance even greater.
"Wahahahahaha! I'll secretly kill anyone who tries to interfere with my plan, even if you're a stupid chihuahua!"
What kind of secret killing are you talking about, you just threw a microphone at her head in broad daylight. But Taiga's swinging microphone had already clearly expressed her intention.
"How can we let Ami be in danger!?"
"Damn! No one would run for student council elections if it's so dangerous!"
"It's all Kitamura's fault for being so indecisive! Only Kitamura is qualified to become the student council president!"
"This is Kitamura's responsibility!"
The students who were part of the plan pushed the responsibility onto Kitamura, totally eliminating the possibility of anyone else running for student council president. As expected, everyone turned to support Kitamura for student council president. I actually thought of such a brilliant strategy... Behind Ryuuji, who was shaking with his self-congratulation,
Bonk! The sound sounded heavier than usual. The single class teacher (30), who had snuck to stand behind Taiga, had been hit by her flying microphone...
"Aisaka-san, Takasu-kun, it looks like the two of you have calmed down a little now..."
"Hmm... So that's what it was about. Takasu-kun had originally wanted to run by himself?"
Ryuuji and Taiga had been dragged to the lecture room, and had outlined their plan to the single woman and the disciplinary teacher.
"In short, we're acting as the hated candidates so as to make everyone feel that 'only Kitamura can stop the school from ruin'. I think that Kitamura would be forced to run for the election...but..."
"It wouldn't seem as dangerous if only Ryuuji ran for the election...so I decided to run for the elections too..."
The single woman rubbed her tired eyes, speaking with an extremely fatigued voice,
"So you're trying to say that Kitamura will recover once he becomes student council president? You're saying that you don't want him to continue being rebellious?"
Ryuuji nodded his head solemnly,
"That's right... We're not the only ones with such thoughts too, as we've informed the whole of 2-C about the plan, and they've agreed to help us. Kitamura's sudden rebelliousness is connected to the student council, and I feel that in the process of making him return to the student council, we'll be able to find out the reason behind this. We'll be able to solve this problem once we know the reason behind his actions."
"But what if Kitamura-kun still refuses to run for student council president? When there's only one candidate, voting would be a mere formality, so Aisaka-san will surely become the student council president."
"...Kitamura-kun will not just sit and watch."
Ryuuji also nodded in agreement to Taiga's assertion. It was because everyone in 2-C believed that Kitamura will surely intervene that the two of them had been willing to go over to the dark side to search for the way to save Kitamura.
"But I feel that he might be refusing to run precisely because everyone is asking him to run?"
"Even then, we still believe that he'll run in the end."
Hearing Taiga's determined words, the single woman exchanged a look with the disciplinary teacher.
"I understand. Since all of you think this way, then just do your best. But Aisaka-san, if you really become student council president, we will not accept reasons such as 'I only ran for fun'."
"I'm already mentally prepared. If I become student council president, I'll make good on my promise to turn this school into hell."
"...Of course I shall do my best to help Taiga if she really becomes student council president so as to avoid troubling our fellow students."
Ryuuji drowned out Taiga's sentence with his voice, and looked towards the sighing single woman.
"Mm, the two of you have to return safely. Right, and you will need posters and leaflets... Come to the teachers' office later. I'll teach the two of you to use the photocopy machine, so be ready with your terrifying political manifesto. Do you know how to use the computer? I'll help you with that too."
Just like this, the single woman (30) had also gone over to the dark side, becoming one of the people who were trying to summon Kitamura back into the world.
On the same day, two hundred of the orange and black versions of the posters had been pasted in every corner of the school. The leaflets containing the caption "demonic contract" had also been given to every class, pushing the entire school into a fearful atmosphere of "Is this for real...?" The leaflets were also passed to the class of 2-C, with its students pretending not to know about the plan. "It can't be!" "Please think about it, Takasu!"
Only Kitamura remained silent.
The time given for campaigning was five days in total, until Friday. It was the deadline for the applications for all election candidates, while the extended homeroom time during the twice a month school day on Saturday the next day would be used for the voting.
"Sigh... He's such a stubborn fellow..."
"He hasn't spoken to me at all after that..."
"He's been ignoring me too... More accurately, he's been ignoring everyone in class..."
Ryuuji and Taiga didn't even have the television on as the two of them engaged in an empty conversation while looking at the ceiling.
The side dishes for dinner consisted of canned sashimi. Yasuko had gone to work early. The two people still in the house were left thinking "Time really flies."
It had already been five days since the two had called their classmates to put their plan in motion. On Monday, they announced that they had gone over to the dark side. On Tuesday, they ambushed students who were going home at the school gates and shook hands with every single one of them. On Wednesday, they announced their school reformation plan over the public announcement system during the lunch break, causing severe mental trauma and giddiness in several first-year girls. On Thursday, they patrolled the school after lessons, creating widespread despair and were subsequently scolded by a teacher, "You're too much!"
After four days, they realized that they didn't need to do any of this, for just the name "Palmtop Tiger" was enough to scare the students into submission. But suddenly...
"There's only one day left... If Kitamura still doesn't hand in his application form before the end of tomorrow..."
"I'll become the student council president..."
The two of them clammed up at the same time, and silence descended upon the Takasu residence.
Kitamura continued to go to school with his blond hair. Every time the teachers requested for him to dye it back, he always retorted, "This has already harmed my scalp, I can't dye it back anymore!" He also ignored Ryuuji and the rest of his classmates. He refused to listen to the other first, second and third year students who begged him everyday, "Please, run for student council president!", rejecting them firmly. "You can see that I'm not qualified to be the student council president from the colour of my hair."
Everything wasn't as simple as it seemed. Ryuuji had only just realized that Kitamura wasn't merely a model student. He was stubborn, spoiled, vengeful, cold, and gloomy. Ryuuji placed his chin on his kneecap. Ever since the day he saw that Kitamura had cried, he had been thinking about the same thing.
What exactly do I know about Kitamura?
I understood him, and was content because I thought I understood him.
I understand you, that's why I want to help you. The repercussions of such immature contentment now reared its ugly head. Ryuuji felt that he hadn't matured at all, that all he had done was to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Ryuuji sneaked a peek at the side of Taiga's face. He had thought that he understood Taiga, that everything that had to do with Taiga involved him as well. Helping her, intervening in her affairs, taking care of her - all these actions were merely for his own satisfaction.
Therefore he had tried to use the same method to influence Taiga regarding her father, and he had failed miserably. He had almost lost Taiga, giving her another painful memory, and leaving himself with a pitiful ending. Even though he had sworn to never do such a stupid thing ever again, even though he had already paid such a high price for that lesson, he had done it again, almost losing his best friend Kitamura this time. When had he done such a stupid thing? Was he wrong from the beginning?
Although he hadn't noticed Kitamura's abnormal behaviour, Ryuuji had still asserted single-mindedly that there must be some controlling variable, and had acted to help him to recover. Had he already done the wrong thing at that point in time? But, should he have used his own immaturity and his lack of understanding as an excuse to leave Kitamura to his own devices? Was it just as Ami had said, that Kitamura knew that someone would come and help him the moment he cried? Should he have done what Minori had suggested, to just wait for Ami, the "last hope" to appear and help Kitamura?
I really can't just sit by and do nothing... No, I can't do it because of my desire for that self-satisfaction in doing something kind and worthy of praise. But...
"I don't know... I don't know what to do..."
Ryuuji closed his eyes and sighed.
"Ryuuji... Your cellphone's ringing."
Taiga slid the vibrating cellphone over to Ryuuji's feet. Ryuuji hesitated for a moment upon seeing an unfamiliar number, but he still accepted the call.
What's talking to a stranger if it'll get him out of this dead end?
"Hello? Ah, I'm Murase from class 2-A. Is this Takasu?"
"Yes, that's me. Murase...?"
He had no impression of that name since he wasn't one of Ryuuji's classmates in year one. Taiga also slanted her head in confusion, looking at Ryuuji.
"I'm sorry for disturbing you, but I have to talk to you about Kitamura... Ah, I'm the head administrator for the student council, so I've been working alongside Kitamura in the student council since last year."
"You're from the student council...?"
Ryuuji turned up the volume of the phone, his heartbeat increasing at the sound of Murase's voice.
"Yes. You're supporting the Palmtop Tiger in her bid to run for student council president, and we know that it's to force Kitamura to run, right?"
"Yes... We've been found out..."
"Yes. And I think that there are few students who really fear you, especially among the second years, since most people know that you aren't a delinquent, and that you're Kitamura's best friend... Anyway, I wanted to tell you not to worry about the student council president election, for I'll run for president if Kitamura does not hand in his application tomorrow. Then you'll be able to pull out without any worries."
"Alright... Thank you for informing me. I'm actually rather worried about what to do if Taiga really became the student council president."
"It'll be alright, just leave it to me. I'm planning to wait for Kitamura's application until the last moment. On the surface, it'll be best if the vice-president succeeds the president, and honestly, it's hard to imagine the student council without Kitamura after two years of working together. It'll be extremely boring without him."
"You're right, I can understand your feelings."
"Though the president says 'Don't worry about that bastard! Let him go!', she obviously does not want everything to end like this before she leaves for good."
Just as he was preparing to answer "I understand that too.", Ryuuji asked a question,
"Leave for good?"
"Oh, right, you don't know about it. Though it's not much of a secret... Right, anyway, there were a lot of reasons..."
"What do you mean? Tell me about it."
Murase obviously had realized that he had said something that he shouldn't have said. That he hesitated even though he said that it wasn't a secret seemed to hint that the reason for Kitamura's actions really did come from the student council. Ryuuji believed that if Murase didn't tell him now, then he and Taiga would have run for the elections for nothing.
"Please tell me, we're also very worried about Kitamura, since we don't know what happened... We can only ask for help from you people at the student council! If you have a clue, even just a little thing, even if it's just conjecture or a theory, please tell me about it. I'm begging you!"
Even though the person on the other side of the line couldn't see it, Ryuuji still bowed furiously to his cellphone. The hesitant Murase was finally persuaded by Ryuuji,
"This happened shortly before Kitamura said that he wanted to quit the student council... The cultural festival was just a while ago wasn't it? The student council was cleaning up together with the festival committee the next day, and then..."
Ryuuji listened to Murase talk without responding, pressing his cellphone into his ear.
After Murase had finished speaking, Ryuuji said, "...Thank you for telling me."
Ryuuji flipped his cellphone shut after the conversation and stood up.
"Ryuuji? Who called? You were talking about Kitamura-kun, right?"
Ryuuji didn't answer Taiga's question, walking purposefully to the doorway wearing only a long-sleeved T-shirt and track pants. "Ryuuji!? What's wrong!?"
Taiga chased after him, but Ryuuji didn't turn around, because he couldn't turn back.
His mind was blank.
Chaotic, and what else could be used to describe it? Anger? An anger that even he didn't understand rose up from his stomach. The burning emotions destroyed Ryuuji's sense of reason.
"I'm calling you! Where are you going!?"
"I'm going to...beat Kitamura up!"
"Huh!? Wait... Ryuuji!"
Without wearing his jacket, Ryuuji rushed out of the apartment after putting on his sports shoes, leaving Taiga behind. He didn't even lock the door before running down the stairs.
The sky was already dark with a bitter cold, freezing every breath in the throat, but Ryuuji still continued to run. The hardness of the asphalt road resisted the pressure exerted by his feet, sending shockwaves up his body, the pain snaking up his back. The footsteps that refused to stop increased in speed as Ryuuji reached the larger road, his destination being the Kitamura residence on the other side of the bridge. Even if he was ignored and hated, Ryuuji still wanted to drag Kitamura out for a full explanation. I don't care if I'm immature, or that I'm doing something stupid, I don't care about any of that. He had seriously worried and thought about Kitamura's actions. Not just himself, Minori, Ami, Yasuko, Noto, Haruta, everyone in his class, the student council members, Kitamura's family, the single woman, and Taiga. Taiga had even cried for Kitamura's sake.
All this for that kind of thing.
For something that could not be changed.
He's just a kid throwing a tantrum!
Ryuuji swore through the gaps of his teeth. He ran up the concrete stairs, through the grass, and reached the pathway beside the river that still gave off an unsavoury smell even in winter. All Ryuuji wanted to do was to drag Kitamura out by the collar of his shirt as quickly as possible, putting his face in front of him to get a good look at that face. He wanted to take a good look at the face that was able to cause such a huge mess for "that kind of thing".
Running towards the bridge, the face of that blond-haired boy appeared in Ryuuji's head. At that moment, a figure suddenly emerged from the grass.
Amid shouts of pain, the two people who had bumped their heads together fell to the ground.
The two of them groaned in pain while opening their eyes to confirm the identity of the other, and froze.
Under the street lights, the two people who were sitting on the ground were in the exact same position as the other, pointing wordlessly at the other. No, Ryuuji was the more surprised of the two. His lips were trembling uncontrollably as he looked at the face that was slightly different from the one in his memory.
"Ki...Kitamura!? What's with your face!?"
Ryuuji helped the person he had intended to hit up, taking a tissue from his pocket.
"Ah, thank you..."
"Who did this!? Are you alright!"
"No, it was my dad..."
Kitamura, who had suddenly appeared, had blood dripping from his nose and chin. On closer inspection, there was blood coming out from his mouth as well, while his cheeks were saturated with tears that could not be concealed by his swollen eye.
"Can you stand up? Come, I'll help you up!"
Ryuuji unhesitatingly offered his hand, which Kitamura took while fresh tears flowed from his eyes. Ryuuji rubbed his back comfortingly.
The reason behind the tears might have been what Murase had said. Student council president Kano Sumire was planning to go overseas to study after graduating from high school, but the timing had suddenly changed and she had to go to America the week before graduating. This was the reason for Kitamura's actions.
The raging nimbus - it sounded really nice to use that phrase as a description, though it was merely a rather wide first-level river that flowed past grey streets.
At the end of the walking path beside the river, where there was no sign of life except for the occasional truck or taxi, the two of them stretched out their legs through the railing and sat down, watching the dark and murky river.
Ryuuji breathed in awkwardly, and snuck a peek at the side of Kitamura's face. He had been beaten up rather badly, the collar of his UNQLO jacket tattered, with bloodstains on the shirt he wore inside. His glasses were bent at odd angles, looking as though they were stuck onto his nose. The argument at home went out of control, and Kitamura, who couldn't win in a fight against his dad, ran out of the house.
"I'm really sorry... I haven't been able to say it..."
"There were really...a lot of things, sorry..."
Kitamura scratched his head guiltily, breathing out determinedly. He rubbed the swollen eye which could still be clearly seen amid the darkening sky, and licked his cracked lips,
"I know everyone's been worried sick about me, and I also know that Aisaka ran for the elections because of me. I know everything, but... The more everyone was worried about me, the more I couldn't tell you guys the reason... The stupid, immature and naive reason. After hearing it from Murase, you must think I'm extremely stupid too, right? That's why you came over to my house."
Kitamura looked at the surface of the river, slowly forcing the awkward sentences out of his mouth.
He liked the student council president...
During the summer student council camp, he had already heard about Kano Sumire going overseas to study after graduating, had known that her dreams would take her far away from him, and had also realized that he would never be good enough for her.
"She says that she wants to be an astronaut."
"You think it's unrealistic, right? But a professor of aeronautical engineering from America invited her to study there, so this is not a dream, she's really going to America to learn how to build space shuttles. She says that she wants to be an aeronautical engineer so as to witness first-hand the new frontiers that mankind reaches."
Kano Sumire... Our big brother is... Ryuuji's mouth froze in the motion pronouncing the "As" of astronaut.
Everyone knew that the big brother was extremely clever, but no one would have thought that she...mankind, space... She was preparing to use her own hands to make contact with her distant and noble dream. Just the fact that she was going to America to study was so unrealistic that it made Ryuuji's head spin... No, not just that.
He said that he liked the student council president, which was something Ryuuji was hearing for the very first time. Kitamura Yuusaku, say more of that! Ryuuji lapsed into inner chaos, but Kitamura continued speaking as though he was talking to himself,
"So...it will surely end in rejection. I decided to give up, and had prepared to contain my feelings so that I could cheer the loudest for her on graduation day, and wave goodbye to her with a smile on my face. I had decided that I would have no regrets when graduation comes, that I would cheer for her from the bottom of my heart..."
His voice suddenly broke into sobs. Ryuuji swallowed, trying to regulate his breathing, waiting for Kitamura to continue while acting as if he wasn't really bothered.
"I had already decided, but suddenly, suddenly..."
"After finishing the clean-up for the cultural festival, she suddenly said that she had to leave soon, that she was leaving the next month... That she had decided not to participate in the graduation ceremony so as to fit the timetable of her American university. She said that she would be leaving school, and would get her high school certificate through the mail. I was shocked, for I had originally thought that there were still 4 more months to go, but suddenly there was no time left. How was I to respond to something so unfair? I haven't had time to contain my feelings... and I couldn't exactly tell her, 'How am I supposed to smile on such short notice?' I couldn't say anything, and the president didn't say anything to me either... No, it could be that I wanted her to say something to me, but I don't really know."
Kitamura's right hand gripped the stone railing until his knuckles started turning white, but Ryuuji didn't know what to say.
"But, how do I put it... At that time, I thought, 'Oh, so my existence was nothing to her.' The one-sided crush that had gone on for two years meant nothing...nothing to her. Once again, I realized that the president would only look straight at her goal, and that there is no place for me in her heart. I'm nothing. There is no value or meaning in me, or the life that I have been leading for the past two years. That's all there is to it..."
He had already decided to let go of everything, to stop everything, to destroy everything and rebel. Kitamura ruffled his blond hair, smiling crookedly.
This model student had wanted to scream, "I want to let go of everything that I had held dear to myself! I want to let go of myself! All this is just garbage! I understand that much!"
"I thought...that maybe if I did that then the president would say to me, 'It's not like that.'... So that, ah... I'm such an idiot."
"You're not an idiot, you're just hurt."
Ryuuji imitated Kitamura's position and clutched the railing with his hand, receiving a nasty shock from the cold and roughness of the stone railing on his ungloved hand. How could I lose! Ryuuji tightened his grip. Right now, he deeply regretted thinking of the reason for Kitamura's actions as ridiculous.
Because he was serious, because he truly liked her, Kitamura was so frustrated. Ryuuji, who was sitting beside him listening, finally understood that. It might have been yet another one of his self-asserted misunderstandings, but Ryuuji still felt that way.
"But... You didn't have to decide to give up from the start, right? The both of you can work towards your respective dreams... and if it's possible... wouldn't it be good if the two of you could return to the same home? Would it be that hard to confess your feelings to her, hoping for that result? Though big brother's ability is intimidating, and her dream is so large that it's scary, there are no ranks in the various occupations are there? Being a white-collar office worker isn't worse than being an astronaut. No matter if one is a bar hostess, a mangaka, a writer, a fisherman, an architect, a salesman, or a teacher, it'll be worthy of praise if one is committed to one's work. Why do you think of such things and assume that you're not good enough for her?"
"I...can't see it that way."
Kitamura's voice went low,
"I don't think that I'll ever be good enough for the president, who has the ability to surmount any obstacle. I know that I won't be able to have a goal that is on the same level as hers, and I feel embarrassed by that. I want to catch up with the president, who's way ahead of me, but I can't... I don't want to be a burden to her, and I don't want her to see me as someone who slows her down. But no matter how hard I try, I could never be on the same level as her, no foreigner would ask me to study overseas, and it's impossible for me to drop out now and go overseas, I can't do anything... In the end, I'm just another one of the 'junior's who's in love with the student council president...'"
"...I'm not crying."
Ryuuji's chest was hurting.
Kitamura letting go of his love for Kano Sumire, Ryuuji understood his feelings. There was nothing wrong with "no ranks in the various occupations", and it was simple to say, which was why Ryuuji was able to say it so easily, even though it was merely a formality. Astronauts have to go through extremely stringent selection tests, and only a select few can become astronauts, for their work is extremely hard. They shoulder the burden of all the wishes and hopes of mankind. No matter how successful one is in another occupation, no matter how rich one becomes, the level between the two will still be different. Ryuuji also understood that, though his own sense of morality stopped him from saying so.
Even if he could wave to her from the ground, he would never be on equal terms with her. The distance between them was just too great.
I'm very clear about that.
"That's the reason for my hair colour. I also tried running away from home, and though my parents were angry, they still tried to protect me. But finally, today...they asked me, 'Are you seriously thinking about your future?', 'We've heard that you won't run for student council president?', I immediately replied, 'I don't want to go to school anymore!'"
"You're really...how should I say it, really stubborn..."
"In the end I was beaten quite badly, as you can see by how I look right now. It was my first time... I was surprised at many new experiences, that it really does hurt to be beaten. And it's no wonder that my father would be angry, since I ran away from home because I was afraid of my angry father. How was I supposed to tell them the real reason behind my desire to drop out of school? Was I expected to tell them that I was like this because of an unrequited love?"
"I still have to ask you, do you really want to drop out?"
"Of course not, I never intended to drop out. My wish was to... If everything would go according to my plan, I would wish for the president to leave after graduation as originally planned, as I succeed her position as student council president and tell her, 'Leave everything to me!'... hoping that the president would think that I've become a reliable man."
"So you want her to see the good parts of your character even if you're unable to make her fall in love with you."
"Ah, so there was this kind of way too. I didn't even think of that."
Ryuuji laughed in spite of himself, and attempted to repeat Kitamura's wish in his head. He finally realized,
"So it's actually like this... You really want to become student council president, don't you?"
"Have I been found out?"
Kitamura started laughing too, revealing his secret in a low voice,
"Yes, I really want to be a great student council president. The student council vice-president was chosen by the president, so I was extremely happy when the president chose me to be her vice-president, thinking that she finally recognized my abilities to a certain extent. But the president is leaving soon... If I become the president, it would symbolize the ending of everything, that everything has ended... No, though it had already been decided that everything would end... It doesn't make a difference whether I become the student council president or not, since I'll still be separated from her... but I don't want to go against my own feelings of 'wanting to become the president', and I don't want to deny the feelings I had when I was chosen to be the vice-president. I want the president to recognize me as a man, I want to become the new student council president who's endorsed by the outgoing president, that kind of man. But on the other hand, I don't want to become the new president. Because it would signal the end of everything. No, actually everything has already ended... Anyway, I've been constantly bound by such conflicting and repetitive feelings."
"To be unable to obtain what one desires, that's life isn't it..."
Ryuuji suddenly had a sense of deja vu, and felt an overwhelming urge to smile after he thought of the reason for that feeling. His breath came out as a white cloud, as the corners of his mouth crinkled into a smile.
"Why are you smiling all of a sudden?"
"Nothing, I just thought of something... Taiga said the exact same thing in spring. She has also met with many obstacles in her life... The two of us were talking about the complications of life in the family restaurant, and the enraged Taiga even kicked the utility pole until it bent. "
"Oh, Aisaka is indeed on a different level than me."
Ryuuji looked up at the night sky, looking for the constellation of Orion that hung quietly in a corner of the sky.
On the day that Taiga left behind her tears and the two of them moved ahead together, the stars were all shining brightly above them.
"Let me ask you... Can you see Orion in America...?"
Kitamura, who was also looking up at the sky, asked.
"Should be able to... But you shouldn't be able to see it in the same season, right? And America's a huge country."
"Oh... So it won't be the same thing that we see here. You're right, since America's so far away."
"But it's nothing compared to the distance between two stars... Even if stars fall from the sky, even if the arrangements of the constellations are changed, you'll still see the same thing. Even if she's not by your side and thus is unable to look at the stars with you, whenever seasons change and night falls, she'll be able to see the same stars - the exact same thing."
"That's right. Some things will never change."
"Looking up at the night sky to look at a star, thinking about a certain person who's looking at the same star, this feeling will never disappear."
"No matter how far apart the two of you are, as long as you understand this..."
"That's strange? Takasu, just now..."
Kitamura suddenly looked around and pointed in a certain direction. Just then Ryuuji heard a voice,
A shadow with long streaking hair was making its way though the tall grass. Wearing a guy's scarf and a hooded long-sleeved T-shirt over her one piece western dress, Taiga, whose image redefined the word "messy", went in the completely wrong direction while shouting for Ryuuji.
"Oh darn, I don't want a girl to see me like this."
Kitamura stood up and dusted himself off without turning around, only waving to Ryuuji,
"I'm going home. See you at school tomorrow."
"Kitamura... Are you alright?"
"Yeah, no problem. I'll apologize to my father... I've already decided to apologize properly."
Ryuuji stood up to look at the disappearing figure, but at the exact same time...
"Ah! I found you! Stupid Ryuuji!"
She shouldn't have seen Kitamura, who had just left. She immediately charged at Ryuuji with a horrifying expression on her face once she had him in her sights. She was probably preparing to give him a huge scolding, or even beat him up. Ryuuji had already prepared himself both physically and mentally, relaxing the joints in his body so as to avoid the punches that would soon be coming from all directions.
"You idiot! I told you to wait, didn't I! What are you doing here!?"
Taiga, who seemed to have teleported, swiftly stuffed her icy hands into the collar of Ryuuji's shirt.
This move was far more effective than a simple punch. The unexpected coldness pushed Ryuuji into the dark abyss of the netherworld.
"I ran out after you, but you had already disappeared. So I asked a passerby if an extremely ugly and scary fellow had run past, and the trembling passerby told me that you'd gone to the walkway beside the river to look for prey. You're such a wild dog... You've even caused severe mental trauma to an innocent passerby..."
The two of them walked side by side in the wild grass that was almost as high as a human being. Being able to see one's breath coming out in white mists alerted them to the coldness of the night. Their bodies trembled in response to the cold weather.
"Hey... Did you really beat Kitamura-kun up...?"
"Then what were you doing at this time? And what was the call about?"
"I'm not telling you."
Ryuuji intended to keep his earlier conversation with Kitamura a secret that he would take to the grave. Because it was me, that's why Kitamura was willing to talk about the real reason behind his actions. So even if Taiga beats me up, hits all of my pressure points, hangs me from a cross, leaves me on a deserted island, or even if she beheads me in public... I won't tell her. Ryuuji subconsciously stared at his feet, but was suddenly attacked from behind...
He never expected himself to really get strangled. The river flowing beside them now looked like the the river of blood flowing in hell, making Ryuuji want to struggle for his life.
"Hold on a second."
Ryuuji noticed something soft encompassing his neck.
Taiga imitated the way in which Ryuuji had tied the scarf around her neck to put the scarf onto Ryuuji's neck. She stretched her body to its limit in a bid to reach his neck, her violent and rough actions resulting in an act of strangulation when coupled with the height difference between the two. Finally, the scarf was tied around Ryuuji's neck like a noose.
The noose around his neck suddenly tightened... No, it was a signal from Taiga to tell Ryuuji that her work was done. Ryuuji quickly loosened the cashmere scarf around his neck, finally breaking free of the constriction that was preventing him from breathing normally. A soft warmth enveloped Ryuuji in an instant.
The fragrance that he detected wasn't his own smell, but the smell of Taiga's hair, the sweet smell of flowers. After being borrowed a few times, the smell had already seeped into the muffler.
The smell of a girl, or the smell of shampoo? Or is it the smell from the back of her neck or the back of her ears? Whatever it was, it was extremely warm. Ryuuji imitated Taiga's actions in covering his nose with the cashmere scarf that still contained traces of Taiga's body heat, breathing into his hands to warm himself up. Amid the freezing cold of the night wind, Ryuuji could finally lift his head.
On the pathway that held no traces of human presence, with only the distant sounds of cars, the only sounds left were the sound of the wind, the sound of their footsteps, and the sound of the river. In the seemingly limitless skyline, the stars were shining as brightly as that night. Even though they were extremely far away, even though he couldn't really see them, even though they might be mere shadows of the past, the stars still continued to shine brightly above Ryuuji, and they probably would still be there tomorrow. Be it crying or laughing, there is still existence. This was what Ryuuji thought. On a night that the cold rain descended onto the earth, on a night that he couldn't stop himself from shivering from the cold, on a night that he didn't want to open his eyes. Even on a night such as this, the stars were still shining on the other side of the clouds.
They were still there.
The things that were just as unchanging as the stars must be the same.
"Aren't you cold?"
"I'm very hot."
Taiga's voice was just like normal, a tinge of coldness coupled with a dash of unpleasantness, just like the stars that shone in the cold gusts. Ryuuji helped to place the hood of her hooded T-shirt over her head amid her messy hair. Taiga didn't say anything and just waited till he finished before pulling her hair out of the hood so that the hood could be pulled over her eyes.
"...So what were you doing here?"
Speaking in a soft voice, Taiga used the hood and her hair to shield her face from Ryuuji.
"I already said that I won't tell you."
It made no difference whether he could see her face or not.
The two of them carried on an on-off conversation while breathing out into their hands to warm up. Their almost freezing bodies warming up bit by bit.
They placed their hands into their pockets, continuing to walk side by side. Even if they weren't holding hands, Taiga would never leave Ryuuji's side. The pair of eyes that were covered by the hood secretly glinted in the night, her footsteps keeping pace with Ryuuji's.
"Taiga.", Ryuuji called out soundlessly.
"Taiga, Kitamura isn't a star. He's not an image that's tens of thousands of light years away.
He's just like you, a person who would sometimes be frustrated, sometimes stopping in his tracks, but always stepping forward under the watchful eyes of the stars shining above him. All stars eventually fall, right? Taiga, Kitamura, other people and I would see the exact same star vanish. People always look up at the stars in the night sky like this, thinking of a certain someone who was looking at the same star in a certain place, and then continue to move on.
So Taiga, you're definitely not alone. Even if you say, 'I can live by myself, no problem.' But there will definitely be one person, and right now it's me, who will look up at the same star together with you, even if one day the star-filled sky changes its shape, for there will always be stars hanging overhead."
"Ryuuji, I'm hungry."
"Oh... Let's go to the convenience store to get some oden?"
After a while...
Taiga's voice resounded in the silent night.
The next day was Friday.
Kitamura had already dyed his hair back into the black colour that could only be described as "Maruo", and was putting on his indoor shoes in the entrance of the school building. "Isn't that Kitamura?" "He's come back into the world of the living." "Which means... Could it be!?" Amid the whisperings,
Kitamura slowly stepped forward, his target being...
"Tomorrow's voting day!"
"I'll send everyone who doesn't vote to the deepest recesses of hell... Ah?"
Taiga and Ryuuji were garnering last minute votes, both holding microphones in one hand. They were speechless upon seeing Kitamura.
"I'm sorry, but the two of you have done enough... No, it should be, I won't allow the two of you to continue this! I, Kitamura Yuusaku, will lead this school to greatness!"
At that moment.
"We've been waiting for that!" The students who had just walked into the school building started to applaud Kitamura. The members who were part of the original plan also started to clap alongside everyone else. Ami, who had just walked into the building, revealed a shocked expression for a moment as someone told her the news, but then started clapping in a fashion that befitted her public image.
He had finally decided. Ryuuji exchanged a look with his best friend, a wide smile creeping onto his face. "Oh no, Takasu-kun's gone mad!" Even with such remarks, Ryuuji's expression didn't change.
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