Chapter Eleven:

Toyotas, Assumptions and Taiga

~May 4~

Ryuuji had received the letter from Ninomae yesterday, and he already knew what was in it just by its weight. They had sent the response along with the available schedules of classes he needed to take for the semester along with several pamphlets for extra-curricular activities the University had to offer. He had already gotten his hand on those pamphlets from Kushieda last month and he hadn't really bothered browsing them.

Yasuko had been ecstatic and in fact bought an A4 sized picture frame for the acceptance letter, which was now hanging proudly on a wall in Yasuko's room. Ryuuji had tried to stop her, but to no avail. Yasuko was just too happy to be stopped. Not that Ryuuji minded. Yasuko got excited over the littlest of things, and now was not an exception. Although Ryuuji had to admit, Yasuko had been acting strangely. But if anything, for the better. Lately, she had been… how should he put it? Giddy? Happy?

She came late almost everyday, but yeah, she looked happy.

"How about some hotdogs?" Ryuuji suggested as he pushed their grocery cart along the frozen foods section of the local supermarket. He had promised Taiga a picnic tomorrow. Yasuko was getting a well-deserved day off, and they had planned on dragging her along by the river to celebrate the final days of the Golden Week together.

"Only if you make them into octopi," Taiga said as she leaned down on one of the chillers to poke a bag of frozen vegetables with a tentative finger.

Ryuuji couldn't help but grin down at her as he took a bag of bite-sized hotdogs and put it in the cart. "Octopi? How about tiny hotdog crabs?"

That got Taiga started, and she looked up with that wide, bright-eyed gaze landing on his face. "You can make crab-shaped hotdogs?"

"And penguin-shaped ones, too."

Taiga paused, then put on a thoughtful expression on her face. "Penguins?"


She nodded happily. It was a wonder how one could be happy about penguin-shaped hotdogs. "I'd like that."

Ryuuji started the cart again, picking up a bag of fries along the way. "What else do you want for the picnic?"

"Ice cream."

"We can't bring ice cream on a picnic. It'll melt. Why don't we settle for some pie for desert?"

That had her thinking again. After a while, she nodded. "Pie is fine, then. And… um… pudding."

Ryuuji paused in the middle of grabbing a pack of gyouza. He did not think he had the heart to tell her that bringing anything made of milk on a warm day was not a good idea. Taking the gyouza from the chiller and dumping it into the cart, he placed a hand on top of Taiga's head and sighed. "Whatever you want, Taiga."

Taiga looked up at him with a tiny grin before plucking Ryuuji's hand off her hair. Much to Ryuuji's surprise, she did not let go. It was not as if he hadn't held hands with her in public, but it was just one of those very few times Taiga actually initiated it. Ryuuji averted his look from her before she started thinking he was making too much of a big deal out of it.

Taiga placed her free hand on the handle of the push-cart beside Ryuuji's and they continued down the aisle slowly. "So," she started. "Will Ya-chan really come with us? She always finds an excuse to weasel out of our invitations so she could sleep all day."

Ryuuji frowned, but immediately arranged his face before Taiga noticed. "Don't worry. She was up and about at eight in the morning. Can you believe that?" He couldn't believe it himself, especially when he knew Yasuko had been out till four in the morning and Ryuuji doubted she'd had enough sleep. And Yasuko loved sleep more than anything.

Taiga blinked at him in disbelief. "At eight in the morning? And what on earth was she doing at eight in the morning?"

"She was cleaning," Ryuuji said, somehow saying it out loud made it even more unbelievable. Yasuko never cleaned. Especially not in the wee early hours of the day. She had been lumbering around in her jammies wiping off non-existent dust off shelves and tables that Ryuuji made sure to clean every single day.

It was obvious she was uneasy about something, and as always, she never told him anything. Because she never usually did. Not lately, anyway.

He felt a gentle pressure on his hand and he looked down to find Taiga looking up at him, an eyebrow raised.

"Ryuuji, are you okay?" she asked gently.

Ryuuji had just realized that they had parked their cart in front of the ice cream section. He shook himself hurriedly. "What? Of course. Of course I am."

She had a small smile on her lips and although she did not look too convinced she did not say anything about it except, "Are you sure?"

"Yeah, why? What makes you think I'm not all right?"

"Because you just, yeah, you just walked past the eggs. And they're a hundred and thirty-three yen. Cheap, yeah?"

Ryuuji did a double take and discovered that Taiga was right. Something that did not happen much at all, especially not on an egg sale. He shook his head in disbelief.

"I'll go get a pack or two," Taiga said when Ryuuji did not show any signs of getting them. She shook her hand from his grip and hurried over the neat stack of eggs, leaving Ryuuji looking after her in a daze.

Taiga was being… nice. And it wasn't even Christmas yet. Normally, she would have made a big deal out of him missing out on such obvious things like sales. But here she was, being… well… nice.

"Here you go," Taiga said, returning with two packs of eggs and gently placing them inside their cart. She dusted her hands on her jacket in exaggeration. "What else is there we need?"

Ryuuji furrowed his brow unawares. He did not notice the three high schoolers who were trying to browse for ice cream a few feet away from him who nearly jumped when he clicked his tongue against his teeth. They scuttled away like frightened little mice when they saw Ryuuji frowning. Of course, Ryuuji was oblivious of this. He could only see Taiga peering down at their cart with disinterest.

Sighing, he pulled at a tuft of hair hanging down his forehead.

Taiga noticed him and she suddenly reached up to swat his hand away and unceremoniously grabbed said tuft of hair, yanking at it violently.

"Ow! What are you doing?" Ryuuji cried, backing away from her and nearly knocking their cart onto the freezer to their right.

Taiga snickered as she steadied their cart after jumping away from Ryuuji. "I was pulling you back to the world of the living. You've been dazing off a lot lately."

Ryuuji was not pleased. "You do, too. But you don't see me pulling at your hair."

She grinned up at him. "That's because you love me."

"What? And you don't love me?"

She blinked, the grin widening. "I love you to death, Ryuuji. You know that."

This reply surprised him. She usually never spouted out words of affirmation. It did wonders to his nerves; while he had never really doubted Taiga's feelings, he discovered that hearing first-hand made him feel… good. Safe.


He wondered whatever she saw in him. He had never really bothered to ask. And she didn't look like she would answer him truthfully if he ever did. He sighed. "We have all the things we need. We should be heading back. It'll take a while to get everything ready. You're helping me, whether you like it or not."

Taiga nodded silently as she hurried back to his side to help him push their cart along. She was being strangely clingy today. Of course, he was not the one to complain, although it did pique his curiosity. He was starting to wonder if she was up to something. Or worse yet, was there something she wanted from him? He decided that whatever she was up to, she would not be telling him any time soon. He pushed the thought at the back of his mind as they proceeded to the cashier to get everything they had in their cart checked out and paid for. They each had a grocery bag in hand once exiting the supermarket.

Their walk back home was not a long one. It usually took but a seven-minute walk from the supermarket to the Takasu household, but for some weird reason, Taiga kept on stopping along the way for the strangest excuses. It was either to examine a dandelion growing from a crack on the sidewalk, or a sparrow she thought she saw perched on a tree, or a silly-looking hat on the display window of a boutique. All the while she had been throwing him curve balls in their conversations, like, "When we get married I want to live in the suburbs," or, "Wouldn't a backyard be nice for barbecues?" and the like.

He did not know what was up, and he was supposed to ask her finally what was going on. But all words were gone from his head when they turned the curb to his apartment to find a very expensive-looking Toyota parked conveniently in front of their compound. He stopped on his tracks. He knew that the first floor resident had moved out a month ago, and there was no mistaking it that whoever that car belonged to, it was most definitely their guest.

Taiga was instantly tense beside him, and the hand free of the grocery bag was instantly clutching his sleeve. He looked down at her to see a frown on her tiny lips. Lately, Taiga had always been wary of anything that projected the aura of money. Perhaps a part of her had been assuming it would be her father, or someone associated to him.

Ryuuji cleared his throat. "Yasuko must have someone over," he said matter-of-factly and started to walk towards the stairwell that led up to their unit. Taiga's grip tightened on his sleeve but nonetheless walked with him. She did not look too happy. And the frown on her face deepened into a scowl when they opened the front door to see a pair of shiny black leather shoes neatly arranged on their narrow entranceway, and they could hear a male voice talking from within the apartment, followed by Yasuko's melodious laughter.

Ryuuji blinked. Could it be that his mother had been expecting someone to drop by today? The reason behind her strange cleaning behavior earlier that day started to make sense. For a brief moment, he actually hesitated if he should call out to them. Thinking that it would be the polite thing to do, he took a deep breath and said in a loud voice, "We're back!" as he placed the grocery bag on the floor and proceeded to taking off his shoes.

Taiga jumped at his voice and she clutched her grocery bag to her chest like some flimsy shield. What on earth was she afraid of? In the living room, he could hear Yasuko blabber some gibberish and there was a lot of scuttling from the inside before Yasuko's blonde head popped through the door that led inside. Her face was a bit flushed, and Ryuuji could hardly believe his eyes when he saw his mother dressed in a casual blue sundress.

Ryuuji laughed as he gestured at her. "You look nice. Considering you always prefer sweats on your day-off. You should have told me you were having someone over. I would have made something – "

Yasuko beamed at him excitedly as she hurried to him, taking his grocery bag before turning to Taiga and taking hers as well. "Ryu-chan and Taiga-chan, welcome home," she gushed, almost uncharacteristically – eerily – motherly-like. She was talking fast. Yasuko never talked fast. She had always believed that a lady did not need to hurry about anything. Good things came to a lady. She was never the one to rush.

But she looked flustered and very much in a hurry right now.

Ryuuji raised an eyebrow. Taiga simply stood in place. "What's going on? You're acting weird."

She shifted both the grocery bags in one hand, grabbed Ryuuji's hand with her free one, and pulled at him eagerly. "Ya – I-I want you to meet someone."

And that was practically the last straw. Yasuko never referred to herself as 'me' or 'I'. She had always referred herself in the third-person basis, because she had always believed it to make her appear cuter. Yasuko turned to Taiga and nodded encouragingly. "You too, Taiga-chan. You're a part of this family, so I want you to meet him, too."

Taiga took an involuntary step back. She did not say anything. Yasuko looked too engrossed in whatever was happening at the moment that she did not seem to notice Taiga's obvious strange behavior. Ryuuji looked from Yasuko's excited face to Taiga's very troubled one and did not know what to do.

Unfortunately he was not given the chance to mull it over in his head.

Because the next moment, a man Ryuuji had never ever seen in his life stepped out of their living room and into the hallway, smiling. He was tall, a few inches taller than Ryuuji himself, with dark hair combed neatly back. Through an outside perspective, Ryuuji would have defined him as good-looking. He knew how to dress, that's for sure. Right now, the man was in comfortable-looking slacks and a thin expensive-looking coat over a black shirt.

Yasuko's blush deepened further still and she laughed. "I told you to wait in the living room, Ma-kun."

Ryuuji blinked. Ma-kun? Ma-kun?

"I thought it would be rude not to welcome them home as well, since I am intruding on your day-off, Yasuko-san," said the man, and he reached out to take the groceries from Yasuko. After that, he reached his free hand out to Ryuuji. "My name is Ikeda Masamune. You must be Ryuuji. I've heard so much about you."

Ryuuji shook the man's hand a second too long and he managed a feeble grin. "So have I," he lied faintly, casting a look at Yasuko who conveniently tried to ignore him. "Welcome. Please make yourself at home."

Masamune-san – Ikeda-san? – Ma-kun? – laughed heartily. "Thank you. I'm really sorry for intruding like this."

Ryuuji shook his head as they finally let go of each others' hands. He could feel his palm tingling for some reason. "Not at all." He gestured to his side. "This is Aisaka Taiga. My fia – Hey!"

The words were cut short when Taiga suddenly grabbed his wrist, and with the strength he had nearly forgotten she had, pulled him out of the door and down the stairwell so fast he didn't know what was happening until they were half-way across the street and Yasuko was calling after them in a frenzy.

"Taiga! Taiga, stop!" Ryuuji said as they barreled down the corner and into a deserted alley between the bakery and the meat shop. He shook his wrist from Taiga's grip, looked down and noticed that he had run like mad all the way there with no shoes on. Just the thought of all the dirt and grime under his toes made him wince. He turned back to Taiga, who was bent over, panting, a hand to her side. "Taiga, what the hell is wrong with you? You just ran out on my mom's – "

"Your mom's what, Ryuuji? Your mom's what?" Taiga spat out, her face still down, long hair like a light curtain on her face.

Ryuuji struggled for words. In the end, he just didn't know. He had never heard about Ikeda Masamune from Yasuko before, not even in passing. "I don't know. Her friend? Her boyfriend? Does it really matter? Yasuko looked happy to have him around."

That was when Taiga flashed her eyes towards him. She looked angry. It had been a while since Ryuuji had actually seen her angry. Was she angry at him? "Does it matter? Of course it matters, you mutt!"

Ryuuji was taken aback. It had been a while since Taiga spouted out any dog insults, too.

Taiga straightened up and started to pace back and forth in front of him. "Ryuuji, this is terrible. Ya-chan is dating that man. I saw them once in Akasaka and they were all lovey-dovey."

Lovey… what?

Ryuuji winced. "Wait, you mean you knew Yasuko's dating a guy? Why didn't you tell me?"

Taiga rolled her eyes. "See? I knew this isn't going to be pretty. Nothing good comes out when parents start dating other people." Then without warning, she threw her arms around Ryuuji in a tight, if not unexpected, hug. "You don't have to pretend you're strong. You can tell me what you really feel."

Ryuuji tried very hard not to move. It appeared Taiga was under the impression that he was 'sad' at finding Yasuko dating. To be honest, he really did not see anything bad about it. Yasuko was still very young and pretty. It often happened to single parents everywhere. If anything, Yasuko deserved it; she really did look pretty happy. "Uh… what I really feel? Well, I really feel weird without my shoes… "

Taiga shot him a death glare before burying her face onto his chest. "Not that. I meant about Ya-chan and that man!"

Ryuuji swallowed hard, feeling slightly uncomfortable when Taiga tightened her hold onto him and ended up getting pushed against the wall of the bakery. "About Yasuko and Ikeda-san? I don't know. Yasuko's never really dated before. At least as far as I know. I think it's about time she finally thought more about her future than mine."

Taiga shook her head vigorously, rubbing her cheeks against his shirt. "No! At first you think it's all right. But wait until they get married! Our history is full of these kinds of things, and all of them led to very bad circumstances."

Now she was starting to make even lesser sense. "What are you talking about?"

"Think about it, Ryuuji. Nothing good comes out of step-parents. Look at Snow White. Look at Cinderella!"

"Those are fairy tales. And they had very happy endings."

"That's beside the point!"

Ryuuji shrugged her embrace away, grabbed her by the forearms and held her at arms' length. "Taiga, listen to me. What we did back there was not just crazy, but very rude. That man was a guest at our house. And if what you say about them dating is true, then all the more should we go back there and apologize. This must mean a lot to Yasuko."

But once Taiga set her mind on something, it would take a lot more than that to convince her. She shook her head. "You're just saying that because you don't know about this. I do!" She backed away from him. "They'd come waltzing into your life as if they know better, and then they try too hard to please you. And when you finally let your guard down around them, they change. Almost overnight. And you'd realize that you mom and dad won't care as much about you. And before you know it… before you know it, you're living alone in a too-big apartment while your mom and dad try to redo their marriages with different people and they could care less about what happened to you."

And that was when Ryuuji finally understood what was going on. He instantly forgot about the dirt under his bare feet and he hurried to her, hugging her to his chest firmly. "Taiga, no. Your mom and dad, though they chose to live separate lives with different people, they care about you. They just…" Just what? "… they just have a weird way of showing it." He buried his face into her hair, and he felt her lithe arms snaking around his torso.

"Ya-chan will forget about you one day. And you're going to feel how painful it is to be forgotten," she muttered against his shirt. "I don't want you to get hurt."

Ryuuji shook his head. "I'm not. I'm fine. We're fine. Yasuko's fine."

"Sure, you're saying that now. But wait until they get married."

"Taiga, not all step-parents are bad. And if – that's a big 'if' – Ikeda-san did turn out to be what you say he is, it doesn't matter. So long as he keeps Yasuko happy. And do you know why?"

"Because you're an idiot?" she offered, face still in his chest.

"No, because when we get married, then you will be my new family. And everything will be about you and me and me and you. And it'll be great. I promise."

And that was when Taiga finally raised her eyes to him shyly. Her face was red, but thank God she wasn't crying.

He smiled down at her. "Now, since Yasuko's cheering for our happiness, don't you think it's fair for us to cheer for her happiness, too? Let's stop running away from things that frighten us, Taiga. There's no question I want to spend my eternity with you, but I don't want to do it running away all the time. Let's face this together. Okay?"

And Taiga was silent. For a full minute, she just stood there, looking up at him. And then the next thing she said nearly had Ryuuji reeling. "Let's get married. Let's get married right now. We can go to City Hall and we can renew your family registry. And I can be your family right now, Ryuuji." She sounded so earnest. Taiga was always impatient about many things.

Ryuuji smiled at her and pulled her tighter to him. "You know I would give everything to do that. But we've made a promise to work hard and have everyone accept this relationship. So until I ask your hand from your father and mother, I'd have to say no."

And Taiga's scowl was back on her face. She puffed up her cheeks the way she always did when she was about to burst into a fit. But Ryuuji did not have the patience for this right now. In his house was the first ever man Yasuko had decided to introduce to him, and he had just walked out on him.

Not to mention he did not have any shoes.

So the moment Taiga opened her mouth to start a rant that promised an earful, Ryuuji pulled away from her, planted both palms on either side of her face, threw caution into the wind and kissed her.

Aside from that time a year ago when they had shared their first kiss, they had never really shared such intimacies because Taiga was too aloof and Ryuuji was just too passive. He had forgotten how soft her lips were, and how they tasted of strawberry lip gloss. The year he and Taiga had been apart, Yasuko had told him he had grown several centimeters. He had never really noticed until today, because he had to bend far down to accommodate her. She was already on tiptoe, looking very awkward as she strained her neck to return his kiss.

After several forevers, he finally pulled away an inch, searched her face and found her looking back at him with hazy eyes. Her hands circled around his neck and pulled him down a bit, then said, "One… more? Please?"

Ryuuji could only smile, remembering that time at his grandparents' house. She hasn't changed a bit. He knocked his forehead against hers. "You always struck me as a hater of public display of affection."

Taiga bit her lower lip. "This isn't public. It's just you and me and – "

The back door of the bakery opened loudly and a woman carrying a huge garbage bag stepped out into the alley.

Taiga and Ryuuji were a couple of feet away from each other in an instant.

The woman looked over to them and waved. "Hello there. What are you kids doing out here?"

Ryuuji and Taiga exchanged looks.

Taiga covered her eyes with a hand, sighed. "We were looking for his shoes…"