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Tada Banri was eating a boiled egg.
Thursday, first period. If one attended for a given number of times, an "excellent" mark was easy to attain, so sports science was popular. It was five minutes before the lecture started.
Rather than miss breakfast because he slept in late, he had brought along the two remaining eggs he’d boiled last night in a plastic bag, and in the fifth row from the back he was quietly munching on them.
I was sitting on a seat diagonally behind him, watching this scene, but it was really dull. Banri brought a whole blue-capped bottle of Ajishio with himself, which was at his right hand. In his left hand, an egg. Writing with his right hand, he ate with his left. Write. Chomp. Write. Chomp. ...Really, truly, it was a dull scene. Speaking of highlights, he remembered his regret from last night, when he’d hurt himself while trying to crack the eggs with his own forehead, and the only result was pain. Changing his mind, he knocked the egg on the corner of his desk. Whack. the guy sitting near, an empty seat between them, gave out a startled sound.
Did you bring boiled eggs? Yep. Did you bring salt too? Yep. And so on. A conversation nearly blossomed, but shortly the guy’s buddy showed up, so Banri turned back quietly to his boiled eggs.
The girls right behind Banri, so he couldn’t hear them, were typing notes to each other on their cellphone displays. That guy in front of us petrified his eggs, didn’t he? They’re overcooked. The yolks have turned black. He’s drinking so much oolong tea. You can see his lips wrinkling. It looks like he brought salt in a bottle. LOL. And so on.
Banri didn’t notice he was being talked about.
Nor me without a body, viewing him all the time.
In the week and some days that had passed since the entrance ceremony, it had been registration time, and the campus overflowed with students. From the confused freshmen like Banri, who received information on lectures from their seniors at the club recruiting event, to the seniors in their suits. Holding huge schedules about the size oftatami mats, that were on the verge of tearing at the folds from opening and closing them while strolling about the corridors, going to and from classrooms, occupying benches, sending messages by cellphone.
But the only time so many students come to college must be in the spring, I think. Once the long summer vacation is over, half the campus population will naturally disappear. One or two of them, perhaps a few more, might even lose their bodies like me. Which means that they died. I’m not waiting for it eagerly though, really, but that kind of thing can’t be avoided.
Banri had better pay attention too. Unaccustomed to drinking, unaccustomed to staying out late at night, living alone out from under his parents eyes, fresh driving license, new friends, with an excess of energy, lots of free time to waste --- the world of young men is full of danger.
Sports Science was the most popular easy-credit course, and all the students were filing into the classroom. The seats were filling steadily from the back. In any case nobody can see me, and since in my state I cannot affect anybody, it really didn't matter where I was, but for some reason, I got the feeling that I should give up my seat. The clicking of highheels rang out, and from down the aisle a girl came and sat in that very seat.
Banri’s mouth still bulging full of boiled egg, he turned at the presence of the girl.
The lecture about to start, another one came running into the classroom. Her Nikes made hardly a sound. It was Linda.
Linda still standing in the aisle, unseated, noticed Banri and looked at his profile. Banri didn’t notice this. He didn’t notice my existence either, of course.
* * *
"Today, Kaga-san talked to me."
"Really? What did she say?"
"She said 'Takada-kuuun'."
"There's an extra syllable", Yanagisawa laughed uproariously, while he slid a cutter along the cover of a cardboard box. Turning his T-shirt's back to Banri, he sat as if over an old japanese style toilet, in an orderly fashion cutting the packing tape from all four sides of the box.
This place is Banri’s castle. Its name is Neo-Phoenix. This apartment, even if burnt down any number of times, would reborn from the flames... it felt like. Room number 204.
A small twenty square meter , but with a wooden floor. Not new construction, but relatively new. No need to change lines commuting to school, direct connection. Facing to the northeast, but at least a corner room. The room his mother liked was a much larger 1DK, same rent, but Japanese style, with bright southern exposure, but built twenty-four years ago. Its big closet seemed convenient and the room wasn’t all that run down, but he’d been a little nervous that it was older than himself, so he’d decided on this room instead. There wasn’t much furniture and other stuff yet, and maybe because of this, it was comfortable for now.
Unconsciously searching for bald spots on the top of Yanagisawa's head, Banri was sitting on a tall stool set in the combined kitchen and entryhall, his feet swinging idly. In spite of it being from a second hand shop, and costing only four hundred yen, it was stable and pleasant to sit on. There were some strange stains scattered about on the top, they bothered him, but he didn’t care.
Yanagisawa grabbed the cutter again from where he had set it on the floor, cutting clean through the rest of the packing tape. Banri’s mother, worried about her helpless son, had sent him a care package from Shizuoka, almost at once.
"So, when I told her that I wasn’t Takada, she said 'Oh, pardon me, ta, Tanaka-kun'."
"She only got the 'ta' right. You see, that’s the kind of person Kouko is. She doesn’t pay much attention to others, and doesn’t remember their names. She’s always full of things related to herself. Let's see, it's open now. Just what kind of treasure has your mother sent?"
"I said my name is not Tanaka either, but I'll give her a hint, it's two-letters, she gave me 'Two letters...? Kaga-kun...?' That’s your last name, right? I said. "
"Didn't you just make that up now? ...Oh! Look, Banri!"
Turning to face him with a delighted expression, Yanagisawa lifted the open box with some difficulty, and tilted it towards Banri to see.
"Incredible, Tada Mieko-chan, you really know how to choose! Wonderful choice!"
"What's that? And anyway, how did you know Mieko is her name?"
"Because I looked at the return address, of course! I love Mieko! Look at these ramen! Yakisoba cups! It’s enough to make a guy cry... ah! Pasta! There’s pasta sauce too! Calorie Mate pastries, canned tuna, canned mackerel, sweets, and also... what’s this? A film case? And there’s three more."
Getting up from the stool, Banri peeked into Yanagisawa's hands.
"Ah, those. There's tea powder in them. We grind it at home, so the containers are just something random. You put about a half teaspoon into the cup with hot water and drink it as is, you don’t need a teapot nor a strainer. You want one? It’s super easy, and you can drink the tea leaves entirely, which is said to be good for your body too."
"Gimme gimme gimme! I’d love to do my body some good! Oh, there’s a letter stuck in here."
The white envelope surrendered to him, Banri sat down again on the stool. On the front, only "From Mother" was written. Letters like rain-wetted willow leaves could be seen.
Lectures long over, it was nine in the evening.
Yanagisawa’s condo was about three train stations away from here, and when he heard that a care package from home had arrived for Banri, the guy had said "see you in five minutes", and flew over, at night, by bicycle. Aiming to get something for nothing, the mooching rascal. That he really showed up in five minutes was scary... just kidding of course.
Yanagisawa seemed to have been raised in affluent surroundings; he certainly lived with a certain refinement, Banri reflected. But according to him, it seemed things had gone somewhat sour in his parent’s house after he faced them down over taking the outside examinations. In any case with no hope of getting a school expense allowance, despite a long time interviewing like crazy for part time jobs, looking for a job anywhere, he still hadn’t gotten one, and it was still unclear how he will pay his tuition. (he himself thought it was 'My parents or Kouko’s fault!', but the real reason wasn’t known). For now, as he had no other choice but to endure at a temporary job, he got a painful lesson about his future.
"What’s the letter about? They are telling you to share everything among your friends, aren't they?"
The letter mentioned no such thing, though Banri of course intended to share what he got.
"Take care of yourself. Don’t skip classes. Don’t spend too much time on the internet. Get enough exercise. Keep in mind that there are responsibilities that go with being an adult. ...Like that."
He even showed Yanagisawa the five lines of text written on the paper, put the paper back in the envelope and stuck it in a kitchen drawer. While he wasn’t looking, Yanagisawa grabbed a few packs of microwave ready meals out of the box.
"Ah! Just a second Yana-ssan, would you mind not putting your hands on him?"
He planned to share everything he got, but that was a different matter.
"As far as I’m concerned, is something special. I couldn’t share that even with you, Yana-ssan."
Yanagisawa obediently said "I see...", and nodded, quietly returning the ready meals back to the box.
"Well then, what about ramen? Could I have some ramen? How many would be OK? There are four bags with five packs in them each. A total of twenty."
Up to five, he thought, but instead
"You can have half of what I’ve got..."
Out of kindness. At a glance, he could see three or four mosquito bites where his pal's arm extended out from his T-shirt.
"Also, if you like sweet stuff, you can have all of the cookies too..."
"Really? You’re giving them to me! Why!?"
"Because you looked so pitiful, putting up with the mosquitos having a bite of you... and yet, it’s only April..."
"Yeah, it got soo itchy not long ago."
"Besides, when I moved in I've brought a lot with me. There's a factory in my neighborhood that makes them, and a relative of mine works there, making so-called second class goods. I can get a ton of the stuff from them. So at my parent’s house this is the only thing we can eat without limits. I don’t think we’ve had to buy this stuff at list price in all my life."
"Really!? That ‘second-class stuff’ is just as good as the real thing! It’s been that way since you were a kid? If I were little, I’d be dancing around for this stuff!"
"Childhood, ...well... what was that like?"
"Come on now, you had your own."
"So I did, but... So I did, but yeah, I guess I did."
Yanagisawa’s laughter washed away Banri’s vague response. He spread out a yellow plastic bag from , that was wrapped into a pentagon in an old-fashioned way, and immediately, chuckling to himself, started stuffing cookies into it.
While Banri was watching sidelong, his mouth opened a little. He took a breath, like a child watching a jump rope, trying to figure out when to jump into it, his head bobbing slightly. "By the way...", he tried to start. But. Hesitating just a little, becoming strangely reticent, Banri’s gaze darkened. ---Impossible. Stop. Let's put it off for today after all. Not more just a bit grave timing is... not yet.
His chest filled with air, he had to let it out little by little so it wouldn’t be noticed. He couldn’t say it today either, but that was OK. Next time, next time.
In a high pitched voice, he playfully called "Yana-ssan!" "Gross!" his new friend answered in the same falsetto, without turning his head.
"Anyway, can we go back to the previous conversation? What I said about Kaga-san. I met her in the first period today."
"Ah, sports studies? I was perplexed about it but I'm glad I haven't attended."
"Kaga-san asked me to tell her everything about your schedule."
Yanagisawa had been grabbing various flavors of ramen noodles, one by one, glaring at them like licking them with his hungry eyes, as he decided which he would take back with him, but then he suddenly stopped moving. Soon, still crouched down, he turned slowly to look up at Banri, who was seated on his stool swinging his feet. Mitsuo's face became serious. After his somewhat refined features, this sudden lack of expression was rather scary.
"No no no! I wouldn't tell her, as I know you’ve been trying to avoid her."
Saying something like "Good", Yanagisawa nodded his still-serious face. Because of how he was sitting after turning back, one knee on the ground, he wound up looking like a dog trainer.
And then, as if to say "Come on!", he pointed a finger at Banri bending it a few times, gesturing "OK, keep on talking."
"...But, even Kaga-san herself seems to have realized that you are avoiding her. She was sighing, 'Whenever he sees me, he runs away, he even avoids having the same lectures with me. Coming to this college just to be together with Mitsuo is meaningless this way...'"
"It's not like her so stop it. But well, it really is that way. Even she understands, sort of."
"'So, as kidnapping is a no-no, could you please give information once Yana-ssan's registered his classes?' she asked. She postpones her registration until you do, as it seems she wants to match yours."
Yanagisawa gave quite a frown.
"Which I refused to do of course, from the start. And then she said something like 'I wouldn't want it for free.'"
"...She’s that kind of girl, so she..."
Tsk, Yanagisawa clicked his tongue, his mouth twisted with a fed-up look, and he rotated his head. There was a loud crackling sound, echoing as if from the depths of the underworld. Might that be a threat? But to whom?
"When I heard that, as you would expect, I put on a face like 'What is that supposed to mean?' Then even Kaga-san seemed to realize my refusal, and stopped nagging me. Though she was seated behind me and to the side, she must have felt uncomfortable, "See you", she said and moved up to the first row of seats. With nobody else in the front row she was alone, sitting there, and it seemed that she had nobody else to talk to..."
"Well, not that I had anyone to talk to either, since Yana-ssan wasn’t coming", Banri went on, and this morning’s scene entered his mind.
Amongst the other students, dressed in their colorless jeans and hoodies, Kouko, wearing what must have been brand-name, an order or two of magnitude more expensive than the others, a bright pink, one piece silk dress, she really stood out from the crowd.
Dark brown hair spilling over her shoulders, in her ears were diamonds set in flower-shaped earrings. Her arms so white, her wrists so delicate, her neck so smooth it was scary, she could hardly be more different from the rest of the class.
Besides, seen from the side, she appeared to be bored, listening to the lecture. Her profile was pretty without doubt. Even Banri as a guy understood, that she was spending her time carefully doing her makeup. It was not only Banri watching her profile fixedly for an hour and a half for sure. But everybody in the classroom --- both boys and girls, even the professor, was looking at the rose-scented Kouko, he thought.
There was not a single person, Banri included, to call out to her.
"As I saw Kaga-san like that, somehow I..."
When the lecture ended, Kouko, in order to shake free from the many eyes that had glued themselves to her, quickly left the classroom. Colliding with another student at the door, she halted, flashed her perfect princess-like smile, and signed with her hand for him to go ahead. Seeing that, some students near Banri commented, "So forced.", "She's always wearing nothing but brand-name stuff.", "'Cause her parents've got money, of course!", "That, or she's turning tricks?", "Some guy bought it for her, for sure.", and so on, tossing biting words back and forth.
Society is always harsh towards anything that's different.
"Well, she seemed quite... pitiable, to me."
At Banri’s words, Yanagisawa’s eyes opened wide and his face twisted. "Huh?", he made an exaggerated gesture, and with an expression that could have been taken as a confused smile, he asked,
"What? Do you perhaps sympathize with Kouko?"
"A little, yes. Really, just a little. You too, if you’d seen it you would..."
To the words that were returned in an instant, "But, look..." he tried to retort.
"But reaaalllyyy! Life is so easy for beautiful girls!"
Overcome by the sudden force of that line, even Banri fell silent.
"She can do whatever she wants, and fix it by making such a face that makes others think ‘poor thing’, ‘poor thing’! You are the same, you were there with me when she attacked us with roses, and yet because she was pretty you didn’t get angry, right? Instead you say things like ‘poor thing’, right? She didn’t injure me, though it did hurt, but most of all she humiliated me! What would it be like if an ugly girl did the same thing? What if a really ugly one blasted you with a bunch of roses? You would have been like ‘scram, get out of here’, am I right? Even if some diarrhea faced girl were to turn and chase after me, could you say the same thing? Could you speak of how pitiful and lonely she is? You couldn't, right? Anyhow..."
He declared, pointing at Banri’s nose with his finger, but even with that, Yanagisawa still couldn't vent his frustration. Wrinkles gathered about his nose as he repeatedly tried to move his bangs away from his face.
"...All and every one of them say the same thing, after all it’s somebody else’s problem. ‘She's beautiful so don't mind it’, ‘I envy you’, ‘I want to be in your place’, ‘What is your problem?’ ‘Don't be selfish’... If you’re beautiful, are you automatically loved? No way. Seriously, put yourself in my shoes. Everybody’s been too easily fooled."
He roughly opened another Matsukiyo bag turning his back, but Banri had something to say too.
"What’s with you? Not that I've ever said anything like those! I refused to tell her your schedule even after she asked, didn't I?"
He didn’t deserve to get a sermon. For that matter, be it all or every one of whoever, there was no reason to include him in the same lot.
"It may be true that I sympathize with her because she’s beautiful, but that’s within my rights. But I don’t think that you must go and talk with Kaga-san! If you want to ignore somebody, that’s your right. But you don’t have the right to make somebody else do so. As for me, when I saw Kaga-san alone I felt sympathy for her. Because of that, I’m thinking that the next time I see her I will call out to her."
"...Is that so?"
He was serious, he nodded.
Today’s encounter with Kouko was cut off with him giving her a sharp look in refusal. That ambiguous conclusion made him feel awfully bad. It left a bad aftertaste.
He had no intention to give Yanagisawa’s course information to Kouko like she wished, but it was because he wanted to give priority to Yana-ssan's wishes. On the other hand, Banri himself wasn’t holding anything against Kouko, and he wanted to make sure she knew of this somehow. Even though he was brought into the conflict, even though his friend loathed her, even though his name wasn't remembered, even though he was never even noticed to begin with, Banri didn't hate her for such reasons. He could not reject her.
Like Yanagisawa said, it may be simply because Kouko is beautiful. It could be that he only felt sympathy for her because she’s beautiful. But, let's suppose--- If Kouko’s appearance wasn't that pretty, say, she looked like some rascal instead, even if she did the same things, Banri didn’t think he could come to hate her. Or you might say, he didn’t want to be like that.
Yanagisawa stopped talking back. He was sullenly silent, frowning, looking down at the bag stuffed with candy and ramen. Saying "I don’t need these", he would leave, ending the friendship they had only just built. If that happened, what should he do? Should he apologize? But what about? Banri awkwardly stared at his own tiptoes. Really, he had no idea what he should do. He didn’t have the experience for this situation. However,
"Well, ...you have a point. Just because I'm avoiding Kouko, that doesn’t mean I have the right to make you do so too."
His irritation and hunger were pulling him in different directions, but it appeared that hunger was getting the upper hand.
Or that perhaps he really wanted to keep his friendship with Banri.
Yanagisawa shrugged his shoulders and said, “Let’s stop this. Kouko is not something we should argue about.” Was it the free stuff, or rather their friendship? Whatever he really felt about this matter, there was no reason for them to argue, Banri agreed. “Yeah”, he said, and got down from his stool.
"This is what being friends is about."
He put a pack of microwave ready meal into the vinyl bag. What is more, two of them.
* * *
Banri caught sight of Kaga Kouko in front of a club recruiting booth in the first floor lobby.
It was after the fourth period, moreover on Friday, and many large groups of people were streaming to club welcome parties for new members. All the booths that were nothing more but long tables lined up, were getting a lot of traffic. It was already almost impossible to see where one club started and another ended. The lobby was jammed with students from all college years mixed together in great turmoil. As they were distractedly walking and chattering, some guys stepped on Banri's feet, hard. He shouted automatically. When he looked back, they weren’t there. It was so deafeningly noisy in that confusion, that Banri’s voice was swallowed without a trace.
In the middle of all those students, Kouko was by herself today too.
An air pocket, about one meter around, isolated her from the Friday crowd, leaving her alone. Her head bowed, the white nape of her neck exposed, she was reading some pamphlets in her hands. To Banri, she looked like a flower in bloom.
Nobody was approaching her.
Beneath the old fluorescent lights, as if wearing muddy shadows, everybody were sunken under a shade, but somehow the silhouette of Kouko seemed to be shedding a faint, gentle white light. Yet that same appearance created an atmosphere that made it difficult to call out to her. Even the gangs of fanatical club recruiters seemed to be keeping their distance from her. There were guys peeking at her, passing through the three-meter wide area around the air pocket, hardly noticeably pointing fingers at her and whispering. Whether it was restraint, or paralysis, to Banri it seemed that everybody was avoiding "to be the first guy to talk with her".
Perhaps she was simply too overwhelming.
Anyhow, they all had to be thinking that she wouldn’t talk with them, or that she must be different from them, or that talking with her would be pointless. That they wouldn't understand each other. To tell the truth, even Banri was thinking a bit like that.
Today too, Kouko’s outward appearance was just right. Her gently curled hair was bound by a black satin hairband, such as a rich lady might wear. Light yellow fluffy blouse with a matching gray flared skirt, strapped high-heeled sandals. Her soft leather purse was black, although it had no brand marks. Beautiful face. Beautiful figure.
In comparison with the pink mini one piece dress of the day before, it looked like she intended to tone it down a bit. But, as usual when compared to the other co-eds, she could hardly be more different. Thinking that this difference is so unfortunate, craning his neck from the shadow of a pillar, Banri gazed at Kouko’s slender, well proportioned waist. Though it couldn't be said, that with the other people passing behind her, she would have looked like a crane in the garbage dump--- about as different as a pearl from . About as different as the 'Birth of Venus' receiving the blessing of angels and shining among waves is from sea grapes arranged in an oyster shell, and served wearing geta. Yes, around that much.
By the way, it wasn’t that Banri was hiding in order to stare at Kouko as much as he wanted, but rather because of the older girls of the Tea Ceremony Club right next to her.
This week he and Yanagisawa had made the rounds of all the clubs that were trying to recruit new members, getting all sorts of free food and drink. They visited the tennis club, the gourmet club and the advertising club; out of curiosity they even peeked at the large scale party of another college's event club... and then went to the Tea Ceremony Club too.
The drinking party of the Tea Ceremony Club was fun as such. But, the mood with only women was formidable (Crying out "My dear elder sister, that smells delicious!", girls bowing so deep down in the tatami room, that they almost push their faces into their senior’s groins isn’t something you see often...), and seeing the few male members used as slaves was terrifying as well. 'You there! Bring the pitcher!' 'You! Pour!' 'Hey you! Decide where we’re going next!' 'You fish! Distribute this to everyone!' 'Hey hey! Do you think the Tea Ceremony Club is for bowling?!' 'Gulp.. Elder sister, it's delicious!' It went like this. Male help is warmly welcomed! Come join the club! Let's work together! Such invitation e-mails full of sparkling swarms of emoticons, mostly sent out by the older guys, were even more frightening.
So, not wanting to be seen by the girls if at all possible, Banri was hiding behind the cover of a large standing sign, that was carried by a group that luckily happened to pass by. Bent over, he moved behind the thin plywood, getting closer to Kouko with small steps. For some reason there were big and small holes, just in the right places in the sign.
"Kaga-san, what you doing?"
"...This is, unexpected..."
Hiding his nervousness, he popped his face out of one hole, just right for a face. He stuck his right hand out of another hole, just right for a right hand. The front of the sign, bearing a full length portrait of Sakamoto Ryoma, had had the hand and face removed so that people could pose and have their pictures taken there. It was a little surreal that Ryouma, carried at an angle surprisingly called out to Kouko, moreover,
As it was, with the sign being carried sideways, Banri’s head was about to be torn off. He was scolded by the guys realizing this. Probably, they all were from the history club.
Pulling his head and hand out, Banri appeared from behind the sign. For only a moment, Kouko stared at him, bewildered.
But right away, her perfect lady-like smile could be seen again. The short conversation that ended unpleasantly yesterday, her loneliness just now, as if declaring "I'm pretending like those have never happened!" she smiled sweetly.
"Takada-kun. It's OK if I call you that, right? Good day!"
Still getting it wrong.
"Tada, Tada Banri. Since I saw you were alone, I was wondering what you are doing here."
"Yes, yes, Tada-kun. Good day!"
While she smiled beautifully with her deep red lips, Kouko wasn’t looking at Banri’s face at all. She seemed to be looking all around him, searching for somebody else. Banri figured she was probably looking for Yanagisawa. That guy told him that today he was going to the welcoming party of the Video Research Club. Banri was invited too, but all those real movie otaku like older students left him feeling overwhelmed and he'd decided to do something else instead.
"If you’re looking for Yana-ssan, he’s got a meeting today."
Kouko blinked and only moving her pupils, she finally looked at Banri’s face.
"Where at? ...Even if I asked, you wouldn’t tell me, right? Tada-kun?"
While slipping a finger through her glossy hair, she raised her chin a little bit. White teeth glistening through her fixed smile, she slowly eyed Banri up, from the top of his head to the tip of his shoes and back. Folding her arms, giving an unusual impression, she slightly tilted her head to the side,
"Or perhaps you’ve changed your mind?"
Deliberately taking plenty of time, she blinked once more.
She gazed at Banri with a perfect smile, her eyes fixed on him, not moving.
But not so much as to make him feel any hostility, though.
"No, ...that hasn’t changed."
Out of habit, perhaps, she ran her fingers through her hair again.
From those gestures alone, thoughts like "she may be pretty scary..." had come to mind. That might be because her expression, with the prettily upturned corners of her mouth, didn't convey any temperature at all. It wasn’t too warm nor too cold, too dry nor too wet. There wasn't even the doubt of anything artificial in it. Simply with overwhelming sense of indifference, that smile shone beautifully in front of Banri.
Under the strength of those flashing black eyes, Banri suddenly couldn't understand why he felt pity for her yesterday. As she was standing there, her figure supplely twisting at the waist, with good looks, a smile and fashionable to boot, was she not perfect? He couldn’t see any weaknesses nor faults. He had a feeling nobody in this world could outshine Kaga Kouko.
Already forgetting just why he wanted to talk to her, saying "Well then, please pardon me...", with that like a clumsy crayfish, he tried to get away with the flow sideways, but
"Ah, Tada Banri!"
He’d been caught off guard.
"What is this, which new club are you going to now!? Are you maybe cheating on us!?"
"We're drinking again today aren’t we? You’re coming, of course?"
Somebody had caught both his shoulders firmly and was shaking them. He’d been discovered. This was the dreadful duo of second-years of the Tea Ceremony Club Girls. Their names: Sao-chan and Shii-chan. Sao-chan was fierce, and Shii-chan relatively absentminded by comparison. These older girls stuck like glue to the babyfaced Banri, who was easygoing and outwardly lacked many of the less redeeming qualities of guys. Well, it wasn’t all that bad, but as you might expect, it wasn’t all that good either.
"Ah... uwaa... ladies... Greetings..."
"Don't give us 'Greetings'! You’re a spoiled brat!"
At any rate, it was quite frightening. While being poked in the ribs by Sao-chan,
"Come on, why don't you make up your mind already and sign up quickly for our club? For that matter, wouldn't you answer to our boys’ e-mails? They were crying because they got no answer! Hmm?"
Shii-chan sluggishly inserted the end of a pen into the opening of his ear. Banri’s back was about ready to break, aah, please, no more... he was on the verge of joining the Tea Ceremony Club, when,
"Ah, sorry. You've got company."
It seemed as if Sao-chan and Shii-chan had only just then noticed Kouko’s existence, who'd been looking at them with slightly tilted head.
Letting go of Banri, looking at each others faces for an instant, they looked at Kouko again. Her smile perfect as always, Kouko waited for introductions, keeping her mouth shut like a well trained house dog. The two older girls once again looked at each others faces and said, "Well, then, send an e-mail if you feel like it", "Catch you later, Tada Banrii", sluggish wave, and they left.
Banri, who had no plans to join the Tea Ceremony Club, was saved by Kouko.
"...What was this about, I wonder?"
Her tone of muttering didn't sound like a monologue.
Kouko placed her slender finger by the side of her chin, as if wondering, and lightly turned towards Banri.
"Hey Tada-kun, what do you think? About this."
"Eh? This was..."
Right in front of him. Kouko was looking at him from point blank range, and once more he gulped, thinking ‘She sure has a nice face!’ Sadly, it seemed like her gaze itself was no different than before.
"T, they were two girls from the Tea Ceremony Club, I think."
"I wasn’t talking about that."
"They are called Sao-chan and Shii-chan."
"I don’t want to know their stage-names either."
Kouko slowly shook her head, coming even closer to him. Then, for some reason lowering her voice,
"...Could you answer me honestly? Setting Mitsuo aside for the moment, I really want to know this."
Eh? Eh? Once more Banri’s nose twitched, tickled by a thick sweet aroma.
"Tada-kun, from the entrance ceremony to now, how many clubs have you been invited to join?"
She was wearing rose scent again today--- recovering his reason, he returned from that dangerous place where his brain was about to melt. Kouko was waiting for an answer.
"Please, answer. How many?"
"'How many', so to speak… err, well... I’ve visited around five or six recruitment meetings... including those times when I turned back at once, and when I sneaked into the afterparties, umm umm, but"
Banri, trying to cover up, that even though he wasn't a kid anymore, he got so nervous in a situation like this, desperately searched his memory, but,
"The number of invitations itself, precisely, well... there is no way I could remember them all, and what counts as an invitation is vague too, and there were countless times they just called out to me."
Ever since the entrance ceremony, the chaotic recruiting meetings hadn’t stopped. As soon as freshmen passed in front of the club booths, the older students of every club swarmed out like hyenas. Both Banri and Yanagisawa, they were caught so many times, leaflets stuck in their pockets, and invited to welcoming parties. They had to at least make a visit at the places they fancied. Clubs coming from affiliated schools, with already established connections were probably engaged in smarter and more promising activities though.
Skillfully keeping her smile, Kouko went on,
"That’s... very many, many many manyyy, right...?"
"Kaga-san... are you ...?"
Quickly looking both ways, checking the coast was clear, she rolled up leaflets of some places she had in her hand, and put them to Banri’s right ear. And then in an unexpectedly low voice, as if she were confessing something shameful,
Her breath seemed to burn his right ear.
Not seeming to be bothered by Banri’s surprised expression, Kouko backed off, one hand on her hip. Through the prettily upturned corners of her mouth, her white teeth shone. Even though her pose, her smile was decidedly like that of an actress,
"...I wonder why? Why, why would nobody even raise their voice to call me?"
Oh boy, he thought.
She couldn't hide the slight shaking of her tone of voice, coming from her tilted head, revealing her inability to endure the isolation. That’s how it sounded to Banri, at least.
Kouko’s form radiated loneliness, and the reality was brought home to him once more. "Life is so easy for beautiful girls!", he remembered even Yanagisawa’s voice shouting. Everybody’s been too easily fooled!--- Really?
Am I fooled here for certain?
But, for now, that the woman was in front of him in the flesh, Banri’s heart hurt. That thing is for sure.
"Not that I would be interested in clubs! I don't want to be invited. I don't even think about such things as joining any, if I can't be with Mitsuo. But, somehow, I'm so much... I don’t know how should I put this... Since coming here, at any rate, I've completely..."
So lonely, so pathetic. So,
"...turned invisible, I feel. Like I’m being ignored, that’s what I feel like. And not just by Mitsuo. ...By everybody around me."
Message received, loud and clear! Leave it to me! Yana-ssan’s classes, his club plans, I'll tell you everything, so go ahead and intrude on him! I’m supporting you!--- Is it like that?
In sympathizing with the person before his eyes, was he simply being deceived and taken in by a pretty face? Basically, was he being used as a means to get to Yana-ssan?
Or is it that Kaga Kouko was really beaten down by the lonely days?
But even in being deceived and used, was there any harm in that? Was there? At the least if his sympathy towards her would make him reveal information about Yanagisawa, that would cause the guy a lot of harm. ...I see, so is that why he is so alert when Kouko arouses sympathy? As for himself, ...what should he do?
As for himself, what does he want to do?
Is showing sympathy wrong? Do I not want to be deceived? And why? For Yanagisawa’s sake?
Not understanding anything, he was lost in how to express his feelings. Banri gazed up into space, his mind a blank. Divine revelation, the promptings of a guardian angel, no matter where it came from, a message showing him what to do would be welcome, he even had such foolish thoughts. But of course, such things cannot happen. He had to think with his own head and heart.
"Am I so strange, I wonder."
As if striking her round forehead with the pamphlets in her hand, she hid her face with a thud. Only the shape of her mouth could be seen, that she forced into a smile.
"I wonder if that is why not even Mitsuo will accompany me."
"...Kaga-san, is that..."
Was this an act to extract Yana-ssan’s information from him?
Or, for real,
"...breaking your heart?"
Smiling broadly in the shape her lips were fixed, she had spoken that one word without hesitation. Her raising intonation showing unconcern had resounded quite firmly.
He had been staring at her mouth without thinking, when,
"Ah, you are interested in our club? Sorry, sorry, the booth was left unattended for a bit!"
Somebody raised the pamphlets Kouko used as a cover for her face, and there was a woman grinning on them.
Kouko looked at her with surprise in her wide open eyes. Just what was her face like behind those pamphlets, nobody will ever know.
"You two, you’re freshmen, aren’t you? Thank you for your interest. We are an all-around, well, simply put, 'cherry blossom viewing drinking party in the spring, seaside barbecue drinking party in the summer, autumn-leaf hunting drinking party in the autumn, snowboarding drinking party in the winter' club, with a carefree attitude. We have students from many colleges, you will make lots of new friends. I’m not really a student here; I’m a third year from **** girl’s college."
Materializing unexpectedly, the person was taller than either Kouko or Banri. She wore slim denims with a matching V-neck knit top, and swinging from her neck was a silver necklace shaped like a snowflake. Hair cut in a bob, covering her ears, cheerful, pure looking and refreshing, somehow seeming like a television announcer.
"You look a little down in the mouth, though. What’s up? Are you OK? Ah, perhaps something happened during the solicitations?"
She anxiously looked into Kouko’s face. In an instant, Kouko had her usual smile restored,
"Far from it. I’m doing fine. Thank you very much."
With a princess-like attitude, she calmly bowed her head. Reflexively, Banri bowed his head too, in unison with her.
"That so? In that case good. In case anyone is too insistent, or causing you any trouble, then by all means tell me, OK? There seem to be some pushy fellows, the tennis club has such a bad reputation. I heard that they’re super insistent in doing their invitations. By the way, you two, what are your names?"
"Ah, er, I’m Tada. Tada Banri."
"My name is Kaga."
"I see, I see. Tada-kun and Kaga-san, right? Have you been to any club welcoming parties?"
"Eh? Well, um, yes", seeing Banri nod,
"Ah, I see! Where, where? Where were you at?"
The upperclassman girl from the 'all-around club' peppered him with questions. Banri wanted to give an honest answer, listing all of them, but,
"Ah, I've got an idea!"
With a cheerful smile, she clapped her hands and spoke, interrupting him.
"If it’s all right with you, could you tell me about it, perhaps over tea? I mean, it's only that I got so thirsty, look, from spending all day long in this booth asking, 'Are you a freshman?', I’m exhausted! Will I be scolded even if I'm skipping, if I hang out with underclassmen? Right? Haha, places at the station like the Doutor are always so terribly crowded, but did you know, that there is actually a nice and little-known coffee shop? You didn't, right? And that their café au lait is a decent café au lait bowl? By the way, Tada-kun, do you know about it? What the café au lait bowl is."
"...Eh? Well, no... I don’t know."
"Really-- boys don’t know that feeling, but as for me, I love coffee, and-- well, most girls are the same I think."
The upperclassman gave Banri a light poke in the shoulder. And then she gleefully turned her smile towards Kouko,
"Girls understand, right?"
"Café au lait bowl! You know what I mean, right Kaga-san?"
"All right then, it’s decided! Let’s go!"
As if they were old friends, suddenly she took Kouko’s hand intimately. Visibly a bit surprised, Kouko looked down at her hand that was taken, but before she could open her well-formed lips to say something,
The upperclassman yelped. The sudden volume of her voice might have been overpowering: Kouko’s long eyelashes fluttered, her chin pulled back a bit.
"No way, no way, ehhh, that’s a super pretty ring! That’s a diamond, right!? Is it Tiffany!?"
"...Er, well, but... Somehow, I thought was a bit flashy for wearing to school, but, er, my hand..."
"Eh, why do you say!? It’s completely OK, it’s not overboard! It’s OK OK OK! I mean, it suits you incredibly well, and when I saw it not long ago I wanted one too! I mean, if I got one, I would absolutely wear it to school, and to work after school, you know? What’s the point of having it, if you don’t wear it! It's OK, let me see it closer, ah, it’s as pretty as I expected!"
Almost by brute force, in the position they were, she pulled Kouko after herself and off they went. "Maybe the upperclassman wants to grab my hand with the same force...", but Banri’s such worries were groundless. She simply called out to Banri, "Go out through the entrance over there!"
"Oh, don’t worry, it’s my treat! It's only natural since I'm the one wanting you to come with me! By the way, I can tell you anything I know about the lectures!"
...Could details about our lectures be going around even amongst other college’s students?
Banri was dumbfounded, but regrettably, if you were a lively new freshmen, as such, you had to accept such things.
"I can recall, when we were freshmen, the upperclassmen taught us this way too. Ah, I’ve somehow missed the bustling atmosphere of spring! The mood of the season, there’s something special in the air! Isn't it trembling with excitement?"
Yes, the air is trembling with excitement, you had to smile and nod back in that mood--- that's how it felt, so he did.
While the older girl pulled her by the hand, as if she were a little child, Kouko looked back towards Banri, who followed behind. With only that glance, even Banri understood that Kouko was confused. Banri was confused too. He was plenty confused. This upperclassman after her sudden appearance, gave him a strangely uncomfortable feeling. She was refreshingly cheerful, chatting away about this and that, but after all he couldn't really understand what was it that she wanted to say. He had no idea about where and for what reason was she dragging them along, to begin with.
"Well--- whatever. Let’s go see", Banri mouthed in response to Kouko’s look back at him, nodding a bit too.
Together with Kaga Kouko in a coffee shop, listening to what their upperclassman says. He had the feeling that he won't face such a curious situation ever again. Rare it was, rare. He would never have been able to casually invite her to tea by himself. Also this mysterious-like upperclassman was rather pretty.
Beside, and more importantly, this was Kouko’s first invitation to a club. This was the long awaited opportunity, so you might as well be open for it, thought Banri.
Of course, Banri didn’t know Kouko's real thoughts.
She was probably lonesome for real, this current situation where nobody called out to her was probably painful for her.
But that might be a lie, and she wasn’t really lonely, she was only wearing that face, using that voice, all as part of a strategy to draw out Yanagisawa’s schedule from Banri. If Yanagisawa wasn’t in a club, being invited by them or not probably didn't matter. Being ignored by anybody but Yanagisawa probably didn't really matter for her.
But, if indeed he was being deceived, then so be it, Banri thought. Disliked and avoided by Yanagisawa, and with everybody else keeping their distance from her, the lonely Kouko with her downcast eyes was a pitiful sight. Whether it was a lie or the truth, as long as he saw Kouko like that, Banri’s chest hurt.
He could live with being deceived. Banri wanted to do something about Kouko’s loneliness, somehow. But, giving out Yanagisawa’s personal information wasn’t going to be part of it.
If that was the case, then he’d go along for this strange ride. Looking back occasionally to check whether Banri was coming along, as the upperclassman was pulling Kouko by the hand, they left the school building.
Thus by being invited to a club, by listening to the upperclassman, or even by visiting the club's invitation party, they could make new friends, setting aside whether they wanted to officially join the club or not. Peeking into another world, there might be something even for Kouko to gain.
You could call it selfish meddling, and it certainly is.
But, even if all this, as far as Kouko is concerned, is nothing more but unwanted selfish meddling, it’s Kouko’s own fault that she drew out the sympathy of a simple fool like me.
Anyway, for now, with everything he had, Banri set himself to rescue Kouko from her solitude.
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