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Tada Banri was talking on the telephone.
It was Saturday morning. The overly sunny station platform had few people on it, and nobody but Banri was sitting on the four-seat bench. Squinting like a dirty-looking old man in the bright sunshine, he went all the way to the very last seat to sit down. He set his small nylon sack down by his knees. I was standing by Banri's side, trying to stick my ear to the other side of his cellphone, by the transmit light.
He speed-dialed his mother, but in the middle of the first ring what came out of the telephone speaker was his dad. When Banri heard that voice, he flinched slightly. A little brusquely, he said, "I can't hear you well, hello hello, it's me, Banri." "Ah, oh", he could hear his dad answering in roughly the same brusque voice. "Mother?", Banri asked, and his father replied, "In the kitchen. Wait while I go get her." Speaking quickly to his father, Banri said, "No, that's fine. I'll be staying one day at the club training camp. That's all."
In front of the bench where Banri was sitting, in spite of it being Saturday, the suited forms of three salarymen were approaching. Banri panicked and lifted up the bag that was illegally occupying one of the seats, putting it on his lap.
"OK then, until next time I call!"
"Oh", answered his father, and quickly hung up, as if in a race to hang up the phone. From such a short conversation, Banri was suddenly exhausted. It was only his father, but even so it had been tense. He didn't understand why he should feel that way. Still, Banri wondered what his father must be thinking about after a call like that.
Or would his feelings be hurt, despite the distance?
Nonchalantly acting like he was combing his bangs, Banri's cool!, he snuck a look at the armpit of his T-shirt. Finding nothing changed, he smiled. Safe. He let out a sigh. The other night, suddenly his father was asking him over the phone, "What's up? What are you doing? Has nothing changed?", asking him all sorts of things. The next three minutes were worrisome. Awkwardly hanging up the phone afterwards, sweat had been running down his arm all the way to his elbow. The mysteries of the human body... while muttering such things to himself, kneeling on the floor, he was sticking layers of facial tissue in his cold wet armpits, three at a time. That was one miserable scene.
In the end, none of the three companions sat down at the bench, but rather amused themselves standing around and talking not far from Banri. Banri decided to put the bag he was holding back on the next seat. But one of the salarymen jerked... seemed to squirm, or maybe jumped when he picked up the bag again. But he didn't sit down. He wasn't about to sit, but rather it seemed he was only switching his briefcase from his right hand to his left.
Banri eventually put the bag back up on his lap, and once more opened up his cellphone. The train still hadn't arrived, and he hadn't received any texts from anybody. I took the seat next to Banri, and together with Banri looked over at the small screen on the phone. Fiddling with the buttons little by little, he wrote a note.
My form is not seen, not by Banri, not by anybody. Not father, nobody here knows what I am doing.
Wham, at that moment, the bench suddenly shook hard. Banri's face snapped up. It had occurred to the three guys to all sit down at once.
Nobody in this world even noticed my existence.
* * *
It had just turned noon when they arrived at the main gate of the campus.
When she noticed Banri's hand waving, her beautiful face lit up, pale white like the moon in broad daylight. There weren't any lectures on Saturday, and there weren't any students in sight, so it was much quieter around than it was on weekdays.
"Good afternoon, Tada-kun"
"Did the older girl show up?"
"Not yet, it seems. Though the expected time is coming soon."
Kouko gracefully raised her slender wrist and looked at her delicate watch. Eyelids hidden by her long eyelashes, flickering transparently with a pearl-like sheen, Banri was completely captivated inside of ten seconds. Absolutely dumbstruck. Again today, Kouko was flawlessly beautiful.
An orange-colored one-piece silk dress wrapped in a large cardigan. High-heeled sandals with plenty of beads. Pretty toenails lined up and carefully painted beige. A small carry-case. In her pierced ears were brightly glittering diamond drop earrings. Banri had no idea what to make of her hair-style. Her hair was braided and wrapped loosely around her head, raising her bangs like a headband. One loose lock of hair softly escaped, curving down her neck, and even that looked like a carefully prepared accessory.
A perfect beauty, Kaga Kouko. And Banri liked beautiful people. He could declare that with pride.
Of course it was the right thing to come. While shyly smiling, he averted his eyes about five million light years from Kouko's face.
Having been invited by the upperclassman from **** Girl's College during yesterday's encounter, Banri and Kouko were going to participate in the 'All-Around Intercollegiate Club' to participate in a freshmen welcome outing.
From one day to the next, it was really sudden. You could probably say, in fact, that to Banri it was a puzzling development.
Yesterday the upperclassman had taken them to a café, certainly a crowded little place, but a good find, and then they'd been served café-au-lait in bowls. Drinking, he thought 'This is a café-au-lait bowl?', but it sure was cool! Agreeing on that point, even Banri kept up with the conversation.
Certainly after that, what started was a perfectly normal conversation about life as college students. Like getting all the language credits within the first year, you really ought to get a part time job, those that can get a girlfriend or boyfriend should be able to by the first year summer break, it's been difficult for any student to find a job this year, and so on.
Regardless of whether they were interested in the subject matter, her talk was inconsiderately long. Eventually having gotten tired, Banri was politely nodding yes to everything. Kouko looked like she had gotten tired too. Before Banri knew it, along with the already silenced Kouko, they got to where they just answered on demand, "Yessir", "Yes", "Is that so?" or laughed.
Before they noticed, three hours had passed. Completely surprised that outside the window it had gotten completely dark, "Then we'll meet tomorrow at the main gate, at twelve-fifteen, OK!", indicated for the first time that they were actually committing to do something.
So, if he remembered correctly--- every year the group held their new member meeting at a seminar house. Was that true? It was mentioned in the student pamphlet, why didn't he see that? A training facility in prefecture K. Weren't there some you could get to by two hours in car? If there wasn't too much traffic, that is. Leaving in the afternoon, arriving in the evening, with a big banquet for dinner. With a big bathtub afterwards, that would feel soo good. And so be ready for the next day. An active guy could play tennis through the morning, and then come back after noon. And because you're a freshman, of course there are no fees. It's OK, it's OK, take it easy, all of you guys are no problem. It was fun going out with me, don't ya think? Right? Will you decide to join? Aah, it's already so late, here and now, will you decide soon? It's all right, by participating, that's how we'll do it. Deciding would be good, don't you think? Right?
It must have been the mood of the conversation.
He peeked over at Kouko, and Kouko also looked over at Banri. This looks real, right? Reading each other's expressions and coming to an agreement, they finally nodded as one.
That'd be fun, we really should try it out, but really, I'm tired... I want to go home... if we say we'll participate we'll be able to leave... Banri was thinking such things. The senior didn't say anything, but wasn't going to let them refuse after three hours of meeting with them! Her attitude spoke it clearly.
Besides which, of course, there was Kouko.
Since this is the long awaited opportunity, they both thought, 'let's go!' They returned home tired so as to get time to rest. The idea of going with Kouko to take part in the training camp party was actually quite exciting.
Even knowing that Kouko was chasing after Yanagisawa, Tada Banri was a sensitive 19-year old young man. In such situations, his heart couldn't help but beat faster. A ton of difficulties overcome, one night's worth of things packed into the bag in his hand, there was no way he wasn't going on this outing.
He didn't know why she lowered her voice, looking around and seeing fewer signs of life in the midst of the weekend, while Kouko whispered to him.
"About today, did you say anything to Mitsuo?"
With dark brown mascara applied liberally to her long eyelashes, her large eyes cast in shadow were beautiful.
"I told him! Told him, I mean, on the way here I sent him a text saying 'Kaga-san and I are leaving now, going together to a new member's training camp.'"
Pulling out his cellphone, it didn't seem a problem to show Kouko the contents of the text message. "You're kidding!? Where to!?", was the entire reply.
Kouko looked at it, then slowly looked up at Banri's face. Looking at him as if they conspiring together, she smiled happily, her lips beautifully painted rose-colored lines.
"Don't worry about it. It's my problem."
"Yes, so it is."
Rather than wanting to give advice, but rather simply wanting there to be more communication, Banri looked back at Kouko's eyes.
"Me, looking at this a proverb comes to mind. Listen up, it's a famous one. He who chases two rabbits..."
"Won't catch either, of course."
Now, what was that mood? With a sparkle in her serious, questioning gaze,
"...Sorry, I was making a mistake."
Confused, silently blinking over and over again, his brain wasn't fast enough to catch what was spinning around it.
"I was forgetting about today. Umm, that isn't it, rather this is. When it comes to men, whenever they are being chased, they want to escape. And when they escape it makes everybody want to chase them again, it seems like... doesn't it? Won't the rabbit... trip over a tree-stump? 'Wives and tatami mats and... tuna fish and... fresh leaves...? Put in the bowl...? Well blend...ed?' ...of course is nothing but a joke though... I mean, excuse me, I really wanted to say something that I didn't understand..."
"That's OK. It's enough explanation for now."
"You understood? Great! Well, that sort of thing. As for the rest, here,"
Banri, making hand signs by the side of his face about locomotives, looked cross-eyed.
"Mitsuoo! ...It's not that I thought it was getting better. Instead, quite the contrary,"
She was fluttering about, talking with her mouth while waving both hands and contorting her body in a way that called attention to herself.
"And so, just look, you've got me instead! ...And it seems to me that Yana-ssan wouldn't mind."
Banri was quite, or rather seemed to be a complete fool, or rather was an idiot indeed, but Kouko surprisingly seemed to agree, nodding her head strongly in the affirmative.
"It may even be as Tada-kun says. It's quite an accomplishment, seeing as Mitsuo does care where I'm going! ...Frankly, today, though for some reason I was reluctant to do this, now I am glad I came."
"Eh, hold on just a bit! If you suddenly changed your plans, that would have hurt. I'd be going to the drinking party alone."
"I don't think you'd have been alone. ...Those guys, aren't they freshmen? We may be going to the freshman training camp with them."
Her soft gaze looking past him, Banri subsided. Turning around, he noticed for the first time some other students standing around. Three guys, and three girls too. Or perhaps,
"Ah! Isn't that Mr. Two Dimensions?"
"Eh? You're kidding. Tada Banri?"
His acquaintance didn't fit in. Mr. Two Dimensions...? Despite his puzzlement with Kouko, Banri and the one guy gave each other a light punch. Met at a Tea Ceremony Club drinking party, so he was: Mr. Two Dimensions.
"Perhaps Mr. Two Dimensions is going to the freshman training camp too?"
"For sure! Though I'm surprised to see Tada Banri coming too. Is Yana-ssan a member too?"
"Yana-ssan isn't coming. Today rather I have with me Kaga Kouko-san. Kaga-san, this is Mr. Two Dimensions."
Kouko was being introduced to him, eh!? Ah! Mr. Two Dimensions, obviously shaken, suddenly took a big step back. "Well, me, you, Civil Law, I saw you, you were, are, Monday it was, second hour," he mumbled in a strange tone of voice, as if he were suspiciously reading the user's manual of a bootleg copy of Pachimon, he moved the upper part of his body around unsteadily.
Kouko in her way,
"Mr. Two Dimensions... your family name...?"
She wasn't speaking clearly. Banri said, "He can't understand you!" while grinning, and tapped Kouko lightly between the shoulder-blades.
"Mr. Two Dimensions is his nickname, in the Tea Ceremony Club party he despaired of three-dimensions, declaring from that time forth he would live for two dimensions! Right?"
Mr. Two Dimensions smiled and nodded through Banri's explanation. He averted his eyes from the three-dimensional Kouko, his shy face blushing. In front of Sao-chan and Shii-chan he'd shouted, "And that's why three-dimensions is bad! You're all strange! Idiots!", like a particle cannon spitting lemon sour, laughing uproariously, hardly seeming the same person.
As she watched Mr. Two Dimension's face, mumbling "I see, I see", Kouko could be seen with her mouth strangely pursed, and her head nodding slightly. Mr. Two Dimensions said, "Ah, you understood me?", feeling even more shy, fidgeting before the rather stylish tall figure, something Banri somehow understood.
But for Kouko nothing mattered, it seemed.
It could be Mr. Two Dimensions, Mr. Different Dimensions, Ijuuin-kun, or even Jigen Daisuke-kun. Or Tada-kun, Takata-kun or even Kaga-kun, it was all the same to her. As far as Kouko was concerned, only one thing mattered: "Mitsuo isn't here."
Setting aside her motives, whatever they might have been, and her laments of yesterday ("Why doesn't anybody call out to me?"), for the moment she was clearly able to answer.
That, despite the fact that she didn't have interest in anybody apart from Yanagisawa Mitsuo!
"But, from here on out, you won't be able to get away with that!", Banri declared in his mind to Kouko's smiling face. Neither Banri nor Mr. Two Dimensions were simply creatures that weren't Mitsuo, and over the next two days and one night together with Kouko, participating in the training camp, they should be able to become "friends" instead.
"Er, well, whatever, we can talk with Mr. Two Dimensions too, right? The world's not all that bad a place."
Banri playfully tugged at the shirt sleeve of Mr. Two Dimensions, who was still mumbling, unable to look at Kouko's face.
"What's with you? Haven't you come back to three dimensions, it's a little late already, a little late."
"You're mistaken! Even in two dimensions, I've been wondering recently, it's something I've been thinking about! Even in two dimensions, I had thought I wanted to look for the ideal depiction, but of course, what I mean is, it was hard! But in the end, other people's creations were not 100% satisfactory, seems like! Why not just stop?"
"It's OK, it's OK, keep going."
"That so? Well then, especially of late, I've found myself getting deeply involved with a female character of my own creation. Creating the setting, drawing the pictures, coloring them, deciding the words she uses and how she says them, what her favorite food is, from the way we would date, becoming more and more intimate from one episode to another, becoming my perfect dream, ...hey, was it really OK to say this? Should I not have stopped?"
Kouko, who had been mumbling approving noises and nodding her head while ignoring what was being said, slowly stopped shaking her head. After a little while, it seemed the correct answer occurred to her, and with a 60W grin,
"A little more of that, and you'll be Mr. One Dimension!"
"What in the world are you saying, Kaga Kouko...", thought Banri.
A surprised snort escaped from one girl of a group of three standing not far from Banri's group. Little sports bags stuffed with rough-looking attire, denim and sneakers, they probably were going to the same freshman training camp as friends,
"Soorryy, this person, even if she looks like she does, can be really dumb at times."
Banri tried to point at Kouko as their smiling faces turned towards him. They seemed to be group of friends, all three of them smiling as one while nervously stepping up. Kouko herself said, "Eh, dumb? Who?", looking back at Banri's face, wondering.
"Hello, I'm Tada Banri, and with me Kaga-san and Mr. Two Dimensions. Are all of you going to the freshman training camp from here?"
At the sound of Banri's voice, they saw for the first time the faces of two more guys, who joined them with slightly nervous expressions. At Kouko's 'Mr. One Dimension' exclamation, the girls looked around at everybody smiling, and started their introductions at once.
A car-horn sounded, three modest beeps. Everybody turned towards the street.
"Yes yes yesss! Sorry for being late, the cars are here so all aboard!"
The upperclassman came out to them from the first car parked by the side of the road.
Which reminded Banri that he had in fact failed to get her name--- which thing, of course, it was a little late to talk about now.
The club upperclassmen, together with some other freshman students, got into several rented station wagons.
An upperclassman handed a blank form to Banri, who was confused over which car to get into.
"Could all of you write their name, address and telephone number here? And if they are living away from home, then their parents' addresses too. This will be part of our insurance documents. It's because of our liability if anything happens at the training camp. Do it neatly, leaving out nothing. Everybody else is done writing their information. Yes, because you're Tada-kun, OK? This column, OK? I mean, even though this parking lot is rather noisy, and it's bad to be in such a hurry? Sorry about that, yes, hurry up, but read it carefully, it's just in case anything happens, OK?"
Insurance. Parking lot. Not fully understanding but unwilling to go against the social pressure, Banri the fool wrote down their personal information in a rush, but honestly. Passing the pen and the register to Kouko, she gracefully wrote down her name and address too, and passed it on to Mr. Two Dimensions.
And then, all the freshmen having signed the list, the upperclassman took her own bag and,
"Yes, thanks! You and you to the first car, OK? You over there. You that way. You and you get on that car at the end of the line. And now, you and you,"
Banri nudged Kouko's elbow and grinned.
"You're with me in that car, let's hurry up and get in!"
He opened the station wagon's door and they were greeted at once by a clear voice, saying "Hi there!". While Banri and Kouko returned the greeting, they sat down side by side in the middle.
"Okay, all the freshmen will be by the windows!"
The upperclassmen were rearranged, and everybody was able to be seated. An upperclassman got into the car right next to Banri.
"Today's weather turned out good, eh?"
With a smile, she sat down as if the spot belonged to her by right. In the front seat, the cool-looking guy next to Kouko said, "Nice to meet you, I'm a third-year from **** college."
All the freshmen that had been gathered from all the colleges were sitting separately by the windows. All of them, with nervous faces not speaking out. Banri and Kouko were in the same boat. For some reason the other seats were occupied by clear-voiced, smiling, laughing upperclassmen. It was somehow strangely uncomfortable, uncomfortable for sure, but they couldn't argue about it. The seating was arranged.
"Drinks and such are prepared if you'd like!"
Hanging from the neck of the smiling upperclassman to his side, a necklace with a snowflake design glittered. If he remembered correctly, she was wearing it yesterday too. It was probably her favorite. Casually looking over at the other upperclassman, just above his shirtcollar, Banri noticed he was wearing the same necklace. He wondered if they were really close, or if it was a uniform.
"Is everybody's seat belt on? Nobody needs the bathroom? Cause once we get on the freeway we have no plans to stop!"
The upperclassman in the driver's seat looked back. At his neck too, the same necklace. This guy having one on, even if it was so many close friends matching up, of course it seemed quite strange. Well of course! Does everybody in this club have to wear one? Banri discretely looked towards the necks of the other upperclassman in the vehicle.
"Why are you looking around like that?"
Suddenly asking the upperclassman with a straight face, "Isn't it strange that everybody's wearing matching necklaces? Just curious...", didn't get him an answer. She said, "It's nothing", giving Banri a vague deceptive smile, the station wagons lining up to leave. From where Banri sat, all he could see of Kouko was the billowing hair on the top of her head.
Inside the vehicle pop music was playing continuously and loudly, the upperclassmen singing in a sort of high-tension karaoke--- the first-years silent, strangely nervous still--- with things staying like that throughout the drive, which took about two hours.
Banri, once more attacked by uneasiness, was wondering if they shouldn't ought be getting off the freeway already when the time arrived.
The line of rental cars was passing in front of the university's seminar house. Following a road through the forest, a sign with the name of the college that Banri was attending was standing there, but they ignored it. What's more, the line of station wagons continued onwards into the mountains. Were they taking the wrong road, or perhaps, did the seminar house the upperclassman was talking about belong to another college?
That's what it looked like. None of the other freshmen at the windows, not even Kouko, noticed. Nobody said anything. While watching the sign get further away the other side of the window, should I keep quiet? Perhaps we're really going the wrong way, and if so what should we do? He couldn't decide whether they should turn around at that moment.
He noticed that the upperclassman gave him a sharp glance when he looked at the sign through the window. With the loud music flowing through the inside of the car, they had stared at each other for all of three seconds. As it was, realizing that the strange silence was dragging on, he boldly decided to ask her.
"Welll... didn't we just pass the seminar house?"
Putting her hand to her ear, she indicated that she hadn't heard him.
"Just now, the seminar house, didn't we pass it!?"
He spoke louder and clearer this time, moving his mouth closer to her ear to overcome the music. The smell of her hair went up his nose, strangely unnatural and strong.
"What, what!? Eh, I can't hear you! I can't hear you at all! I mean, stop it already, this is embarrassing! Cut it out!"
While smiling, she firmly pushed Banri back, putting her weight into it. And then suddenly, she said, "What's with me? Am I getting a little sleepy already?", and put her head on Banri's shoulder. Her upturned eyes at point blank range, lips coming together in a slight pout.
When he couldn't react, she casually placed her hand on his knee. The palm of her hand, slowly but steadily warming up, inched around as if to fondle him. While drawing circles, it came creeping towards his thigh. While so doing, she gazed moistly at Banri's eyes. She said, "Are you happy? Did I make your heart race? Did I make you hope?", while she gave him a look full of self-confidence.
But, distinctly scary. Her soft chest pushing against his elbow, Banri pulled away from her as softly as he could. A boy with a girl close by, whatever the situation might be, would be happy. That she even thought that way was scary, but more importantly, what if what she was doing up to this point wasn't a trick? That by itself was frightening.
But those innermost thoughts of Banri's became irrelevant as the line of cars slowed down, left the trees and turned from the beautifully paved private road and then entered what was apparently a driveway. To the left and right, high concrete walls were built, forming a C-curve in front, attached to the roof all the way down to the driveway.
Where they had arrived wasn't particularly big, but judging by the brickwork, it was evidently a pretty nice facility, two buildings set side by side.
Urged by the upperclassmen, they got down out of the cars. The older girl tried to join hands with Banri, reaching out for him, but Banri pretended not to notice, calling out "Kaga-saan!" and trotting, chasing after Kouko, who had walked ahead, in order to escape from the her. As soon as Kouko saw Banri's face, she stopped walking and they stood side by side, and in a whisper,
"Ah, I was able to talk to somebody I barely knew. The upperclassman next to me, he just kept talking to me the whole time... It wasn't boring, but I became somewhat worn out... How was it for you?"
"As for me..."
He'd touched somebody that way in public. No, rather, he had been touched that way in public. But he couldn't talk about that, not with Kouko.
"...Same here. I'm a bit tired too."
Banri also answered quietly. Before he realized it, a crowd of freshmen had formed. The upperclassmen surrounded them, pushing the freshmen towards an opening, keeping up with them as they walked into the facility. They had no choice but to walk together in a line.
Marble used all over the place, even the entrance polished to a wonderful sheen, here and there decorated with big moth orchids, it really seemed more like a hotel, or an art museum. Pulling her carryall while going inside, to Kouko it seemed strange to have so much room.
"By the way, are we sure this place is really the college's seminar house? Would they have something as nice as this while their school buildings are falling apart?"
"...I don't think so..."
Once all the freshmen had entered, a strange high sound arose and the entrance door closed. Shortly, in that darkened lobby, the lights were turned on.
In the center there glittered a huge piece of artwork, shaped like a snowflake.
On the pedestal a gold plate was affixed, inscribed with 'The Shape of God in our Times'. That god would be incarnated a million years from now! ---In other words, for the next five hours until they locked their rooms, Banri knew they would be subjected to a lecture.
* * *
Of course, he wanted to flee.
In short, they had been placed under house arrest by a new religion disguised as a club. But he couldn't talk with his fellow freshmen, as they were under a constant guard. They struck anybody who even looked like he was talking! It was such a low class thing to do, and some freshmen opened their mouths in protest, but the older students separated anybody who did so. For the moment the uneasy freshmen trying to gather together were kept apart, gently perhaps, but physically separated. Talk amongst the freshmen was not permitted; that was the message clearly being sent.
Before the lecture, everybody's bags were collected, tossed into a single room and locked up. At that point, strangely enough, they were permitted to get out their cellphones, but, whether it was from being in the middle of the mountains, or it was on purpose, Banri's cellphone wasn't the only one with no signal. There was not a phone in sight, so getting in contact with the outside was going to be difficult.
Dinnertime was completely silent, a sort of prayer ritual. Even a funeral would have been more exciting.
On little tables arranged in a semicircle there were placed glasses of cold beer and various kinds of soft drinks. As far as that went, this was an ordinary club training camp, quite so, no, perhaps of a rather extravagant type, but the freshmen were scattered about, kept apart, and everyone who understood the situation was keeping ominously quiet about it.
Banri was seated at the end of the semicircle. Next to him was the older girl. Kouko, from one of the center seats, looked vaguely down at the tables, her white face still blank. Occasionally, she would glance quickly at Banri, each of them seeing in this situation "Danger...!", both of them recognizing it, but neither of them able to do anything about it. Mr. Two Dimensions, too, on the other side could be seen with his head bowed.
Really and truly, it had become something dangerous.
"Now then everyone, let's get moving! Everybody, take your glasses!"
The hot upperclassman seated next to Kouko stood up and raised his voice for no apparent reason. Even some of the other upperclassmen whistled and booed at the sudden, unnaturally forced enthusiasm.
"Well then! Congratulations for the newly created children, tonight's excellent full moon, and another gathering recorded for the next 10,000 years! Ready, cheers! Hello new children!"
"Hello!", the upperclassmen said, raising their glasses.
Banri and the other freshmen, all of them, were looking down at their knees, petrified. The tops of their heads could be seen lined up around the semicircle.
Almost as if he were praying silently, "What should I do?", an over-familiar touch at his shoulder,
"What's wrong, new children! Loook, at long last the day of your awakening is here! Let's have a little more enthusiasm!"
With a smile as wide as her face, she raised her glass. Banri's head going numb to the core, he was unable to answer anything more, and he stared at the golden liquid which filled the glass. He remembered something strange. The day of the entrance ceremony, at the convenience store, when he met Yanagisawa at the mirror, they'd toasted with ice-bars. At that time, they were completely mismatched though somehow it was really fun. In the few days since then, they'd come surprisingly far. He could hardly wait for those peaceful times to return.
As it was, Banri was already thinking about how they couldn't keep them there too many days. Come Monday there would be school, a few freshmen vanishing would become a big deal, maybe even a matter for the police.
So anyway for this one night and two days, perhaps he could have the patience to let it pass by. Quickly getting drunk, quickly getting smashed, just sleeping through it all, morning would come soon enough.
Anyway, if he quietly kept his patience until tomorrow in this weird place--- glass full of beer in her hand, she looked at Banri,
"Yes, yes! It was really fun winning! Yes, one round, cheeeers!"
Giving another cheery smile, she gulped down the delicious looking beer.
Kouko was looking his way with a startled look on her face. She was putting the chilled glass to her mouth, since she couldn't avoid doing so, but she looked back at Banri, her feelings exposed.
But--- was that so?
If he were to think about it, he was responsible for the fact that she had been brought here.
He'd answered the upperclassman, saying, "Let's go together!", he told himself. Nonetheless, Kouko was confused.
Besides, it would have been better to have chatted some more back at the coffee shop. Caught as they were, if he thought about it now, it was suspicious. Wasn't it written in plain sight? This time for sure, he had to be on guard about the strange upperclassman who stuck too close for comfort. Even so, his nervousness at finding himself together with Kouko, his hopes of being able to be friends with her, everything combined to blind his radar.
Since they'd decided to come and participate in the training camp, he'd been dumb. Exhausted, unable to think and with his judgement lost, if he so much as nodded it would be over, and... swept away, to such a state he'd been brought. And now, he was regretting it to death.
Banri considered not swallowing the beer touching his mouth.
Of course, he couldn't.
Already, he wouldn't do things like that.
If he had been patient enough while they'd been speaking of such things, maybe they wouldn't have gone so far. From the beginning, the purpose of isolating the training camp, wearing out its participants, making them give up, stopping their thought processes, appeared to be a trap.
And then... no, no way, they can't just brainwash me when I don't understand what they're teaching, he thought. Still, Banri looked sidelong at the upperclassman next to him. He started drinking the delicious beer, eating their cooking and talking with the other upperclassmen.
Actually, surrounded by unusually good looking and healthy seeming guys and gals, the danger hadn't really sunk in.
If he didn't want to become like them, if he even wanted to live in ordinary reality, he needed to escape from here. Absolutely. Banri spit out the beer he held in his mouth into the damp towel provided on his table.
But, he was worried about that roster he'd signed, where they'd hurried him to write down his personal information. Kouko, himself and all the rest too, they had been perhaps too foolishly honest when they'd written down their addresses and contact information. Wasn't that what all the persistent nagging was all about?
He absolutely, absolutely couldn't give Mom and Dad back home anything more to worry about.
That roster had been placed in the upperclassman's own duffle. And then together with the freshmen's luggage, now, it was locked up in a room.
What should I do?
"...This is no fun! We can't do anything like this!"
Suddenly, crash! At the sudden, high, echoing sound, Banri lifted his face. Mr. Two Dimensions had thrown his glass to the floor.
"What's this about 10,000 years in the future! Giving thanks to a crystal master! How messed up can you be, believing in a three-dimensional thing like that!? You've been tricking us from the start, calling this an 'all around club'! I mean, isn't this imprisonment!? Isn't that a crime!? Do you even think anybody could keep quiet about people doing such things!?"
Decisively stated by Mr. Two Dimensions, the other freshmen stood up too.
"Let's go out to the cars now! I don't want to stay in this place any longer!"
"I'm going to sue them!"
Not knowing yet what he should do, Banri stood anyway. At that moment, in the fragments of glass scattered about broken on the floor, for just an instant, just how many broken reflections of himself were there to be seen?
Aspects of himself could be seen in all of them.
A worn out face. A scared face. An angry face. A face trying hard. A face ready to cry. So many variations of his face. And then suddenly a look that seemed to ask, "What are you going to do, Tada Banri?" At such a time as this, Tada Banri, what should a guy be doing?
Tada Banri ---
"Everybody, such an outburst wasn't called for. Just calm down for now."
--- realized he ought to do something.
The upperclassmen, seated in a row, showed no surprise. They were all watching Mr. Two Dimensions' composed smile, Banri's raised voice and the state of the other freshmen. It had all been arranged for, even this situation. This 'facility in the mountains' was their place of power, and what with the talk of their planning to make an offering, Banri was rather scared. But he couldn't do more than that, since nothing had been decided. He had no other choice for now.
Himself, he would do something unexpected.
"Anybody who wants to go home, that's fine if they do."
While he was talking, his body was trembling. Hiding it, he continued, "But I don't want to go back."
"What are you saying, Tada Banri!?"
Mr. Two Dimensions looked at Banri's face as if in shock. Kouko did too. Eyes opened wide, standing up. At the same time the table shook, tipping the glasses over. Shaking off their glances, Banri suddenly raised his voice.
"I mean, frankly, that where until things were so tense, now you're talking about it being boring! Just what is it you can't spit out? You speak of crime, but, even though recently you were still underage, you were drinking! Drinking underage at the Tea Ceremony is a crime, but you didn't speak of that! Seems the same to me. If you could let things like that slide, then maybe you can have fun here! It's convenient to ignore it, say it's not a crime, but isn't that really selfish? Such a bothersome guy you are, even entering here you are such an annoyance!"
Mr. Two Dimensions tried to interrupt, but he was prevented by a loud voice.
"Anyhow I want to have some fun here! Speaking of such boring things is tiresome, it's annoying! Sirs, these guys are clearly a bother! Since they want to go home, can't they just leave? Kick out these bothersome ones, and then let's get to the drinking party! I came here to have some real fun!"
He took revenge for her public assault on him.
Grabbing the older girl's hand, he shook back and forth like a little kid. But, his opponent being a master of the same techniques, she looked back at Banri, her eyes wary.
"...Do you really want to stay here? Even if everybody else returned? That so, eh? But, why would you?"
"I was quite impressed by the lecture I heard."
The last words shook, but that probably made it seem more truthful.
"In perfect seriousness, I would like to hear what the other upperclassmen here have to say. What I mean, really,"
He ordered his knees to stop shaking.
"Actually, I was seriously injured in high school, and all my memories were blown away. I've suffered amnesia, so to speak. I have suffered much from that. When I woke up, I suddenly knew nobody else in all the world. Not parents, nor friends, nor acquaintances nor anybody else. It was really lonely. But now... with the lecture about this new world to come, at last it looked like I may be saved. Though it sounds like it may be a lie, this, isn't something you made up. If here and now, there were a police investigation, or a hospitalization, I wouldn't receive an explanation nor would there be a meeting. In truth why"
Through his hair, the older girl could see the ugly scar still present on his scalp. The marks from surgery spread down to the neck of his T-shirt, running down even to his shoulders. He wondered if he ought to pull down his blue-jeans to show them the long stitch-scars running down his thighs to the knees.
"...That's enough. Forgive us for being suspicious, new children. ...That hurt, didn't it...!"
This is powerfully persuasive. What's going on here?
Looking at the point of tears, the older girl was looking at Banri sympathetically. She believed what he was saying just now.
"But you're all right now! You've cheered up, haven't you? Since you've cheered up, the time of your salvation has come, now! Right, everybody! From this it's been made clear, don't you think! The new children should be awakened, and the Crystal Lord will grant them their test, to see if they cannot be awakened! Going so far beyond, isn't it a beautiful thing? This time around, those who are only half-hearted kids will be able to go home. Only the real Children ought to have time close to me, as far as I'm concerned!"
They exchanged glances, those upperclassmen--- or you might say, the believers, that seemed to be the right word.
They spoke quickly, now it had been decided. The luggage that had been stored was taken out at once, and all the freshmen and some of the believers left the dining room. Banri saw that the keys to the luggage room were in the hands of one guy.
Opened with the key, the freshmen went inside to pick up their luggage. A guy stuck to Banri's side, mouth shut, trying to look thoroughly scary, keeping an eye on him sidelong.
But Mr. Two Dimensions was different.
"Let's just go back! Tada Banri! Go back with the rest of us! A place like this is always trouble! You can take your time listening to their talk later, but for now let's go back!"
Thanking him in his mind, Banri outwardly ignored him. He called out to the guy with the key.
"Ma'am, isn't drunken driving dangerous? If there were an accident it'd be a problem, for sure. It seems to me that it'd be better if the guy who's going to drive didn't drink."
"That too is true. Is there anybody that has a driver's license?"
At the sound of the guy's voice some of the freshmen raised their hands. Mr. Two Dimensions was one of them. Casually, Banri called out to the guy's back, "Ah, I'll go get the key", intending to grab the key to the room. But,
"We've only just called you, but after you've been verified it'll be OK. You there, you've not had even one drop to drink?"
The key was quite firmly in the guy's grip. He let out an involuntary click of the tongue.
The guy locked up the luggage room and swung around. He thought better of calling after the guy with the keys to come back at that point. It couldn't be helped. There would be other opportunities to do something.
It looked like they'd decided that Mr. Two Dimensions and another freshman would be driving. Mr. Two Dimensions looked back towards Banri over and over again while going towards the entrance. It's OK, leave me behind, you're as confused as anybody else. Banri gave him a slight shake of the head.
Like that, all the freshmen left the facility. Amongst them of course, there went Kouko pulling her carry-all. Soon, the sound of the wheels rolling faded away, leaving Banri behind by himself.
Everybody had left. Amongst believers in a strange god, he was completely alone.
He was feeling scared to death. But, that was fine, he thought. At the least, he was able to get Kouko, whom he had brought here, back out to the ordinary peaceful world. Later, he would decide just what to do.
But, at that moment came to his ears a sound he could hardly believe. Banri reflexively cleared his ears. He had thought he might be hearing things, but apparently it was real.
The rolling sound that should have been gone, and had indeed left, was once more coming towards him.
Then, the entrance door opened.
Suddenly coming into view,
"Of course, I stayed behind too. The last lecture left me with a strong impression."
"Hello, new children!"
With a self-satisfied expression on her face, Kaga Kouko.
Whether I like it or not, you, what are you saying--- really, what are you doing!? What the heck are you saying!? Precisely what are you doing!? Why have you returned!? What's with this person!? Can she really be an idiot!? Banri would have shouted, but he had no voice.
Banri was completely dumbfounded, looking at Kouko's form in amazement, his mouth hanging open. Kouko was standing next to Banri, meeting all the believers halfway, her face composed, both her long hands precisely positioned before her slim body, her head tilted a little to the side. And then,
"In spite of being beautiful, I am not popular. Because of that, I have already abandoned this century. I am longing for the new century!"
Strangely persuasive, she smiled with perfect grace.
The freshmen gone and Banri and Kouko left behind, the strange party atmosphere returned to the dining hall. Nearly an hour had passed.
All the believers themselves good and drunk, the opportunity to talk with Kouko had finally arrived.
He pointed over at Kouko's carry-all, still set in the corner of the dining hall. Since it needed to be put in the luggage room, it should be easy to get the guy to hand him the key.
"Kaga-san, let's go put away your luggage."
Grabbing the handle of the carry-all, winking back when he called her, Kouko stood up at once. Banri had a hunch that if the older girl had been looking towards them at all, it would have been very conspicuous. Unnoticed, he left the dining hall with Kouko.
While walking quickly down the corridor, Kouko started to call out to him, but Banri held a finger up before his mouth in a sign for her to be quiet. Still quiet, he took Kouko by the arm, looked all around to make sure nobody was nearby, and brought her over by the men's bathroom. Kouko was now at the mercy of his intentions, whatever they were. They quietly stuffed themselves into a stall and locked it. Up to this point, he'd been acting rather like a confirmed molester, but,
The first thing that escaped was a groan neither breathing nor sigh. In the narrow space, Banri's body was twisted like a music conductor, his right hand raised overhead and scratching his forehead roughly. "What are you doing, what are you doing, why, why, why, what's with youuu...!?", he shouted in a whisper while stamping the ground in frustration.
"Kaga-san, what were you doing!? Why didn't you go back with everybody else!?"
Really, come to your senses! He wanted to slap her on the cheek, grab her by the neck of her pretty one-piece dress and shake her back and forth. Failing that, he could punch the wall, or maybe hit himself on the forehead. Since he couldn't do either, the upper half of Banri's body was twisted up like a grilled squid.
"Do you really want to join up with those guys!?"
He pointed his finger at Kouko's pretty face.
"That, was my line."
A gentle whack, and that fingertip was shot down.
Carefully lifting the hem of her skirt so it wouldn't touch the edge of the toilet, so close together in the narrow stall their knees overlapped, Kouko looked intensely back at Banri. The black pupils of her eyes were turned up like crescent moons.
"Tada-kun, all that stuff you said about rescue and such, was that true?"
He didn't say any more, at his wit's end, writing in agony while she smiled at him. In spite of his success in getting everybody sent back, how, why, and more importantly for what reason, had she come back?
"Oh... whatever, that's good... Tada-kun, I was wondering if you would really become a believer."
"But I was thinking it was time for you to go back!"
"But, it sounded sincere."
"It was for your sake... something, very real feeling... I mean, Kaga-san, why did you really come back? All that effort was so everybody could go home!"
"Because, I couldn't just leave you behind. Thinking of how you had followed them into thinking you were seriously planning on staying here, what would I do? I would feel responsible if you'd done such a thing, and would never be able to leave it behind!, so to speak. By all means, Tada-kun ought to be able to go back too, was my thought. Why was Tada-kun going to be left by himself, behind?"
"I didn't think they would let people go back just because they said they wanted to return! I pretended to believe, thinking that if everybody else made enough noise begging to return, they would let them go! Besides, there was all sorts of stuff written in that roster... addresses, contact information and so on. I thought that perhaps being left behind, I might somehow or other clean up things. I can't imagine how much trouble we'd have if that information got out."
Looking up at Banri's face, somewhat taken aback, Kouko in that moment placed her fingertip under her pretty rose-colored lips.
"...For sure. I had written down my parents' address in full."
"I saw the upperclassman girl stick it in her bag. There hasn't been time to make copies, now if we could get it out of there... that could be difficult."
With a jingle, the key to the luggage room could be seen in Kouko's hand.
"Thanks to Kaga-san having returned so miraculously, we go to Plan B. Seems like we may be able to set it in motion."
Kouko's eyes glittered like stars. In reality, it was just the reflected light from the restroom.
"Tada-kun..., ...good job."
Her eyes shining, Kouko applauded Banri with just her fingertips.
"Shall we do this together?"
"Let's both return absolutely quietly."
Nodding to each other, they took her carry-all and left the restroom.
They went down the corridor and opened the door to the luggage room with the key. They both went inside. Turning on the light, they searched through the upperclassmen bags, which had been lined up along the wall. Was it beige, ...no, was it brown? And so, he looked for anything like a girl's overnight bag in the hill in front of them, when suddenly at the confused Banri's side,
"Her bag was Coach. The Signature, last year's model, the keyholder had a marguerite..."
Kouko, her fingertip like a gun barrel, zeroed in right away on a single bag.
"It's that one."
What a capable helper! It seemed they would be able to easily clear this mission. Banri and Kouko jumped to pull out the upperclassman's bag, and fish through the contents.
They soon found the roster stuck in a file. Two sheets of A5 paper. Taking it quickly to tear it up, Banri was lost for a moment as to what to do with it. Could he hide it in his pants and take it back with him? Should he shred it up fine and flush it down the toilet?
From the arrangement of the things in the luggage room, it was probably a smoking lounge. On a low table somebody's lighter, and in an ashtray some cigarette buts had been left behind. He was casually looking over those things when suddenly,
"You there, what the heck--- huh!?"
The door opened, the forgotten key still in the lock. Glimpsing the white face of the upperclassmen girl, Banri and Kouko both jumped about an inch off the floor. Their bodies reacted even quicker than their thoughts.
"What's going on!? What about the roster... wa, wait!"
Banri fairly flew at the door, attacking it, forcing the door shut against the rest of the upperclassmen and locking it. The others banged on the door with terrific force. "What do you call this!?" "Open up!" "This traitor!" "Wait, somebody's coming!" The upperclassmen's loud voices echoed. The hand holding the door was shaking, and he realized that sweat was pouring from every pore of his body,
"Waah, wh wh wh, what am I going to do...!? This is bad bad bad...!"
Banri's face was now completely white. Should he kneel before them? Offer them money? Persuade them with tears? Such things, up to surrender, were starting to pass through his head, while on the other hand Kouko,
"Tada-kun, the roster."
With a strangely serious face, she held out her hand towards him without hesitation. He threw the tightly folded roster towards that hand. Smack, she caught it magnificently,
"Hold the door steady!"
Even in that moment, she was seating herself regally on a cushion. Then, without hesitation, she tore the roster up in pieces, put the pieces in an ashtray and quickly set it on fire with the lighter. Just like that, a little flame arose, and in a couple of seconds their worries about the roster turned to ashes. Finally, pouring some water that had been left behind in a cup over the embers put it out completely. Banri was amazed at how neatly it was done, at least on this occasion. How should he say it? To her enemies, she wasn't the type you'd want to turn your back on.
Kouko immediately opened up her carry-all, pulled out her wallet, cell phone and key-case, and stuffed it all in the pocket of her cardigan.
"Tada-kun, any valuables?"
"Ne, never carry any!"
The pounding on the door continued. An ominous creaking sound was coming from around the door knob. They could hear the sound of a large number of people running up the corridor. Banri's valuables were his cell phone, wallet and the key to his place. Those he put in his jean's pocket, tied up in a leather strap that Yana-ssan had chosen for him in Kouenji.
"Can we leave the rest of the baggage?"
They nodded to each other. From the other side of the door a key--- the master key, probably, the sound of it being inserted could be heard at the same time. The door opened. Angry voices echoed.
He feverishly grabbed Kouko's hand and rushed towards the window. This room was on the first floor, but,
He quickly ran to the window to look through it, it wasn't all that high, but still every cell in his body trembled in fear. His body didn't remember the terror it once had tasted. But if they remained here, things were going to get scarier still. Not just for himself, but for Kouko too. Suppressing their fears with reason, closing their eyes they abandoned themselves to the pull of gravity. Still holding Kouko's hand, they clumsily fell down together. Once they got back on their feet, they realized just how bad the slippers they had put on were, but they couldn't do anything about it.
While hearing loud cries of "They're escaping through the window!" from the mob behind them, Banri and Kouko ran out into the deep dark of the forest night.
* * *
Perhaps they had been a bit too reckless in the moment of their escape.
"Why... can't I get a signal...?"
"I can't get one either..."
After two hours had passed, both Banri and Kouko were becoming aware that they had new problems.
Their reward for escaping from the suspicious new religion, quite simply said, was to be stranded--- the path they were walking down right now, it might really be a road, or maybe just a game trail, even that much they did not know. Without a map, flashlight nor even shoes, having only determination, they depended on what little light came through between the trees to continue on.
Naturally, it was dark, at night with all kinds of trees growing thickly over the mountain trail, and underfoot it was awfully wet. Sliding in the slippery mud, many times the protruding rocks kept them from their way. Fearing pursuit, they stayed away from the brighter lit roads, Banri choosing to follow the trackless paths of the forest.
Beyond the trees shone a line of lights, they had to be street lights. Those lights were a simple guide to get down the slope, but right now he wasn't sure whether or not it was the right thing to do. Since they led upwards into the mountains, he thought it would be better to go down, and did so. The line of streetlights seemed far away, and a difficult climb... he had a hunch about it.
Before long, they came to a sudden slope they couldn't cross in their awful slipper-shoes, so for the time being they started walking along the flat winding edge of a cliff, but in the end, they reached the end of their endurance.
Sitting down wherever they could on some fallen tree,
"I thought we'd come a good ways down..."
"For sure. Why haven't we reached the bottom..."
Phew..., hah..., together they let out a long sigh.
Seeing that as usual the screen showed no signs of a signal, Banri put his cellphone in his pocket.
It was already past 10 o'clock at night. It was late for local hunters to be passing by, and it was too early for the morning to break.
He thought about what he would do if only the cellphone were usable. He was thinking that if he could get in contact with Mr. Two Dimensions, or his home, or perhaps the police, he could tell them what was going on. And yet how, they were out of range. 'Build a bigger antenna!', but in such a place as this he couldn't do anything but curse the telephone company.
All their strength gone, it was as quiet as if they were falling to the ground. Falling and tumbling next, our anxieties, fears, despair... no, we can't. Banri lifted his face.
Still, it was 10 o'clock. It was too early to give up and fall into depression. Showing an unreasonably cheerful face, he took off his open-necked UNIQLO shirt and put it on Kouko's shoulders, which had only a cardigan over a thin dress. Though it was already covered with mud,
"Put these on?"
He tried to take off his socks and hand them over. It would have been good if he'd noticed a little sooner. Her feet were definitely bare. However, without putting them on, nor returning them, she gazed at him, in the same pose as when she received them.
Her messed up hair clinging to her cheeks, she wasn't bothering now to cover things up with a smile,
Somewhat in a daze, Kouko turned an empty face towards Banri.
"What what what, it's OK! We'll manage somehow soon. A little rest and then we try some more!"
He had been apologized to.
And what timing, Kouko's bangs, which were up, suddenly with a thud fell down, covering half her face.
"...Teacher of moonlight..."
Her laughter had returned.
Kouko was quiet for a bit, jerkily combing up her drooping bangs. Accustomed to doing it by hand without a mirror, from her mussy hair she quickly pulled out a pin and stuck it in her mouth, then using both hands as combs she skillfully fixed up her hair, and finished it off with the pin she'd taken out earlier. The messed up hair was fixed for the time being, and she'd returned to being like Kaga Kouko again, a bit. Then,
"It's my fault that things turned out this way."
Looking away from herself again, she looked straight at Banri once more. Being prettily put back in order, indeed with a serious frown, "I'm sorry," she repeated once again. Even in this moment, her large eyes were flashing darkly.
"...That's not right. 'It wasn't Kaga-san's fault', saying such things."
Without caring about how Banri was squirming,
"It was my fault! In the first place, I had the leaflets from that strange club, and they called me too. You thought that I was such a poor thing, going alone, so it was just to keep me company."
"...But I wasn't thinking it was your fault."
"I thought it would be good if Kaga-san could make some friends in that club. Therefore, in spite of the strange feeling they gave me, I stopped worrying about it, and I instigated Kaga-san with, 'it's OK', 'let's go'. Therefore, it's my responsibility, of course."
"That's not right, that's wrong. ...You're just wrong!"
Shaking her head, frantically looking anywhere else, Kouko held on tightly to Banri's socks, with their unknown state of cleanliness.
"Really, it isn't your fault. ...I approached you and got close to you, thinking to trick you into giving me information about Mitsuo. From the start, which club didn't matter. Saying 'I haven't been invited to anything' was true. All the college students were already ignoring me, really. I was even aware of the gossip. But I didn't pay any attention. Yesterday, saying 'nobody calls out for me', forcing myself to look dejected, saying so, ...that was all just to draw out your sympathy."
"That so? Of course, it was all about Yana-ssan."
"Yes, about Yanao.... all mixed up. Mitsuo's"
Breathing out a bit, Kouko cast her eyes down uncomfortably and looked down at her own feet. Mud was all over her bare feet and slippers.
"It was all for the sake of Mitsuo."
The voice that followed was like a monologue, echoing in the silence,
"...Well, ninety percent."
Kouko raised her face once more.
She looked into Banri's eyes. Still holding the dirty socks tightly, speaking as somebody who made a mistake, her lips twisted in irony.
"The remaining ten percent... even I don't understand."
Tired of talking after that, her next breath was a like a gasp. Her gaze trembled.
"...Understanding, since the coming of this spring until yesterday, that there was only one person who bothered to speak with me. Only Tada-kun. Tada-kun called out to me, though it was news about how Mitsuo being excessively defiant... but, even though I found it hard to understand... you talked to me, ...and I was happy for that. That too is true."
"If so, then of course trying to call out to you was good."
Kouko held her tongue, looking at Banri's eyes while shaking her head softly. Not understanding that gesture very well,
"The result has been problems, though."
She tried to laugh it off, but couldn't. Kouko smiled a little, but the conversation did not continue.
The two stayed silent for a little while, gazing at each other's feet. Today having been spring, the temperate had been good and warm. Though it was chilly now, there was no worry about freezing to death.
"...I wonder what Mitsuo's doing about now? Is he worried at all about me?"
She tried to make it sound like a joke, but a little awkwardly, let it fall into the night darkness. Banri scooped it up, returning her words as lightly as possible.
"He might be. 'Where's the training camp?', I was asked later, but I didn't answer."
"Was that so?"
"Well, I could have texted from the car, but I didn't feel like it. And what's more, since afterwards we were always out of range, wouldn't he be rather worried? So it is, there it is, and before long, that anxious feeling unexpectedly becomes a hot possessiveness, a heaviness sitting on Yana-ssan's heart..."
Hearing Banri's little joke, a smile clearly broke across the well ordered features of Kouko's face.
"Enough. That's not right. You're making things up."
Indeed, just like her, even in smiling she seemed to be plotting something too perfect. He realized that it had been a long time since he'd seen that face. Cheered, Banri too smiled broadly.
"Yana-ssan noticed, you know. From what I see, that childhood friendship must have been important."
"Yes, yes yes! What about it?"
"There were already gloomy thoughts... even doubts like, 'Am I a stalker?'...! It was, but wait! As far as I'm concerned, of course it's my fate to be married to this girl! 'Kuoukuoooo---------!'"
The two were messing around, laughing their heads off in the sultry dark, reaching their hands out towards each other. Banri his right hand, Kouko her left. Building into a sudden and strange excitement, they made a lot of noise, their extended hands unable to reach each other, no matter what...! That was how they were playing together.
"You're messing up my entrance! Ugyaa! Kaagaasaan! Yaanaasaan!"
The fingertip of his left hand trembling fearfully, it neared Kouko's extended fingertip, approaching through the dark night air. But of course, since it was all a joke,
"Such an act, Baan!"
Taking the charade to its end, with Banri as "Mitsuo", Kouko clapped her hands and let them fall. Kyaaa, Kouko's hands sketched a big arc as they came down. Flutter flutter flutter, plop, with a sad sound the rotten tree to her side fell. Kouko laughed for a little bit, then,
"...Eh, wasn't that awful just now?"
All of a sudden she looked at Banri seriously. It wasn't that bad, since it was all a joke, she shook her side from side to side.
"I was referring to the socks. You ought to put them on."
He prompted her with a jerk of his chin.
It looked like Kouko finally remembered about Banri's socks, which were still sitting in her lap. Bending over, she put them on. They could serve to protect her slipper-clad bare feet from getting dirty, at least. Seeing that, Banri nodded in approval.
Though outwardly Kouko seemed lonely, it was after all ninety-percent a pretense to "Get Yana!" Even hearing this from her, he wasn't upset. Was this because he expected such from her? Was it because "it doesn't matter", and he was suddenly rebellious? Was it because, following the "there's no sick child" formula, his "good man" circuit got switched on? Was it simply because with things being the way they were at the moment, his emotions were simply paralyzed? Or perhaps this was just another proof of Yanagisawa's theory that "For beautiful people, life is fun" --- was he being led around by the nose by the beautiful Kouko, and his heart was under her control?
Trying to think, Banri concluded a short while later that he simply didn't know.
Kouko had come back for him.
Despite it seeming unlikely that she was going to love anybody but Yanagisawa Mitsuo anytime soon, and Banri being only barely somebody that "could not be left behind", she had come back to get him.
Watching the miserable-seeming Banri while they were leaving, the other freshmen had no intention of criticizing him (since he had persuaded them to leave him there by himself), but finally she had raised her voice. She didn't doubt Mr. Two Dimension's friendship, but after all, as the driver he probably would not be able to return.
But, indeed Kouko, even if only as a friend Kaga Kouko, even if she couldn't remember his name, returned for the sake of Banri "He isn't Mitsuo", something he didn't even think she would do. He didn't think there were such people.
Since Kouko behaved that way, and with the "ten percent" just mentioned, it seemed that perhaps there just might be something inside her.
That something existed inside her he knew at least, just what use it would be, well it's all your fault, whatever, to Banri it didn't seem likely.
"...I wonder if Yana-ssan knows Kaga-san's in that kind of state."
"What kind of state?"
"No, something like... It's because it seemed you're a little different when Yana-ssan is around, versus when he is not."
A little to his dismay, he saw Kouko's eyes open wide. Or so he thought.
For Banri, the time Yanagisawa was with Kouko was when she gave him a surprise attack with a huge bouquet of roses. Beating the daylights out of Yanagisawa with roses in front of all the new students, throwing them at the guy and leaving. As if patting a pet, looking down from above, disregarding whatever complaint Yanagisawa might have had. Pursuing the escaped Yanagisawa, reproaching him for having escaped. If she somehow caught him, she would use up to live ammunition (it's a matter of money).
Saying "Whatever, it doesn't matter", while Banri seemed to be the only person waiting in Kouko's "ten percent." Saying, "I can't leave him behind in such a place", and returning, seemingly just for Banri. Even awkwardly trying to apologize, then even trying to horse around and laugh like an ordinary girl, maybe, just for Banri. ...Maybe.
Banri, because he saw that, today's Kouko, yesterday's Kouko--- the Kouko around Yanagisawa was a different person, he thought.
But Yanagisawa, if he had seen the same thing, he probably would have thought the "Now-Kouko" differently.
"If so, I think he'd be wrong."
She went quiet for a moment, as if thinking, then,
"In the time I was with Mitsuo, I was complete. You just might have that right."
Laughing a little, she looked at Banri, then averted her eyes. Raising her slim leg straight up, she looked at Banri's socks covering her toes. Seeing that sidelong look made her seem to him a girl he didn't know.
"Without Mitsuo, I am incomplete. Whether getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, eating my meals or going to school, dressing up nice, crying or laughing, it is all for Mitsuo. He is the whole purpose behind everything I do. If it weren't so, I wouldn't even try. Without him, life has no meaning. It was always that way for me. If he's not following behind me, there is nothing I can do. If Mitsuo's not there, I don't know what I should do. Even now, I want to get back safely, because Mitsuo is there. Am I thinking like a fool? It's OK, because I really am a fool."
But such love she had for herself, that continuing, Kouko looked up once more to Banri's eyes, straightened her back, and showed her perfect, beautiful smile. This once again, was the face of a girl he didn't know.
To such a person as this, well, whatever he said she wouldn't want to listen anyhow, so, covering up his feelings, Banri gave her a frank reply,
"...If that were the case, it would all be fine in spite of your having gotten Yana-ssan mad. But there what with the roses, as far as his life is concerned, the completed person is very messed up. Far from being nice to him, wasn't it an attack? Why did you willingly do something to get yourself disliked?"
He said that for now. As for her internal ten percent --- his purpose was for her to know that he existed.
It seemed she heard him perfectly, judging by the stiffly displeased look on her lips in the dark.
"He... that wasn't good for Mitsuo."
"How so? It seems to me the perfect Kaga-san isn't so good, normally."
"But! But, you're wrong! I have my reasons! I exploded after four months of frustration! It's not like I planned for such a thing to happen! It was my intention to ride up in the taxi with the roses, congratulate him with a smile and hand over the roses! Just leaving behind the smell of roses... surprising Mitsuo... and then around campus, we'd say 'those roses mark the spot we got together...', that was an even more perfect scenario!"
"Was that what you thought meeting up with him would be like?"
"He would have said, 'That was a knockout blow: You had the courage to have pursued me to the same university!' "
"Seriously! Really, that's was how it was supposed to be! But... well, the result was this. ...Mitsuo, was always telling me about 'doing the escalator'. I found out that was all a lie around the end of the year. Since then I always pretended to be deceived, so that it looked to him that I was doing the escalator too, faking it to the point of taking the same entrance exams."
"Wig and glasses. Suspecting a second entrance exam, I called up the examiner. So it was that day after day he kept on lying, and I could see it the whole time. Perhaps today he would tell me the truth. Perhaps tomorrow. 'Surely the day after tomorrow...', I persisted, but all the way to the end, graduation already done, Mitsuo wouldn't tell me the truth. I overlooked the lies. Then, on the day of the entrance ceremony, idiotically walking with Tada-kun, looking as if he were having fun... 'What the heck!?' I couldn't stand it anymore."
How many seconds of silence passed? And then,
"Now, I am regretting it."
Kouko looked up into the night sky.
Starlight shining through a break in the trees fell on Kouko from above. She gave a deep sigh, together with a thin voiced "ah". Head hanging down, her hair again hung straight down.
"...Seems like it... From where I sit, it seems you are being disliked, right? Even at the entrance ceremony, it would have been better if you'd simply hugged him and given him a kiss. What you accomplished was different. ...Even so, to be ignored so completely and perfectly... was certainly not."
That's the way it was, really--- Banri looked back at the sad face whitely illuminated, quietly thinking.
Really, I think that's the way it is, Kaga-san. Better than hurting him like that with roses, nearly to the point of drawing blood, just showing that face--- that Kaga Kouko, even once, would be far better, he thought.
A million times, or ten million times, or even a trillion times better, he thought.
Banri had not known until now how somebody could be impatient with human clumsiness, even like this. Because of how the day was turning out, he knew the feeling for the first time.
"The only one who's supposed to do dumb things like that, in this world, ever, is me."
Perhaps too tired still to walk again, Kouko stiffly moved her legs while just barely cracking a smile.
"I don't think you're like that, though. You're just not the type of person to be able to do that right."
"Yep, it's absolutely just me. ...I am the most to blame in this, I did something dumb. What about you, Tada-kun? What about you? Is there somebody you like? Do you have a girlfriend?"
She was planting landmines under the night sky.
It was a rest-break with no more meaning than that, so more easily than ever Banri was able to open his mouth and chat with her.
"Maybe, and maybe not. I don’t know for myself. Just that 'My memories were all blown away,' since that's speaking the truth."
Like a surprise attack, Kouko winked back at him.
"...What kind of speaking?"
"Speaking about loss of memory."
Banri pointed at his head with his finger. "Well...", while he began hesitantly to talk, that finger turning in circles.
"It was shortly after my high school graduation ceremony. Early in the morning, I was alone and it seems I fell from the bridge. Since then my memory has left me. Though I may feel like saying it, I can't just say '...So what?' It doesn't work to say that every time I talk. For the time being, could you simply understand? I can't be always saying things like 'I can't remember anything from childhood through high school', of course."
As he looked at Kouko, who had fallen completely silent, looking troubled, Banri thought "Well, she ought to be!" If somebody were to suddenly talk about losing their memory, you'd probably be confused too.
But normally, I would hope you would just be seeing the face of an ordinary nineteen year old boy.
"A marvelous thing, the word "remembering"--- an ordinary, normal thing in the Japanese language. Whatever year A.D. it be, whatever you call it, whatever you study, whatever you watch on television, whatever calendar a person or actor uses, it is understood. Even the teacher of moonlight, right? Even Ruu Ooshiba, right? I don't understand the problem with me. My particular memories don't exist. People I knew or were related to, who I liked, ...in short the things that gave me 'individuality'. It is certainly a strange tale. My family, my friends, and my self all stored in my memories, even after a year of rehabilitation, even after all I did, completely gone. What's more,"
Seeming unable to remember 'that' feeling, the self-conscious Banri picked his words carefully.
"Very slowly, my emotions returned. They seemed like something I missed... but if I chased after them, they fled away. For example, imagine a piece of paper with a letter written on it. Trying to read it, you would look at it, and automatically from your gaze a beam would burn up the sentence. It felt rather like that. The traces of memory were like a ghostly tail I could barely touch, and it seemed to be rapidly fading away. That was a rather scary feeling..."
After the accident always, if I didn't remember, if I didn't remember quickly, then it just faded away. Time passed, and I rapidly lost track of things. More than simply pointing out "You have certainly lost something", the feeling of losing something was always, always fresh.
"But as time passed, even those feelings disappeared, and I became resigned to it, saying 'What's the use?' But, it mattered nothing since I was unable to sense them anymore. Losing it was scary, though I couldn't really feel it since it was already 'gone'. Because of that, things got easier."
What was left to Banri now was just a memory of the fear of that time when everything was rapidly leaving him.
"Because of that, I had to study over again for the entrance exams, as if I'd had to start life over again."
"Sorry, I was speaking nonsense."
"...Yes. No problem... It's just that,"
Kouko brought her hands to her chest. As she took a number of deep breaths, he saw that her hands moved together with her chest.
"...How you can say that's OK, I have no idea."
"But it is. Excuse me, really, but I'm not worried about it. Really now, since you're in good health. What's your blood type? What's your sign? You like soy sauce or paste? Memory loss? Mem riloss? That's about what I heard. If you have any questions, please let me know."
From Kouko's mumbling, it seemed she hadn't heard a thing he'd said, and didn't know what to say.
"...Err, well... weren't you just saying you wanted to get back...?"
"Yes, I must have been."
Since it was his long awaited chance to talk with her, he had wanted to be able to answer truthfully and honestly, Banri thought.
"Nonexistent things don't make sense to me. I'll say that first of all. As for myself, I have no choice but to speak from my own feelings. But, as for other people, I could understand them saying that they might want the original Tada Banri to return. In fact, it's about time he tried to return, I think. But in that regard, it gives me the feeling that adding memories to my current self is OK, even though it is replacing parts of my personality, so to speak, allowing the disappearance of my former self to be forgiven. From the start it looked impossible, and I've even been saying all along that there was nothing I could do, or even wanted to do."
"...Is that so?"
Her face serious as she listened to Banri's tale, Kouko lowered her eyes a little as if in thought.
"...That was a really strange story, wasn't it? What kind of guy was he, the vanished side of Tada Banri-kun? Perhaps he's watching over the current Tada-kun wherever he is... Kind of like a ghost in the background."
And, Kouko, seeming to notice something, suddenly turned around.
"What? What's going on? Is there a ghost behind Kaga-san?"
"...Something, just now, I saw a small flash of light... ah, ah, look!"
Kouko was pointing towards a thick grove of trees. She stared as the little light, certainly not a street light, swayed back and forth.
"You're right! Somebody's there! Let's go, let's call for help! Can you stand!?"
Banri took Kouko by the hand, the two of them staggering while they frantically walked out on the muddy path. "Excuuse mee! Could you help uusss! We've had an accideennnt!", they raised their frantic voices.
On the other side of the trees, the shadowy figure held a nearly dead flashlight. Their voices still not noticed, anyway in a daze they continued advancing, having no choice. Sliding while supporting Kouko's hand, pushing through grass, clearing away branches, hurrying but not falling down.
A line of people, ...everyone with their bodies bent over a little, moving their hands and feet uncertainly. All of them. In the middle of the night on a mountain trail, while they shone the light on each other. What a strange atmosphere, he thought. It was about time.
"Ju, jujuju, just a second. Tada-kun, those are really strange people."
Kouko stopped walking. She looked at Banri.
"What I mean... aren't they those believers from earlier...!?"
If that were the case, then jumping would be a big mistake. A huge, fatal blunder. Trying to retreat, confused, they broke a branch, making a sound. Whereupon, no matter how much they kept from raising their voices,
"Is somebody there?"
A long straight beam of light turned towards them. With a surprised-sounding voice,
They heard somebody's surprised shout. The light gave a big shake at the voice.
Exhausted, Kouko's strength gave out. Supporting her, pulling her along so they could escape, Banri eventually crumbled to his knees too. Standing up and running to escape hurriedly on foot, they vainly rejected the slimy damp earth. They were already at the limit of their strength. Even if everybody was a believer, there was nothing more they could do. However,
"It's me! Don't you understand!? Hey, it's me! Remember!"
Shouting while the person pointed the light at him, he suddenly raised both hands high, encompassing the whole place, shouting "Hey!" and striking a pose. That pose reminded him of something---
"...Eh!? Maybe, maybe, you..."
Even the disaster of the school entrance ceremony had laid land-mines for him!
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