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Tada Banri has spotted me.
Being made fun of in a strangely confused moment in time while that long-missed seductive bell was ringing, while gasping in pain, Banri certainly saw me that day. And I saw him too.
The present and the past connecting in the middle of that bridge, Banri and I, our eyes met for only a moment. Mine, or possibly Banri's, maybe both side's mistake in vision, a bad guess, an accidental misunderstanding, a mysterious illusion, a common daydream, what he thought didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
Anyway, the memory of that moment in my past certainly exists. This phenomenon, whatever you might call it, as far as I'm concerned, is real.
* * *
Serenely, Kouko said she was trying to collect the objective facts.
"To summarize them, Mitsuo and I are bound by fate. That is to say, it's been proven over and over again."
With a thump, she put a big paper bag from a department store, packed full of stuff, on the table in front of Banri. The table shaking and creaking from the weight, an older gentleman next to them, an espresso in one hand, briefly looked towards them. "Excuse me...", Banri bowing his head in a working class sort of way.
A little before three in the afternoon, walking from campus a short distance to the café--- which had now become outrageously memorable, the shop where they served café-au-lait in bowls. Thinking that perhaps they shouldn't go there a second time, they peeked into other cafes but found them completely full, and they finally settled down here, where they thought they might be able to have a quiet conversation.
"If I can pile up enough objective truth before his eyes, I think even Mitsuo would not be able to avoid his responsibility. ...And you could say, being a little law-school-ish would be good right now, eh?"
Holding her bowl in both hands, sipping café-au-lait as if it were soup, Kouko could be seen smiling.
Taking his bowl in both hands like she was, Banri stared at her.
"...I couldn't get out even though I'd had enough of the lecture."
As if asking "What was that?", Kouko raised one of her beautifully cared-for eyebrows and looked back at Banri's eyes.
Between deep red lips, a line of pure white teeth. Smooth cheeks. The skin about her eyes was stretched smoothly. From her slim fingers, neatly manicured, to the line from her hips to her crossed legs, she was perfect in every way. Calmly returning her café-au-lait bowl to its saucer, she looked out the window, elegantly composed.
Since that "worst day", when they'd escaped their awful situation, four days had passed. Having taken a break, it seemed that Kouko had gotten back on her feet. However.
"Well then, Kaga-san, are you really feeling better now? With how you were feeling Wednesday and all, not attending and looking like you were going to fail the class! All the first years but you have been getting perfect attendance."
"I just had to have a little time. Alone, by myself, thinking. And I arrived at a conclusion that of course I did the right thing. It wasn't a mistake. It was just right. ...As long as I keep to my plans, things will have to work out!"
Finally up to the task, even if only in front of Banri, as if acting the part of "the Perfect Kaga Kouko", she slowly raised her chin and smiled with her whole face. He could not discover even one flaw, not one spot on her creamy white throat.
With Kouko at long last back to school, just like that, Banri was even more high spirited than he had been worried before.
Wounded by Yanagisawa's cold attitude, confused by Chinami's entry into the fray, and along the way, embarrassed by Omaken, he had felt that she must certainly have been feeling down. Those four days, Banri had been really worried about Kouko. The day before, he had even called out to Linda when he spotted her in the lobby, and while leaving out the details, consulted with her about what to do about Kouko.
Banri said that she seems to be lost, because she's so clumsy at it she's ashamed to join Omaken, and Linda replied, "Pressuring her won't do any good. But, it would be boring without a partner," with a nod. "If Kouko was so inclined, of course they would be happy, she would always be welcome, and it's OK if she's a bit confused up until when she agrees to join." Simply calling Kouko his partner, just that much was making Banri feel strangely embarrassed.
"What were you thinking about? There's no mistaking Mitsuo and I are bound together, just not completely yet. There's proof, such that nobody can evade, perfect proof."
Kouko was stubborn to the end.
Her straight-blown hair spilled right down her back, held by a hairband wrapped in a deep gray and purple satin design. In her dark brown hair, it really looked pretty. Then,
"Justice will be mine!"
She nodded vigorously, showing her enthusiasm. She was wearing a snow white blouse. Emphasizing the courtroom style, she had on a slender, mannish vest. And a black tie. And a black miniskirt, black tights and black high heels. She had the evidence stuffed in a paper bag, and carried a high-class brand of briefcase. Together with how she threw her head back, today's Kouko really, how can you say it? ... She seemed to be doing an impression of a sexy lawyer.
Banri even now didn't understand where Kouko got her certainty. The proof, the proof, she was saying, but in reality up to this point, seeing the so-called 'satisfactory relationship' that Yanagisawa and Kouko had, he didn't think there was such a thing in this world as pulling out "objective facts".
Rather, he didn't think a man's heart could be moved to one's own convenience.
Though thinking about it, he didn't want to say anything negative to this Kouko, just barely returned, finally, from getting back on her feet.
"Wellll...", carefully saying little, resting his chin on his hand, Banri's cellphone buzzed.
It was a text from Yanagisawa.
"Yana-ssan said the lecture is over. He's coming this way now."
"Did he happen to ask you if I was here too?"
"Yes, yes, he did", said Banri, nodding. Though it seemed she was coming to school, after the lecture they hadn't spoken but a bit. "What're we doing?", was all Kouko had said along the way.
Once he came alongside Banri, Yanagisawa answered frankly, "I wanted to talk with Kouko too, amongst other things." While he was speaking that way, he gave a brief glance full of meaning that even Banri wasn't fool enough to not notice. He couldn't recall even one time that Yanagisawa had actually wanted to talk with Kouko.
As if she were satisfied, Kouko's back became even straighter.
"Look at this, will you? Perfect. Of course, you've been worrying about me, for a long time. You've repented of how coldly you were treating me. And then, little by little, unknown to yourself, I have filled up your heart. That is quite according to our perfect scenario."
Then as she were just remembering it, she took out a hand mirror from her pouch, looked into it, double-checking her beautiful perfection. Eyes upturned, blinking repeatedly, trying to make a smile from ear to ear, then nodding as if in approval, she put away the mirror.
This latest development startled Banri.
"Ka, Kaga-san, well... of course you aren't going back again!? And then, there's that, look here, rather than waiting in vain for Yana-ssan, once in a blue moon..."
"What are you saying? At long last, after waiting for him, I can present my evidence to him."
With a smile quickly put back in place, saying "That's true, isn't it?", he had no choice but to shut his mouth once more.
Really, calling Yanagisawa here like this was bad. He had yielded to Kouko's excessive self-confidence, though she couldn't deal with being rejected over and over again.
Hoping for something like progress with Kouko, perhaps... no, never, won't happen.
Yanagisawa was planning to turn her down once and for all, here.
Besides, it seemed to Banri that during the time she was away from school, Yanagisawa and Chinami’s relationship had been making progress, little by little. Even at the club drinking parties, it seemed, the two of them had had plenty of time to themselves. Since Yanagisawa knew all too well that Banri was supporting Kouko, he felt no need to mention it. In fact, he would not have been surprised if they were actually starting to go out together.
"...Anyways... shouldn’t you not be getting your hopes up?"
Timidly, that was all he tried to say.
If he were untactful, Yanagisawa might have planned to come here together with Chinami. And then in front of Banri and Kouko, they would slap her with the announcement that they were a couple. If such a thing were to happen, what would Kouko wind up doing? Becoming perfect, and then, ...what would she become, really? For certain sorry, standing petrified, in a strange cold sweat.
As for Banri, since such a Kouko's near future worried him, he couldn't just decide things were getting uncomfortable around here and take his leave, claiming "This has nothing to do with me."
"Why? He didn't just come here this way perfectly. There's plenty of evidence."
Looking strangely hesitant, Kouko looked back at Banri's face, handling her paper bag as if it were something valuable.
"But it's 'proof'... otherwise why would I have brought it with me?"
And saying, "He's come!", she sat facing the doorway, her eyes shining.
"Mitsuo! Over here!"
When she stood up with a flourish, like an actress, the old man next to them, apparently unable to deal with the noise, finally got up and moved over to the counter. "Sorry, really...", muttered Banri in a small voice that could hardly be heard.
Yanagisawa, his hair hanging down partway down the sides of his face, was standing in the entrance to the café. Raising his voice when he saw Kouko's face,
"Been a while, hasn't it?"
It seemed as if he were shrugging his shoulders while saying it. Chinami wasn't there, so Banri was able to relax for the time being. As he walked over to them, he jammed a knit cap he'd taken off into a pocket of his faded jeans. The heels of his well worn Red Wing boots made the floorboard creak.
Throwing her shoulders back, Kouko took a step towards Yanagisawa, keeping her perfect smile directed at him.
"Won't you sit down? What would you like to order? Mr. Defendant."
"Oh be quiet. Excuse me, could I have some coffee? Be normal."
"Hmph, you only just got here."
"I won't try to escape nor hide. You have nothing to be afraid of."
"Hey, what're you trying to say? Did I even set you free, or discover you hiding?"
"...Should I...really be here...?"
"It's OK! Stay here!", the two of them said at the same time, smiling, making Banri settle down and stop squirming.
In this meeting between the guy who was loved, and the girl whose love was unrequited, why was he here in the first place?
"Well then, prepare yourself. I will be understood completely. My perfection..."
"Something you want to say arbitrarily, as it were? Since it doesn't matter, I'll stay and listen."
"Anyways, sit down. Or have your feet cramped? Isn't it still early to be getting cold feet?"
"Huh? What have you been saying? Just why can't I have second thoughts?"
...Was this feeling like a duel?
Kouko's face smiling. Yanagisawa's face a mask. Giving each other exactly the same cool looks, they sat down, even their timing matching precisely, like mirror images. While between the two of them the tension crackled as if there were unseen sparks flying, Banri, who had been watching from the start had been yawning repeatedly, exhausted from the stress. Oxygen simply wasn't getting to his brain.
Or rather, the scene these people were making, as if they were on good terms with each other, Banri didn't see it that way, not even for a moment.
Facing each other again, they always disagreed, would get to fighting and disputing. Somehow the two of them argued just like they were brother and sister.
"Well, let's start with me, OK? Let's start by stating the end goal. Mitsuo, who is recognized in truth as my lover, should be quickly and formally engaged."
Kouko preempted him with her perfect smile. Was she bewildered? Was she bashful? Were her delicate emotions wavering? Trampled by those high heels and flushed down the toilet! To all appearances, she was as self-assured as a fortress.
"These are the proofs. Look through it in order. Starting with where we were born."
Kouko pulled a file out of her paper bag, and Yanagisawa and Banri leaned over a map of a city center so they could see it.
"Here is the Kaga home. Here is the Yanagisawa home. In a straight line it's about eight hundred meters. Close from the start. The schools were together too. The probability of our getting to know each other in public elementary school was very high. In summary, our meeting was inevitable. It was determined from the time we were born that we would meet, somewhere. And it was fated that we would get together. We were classmates from elementary school onwards."
She turned a page in the file with her beautifully painted fingernail. There was a picture, glued onto some cardboard, a caption hastily written all around it.
"This was from the entrance ceremony. We're in the same picture, both of us. We were only eight years old. We still hadn't even spoken with each other at that time. At seven years old, a picture of an outing. A patron visit... Mitsuo's parents and my parents were together. After that, an athletic meet. Eight years old, nine years old, ...always together in pictures. Look at this, summer camp in our fifth year. Mitsuo, what's with such long hair? Then, this,"
"...Just what do you want to say?"
"Listen, just look. It's the graduation from elementary school! They took a picture of the two of us. We asked somebody to take it."
"You're sure drowning in memories looking at your album and remembering again. Just what's your point with all this?"
"Because of that, it's proof!"
"Mitsuo and I are bound by this legitimate proof of fate."
Even when the file was closed with a bang by Yanagisawa, Kouko didn't turn off her smile.
"What I think about Mitsuo, in truth, has not changed. I've been that way since I was little, I was always together with Mitsuo. Remember when you confessed your love in first grade? Mitsuo said it, too. I love Kooko-chan, I'll be together with Kooko-chan from now on, you said, you'll become my bride, right, you said. You really did say it. Don't you remember? It was when we gave out presents at the Christmas party in first grade. You said it on the stage, my father and mother heard it too, even grandma heard it."
"...That, in the Christmas party, wasn't that a play!? That was a well-staged dramatization, so that your parents could hear."
"Ever since then, I've always been committed to getting married to Mitsuo."
"Look, Kouko. Between us, the dating thing won't work."
"But that was something between childhood friends. Again, I don't think I especially need to explain our relationship. That is something that goes without saying. Right?"
"Perhaps when we were children, we said things like that innocently. But, that was because we really were kids. Things like that could be said. But we're no longer little kids. Being a kid, wearing a uniform, going to and from school and studying; that's different from now."
"That's right. I understand that. We've grown up. Therefore, even in our relationship, we want to bring it up to an appropriately adult level."
"...'Bringing it up' or whatever, is something else though. "Loving" as a kid, versus "loving" now. I love Mr. Giraffe, I love Mr. Elephant, I love Kooko-chan... that happy time is already over. That's something normal; understand that. I mean, you can pretend to understand, or not."
"That's not it. Our relationship, ever since we were born, by destiny, for eternity, has been absolutely perfect."
"I don't understand where you get that from. I am fed up already, really, with your presumption. Because of it, how long have I been handicapped? First year middle school. Third year middle school. Second year high school. When there was a girl I liked, you'd interfere one way or another, quarrel with her, harass her, until you'd gotten her fed up with me. You even affected my friends, making them keep their distance. Thanks to you, all the way through graduation, not one girl would associate with me. I was truly left alone. As far as everybody was concerned, Yanagisawa Mitsuo had no choice in the end but to be Kaga Kouko's."
"Fooling around is not permitted. After all,"
"So! Already, it looks like you're telling me you're fed up with it!"
Kouko having once more opened the file, Yanagisawa roughly pushed it aside. Falling from the table, photos and memo-like things were scattered by Banri's feet.
"But, ...I haven't blamed you for what's happened until now. It's the past in any case. With childhood things in general, lacking judgement I made childish mistakes, drifting along, I think. I am thinking that now you should be taking responsibility for having come to my university, and certainly for your own life. Anyway, I am just telling you clearly in advance. I have the person that I like now."
"...It's me, of course?"
"Take it however you like. It's Chinami. It seems to me that a few times now you've tried to smear her name. If you so much as trouble her, put her on the spot, hurt her feelings or pester her--- if you try to separate her from me, I will not be happy with you. I will hate you, I will hate Kouko, eternally, absolutely and perfectly to the point where it will follow you even if you transfer to a different university."
Deliberately slowly so as to be heard, Yanagisawa with his finger as if setting a rhythm, stabbed out the words.
"I'm leaving you behind."
With a sharp sound, Kouko stood up.
She looked down at Yanagisawa.
Her now visibly false smile vanished once, but then returned, stiffening.
"Why? What the, why such... what's with this? I don't get you."
Yanagisawa silently looked up at the scene. Kouko was breathing in gasps, trying to maintain her expression but her lips trembling more and more as she spoke.
"But, ...but, I don't understand. Am I not special to you? Do you remember that time you had such a big backpack on? Do you remember when you'd lost out because of your handwriting? Who comforted you then? When you were chosen to be a member of the relay team for the sports day, who baked the party cake? You dropped the relay baton, didn't you? Who of all the others knew that? That time the girls came in first, and our class came in first overall. Who was the anchor of the girl's relay team? Between "Mitsuo can see me" and all the cheering, I was always such a dunce. Who ran faster than anybody else?"
"But, it's impossible."
"Well then! ...Then, when I was born and started writing love letters, who were they to...? To whom... do you know?"
Noticing that Kouko's fingers were trembling delicately where they touched the table, Banri involuntarily glanced up at her face. Looking, he saw how pale she had become. Her voice was shaking too. Even the café-au-lait bowl was rattling.
He didn't need to see this. Or rather, why was he being shown this? Banri hid his face, covering his eyes with one hand. He could only hear the trembling voice of Kouko.
"...You know this boy I've come to love since I was born, don't you? On the occasion of my ninth birthday party, the boy who took me home? When I was feeling down because I wasn't chosen to accompany on piano, the boy who for my sake brought from home an origami set? That boy... do you know him?"
"...But, it'll never happen."
"Wouldn't you know!? You were that person! The reason I was able to run so fast, the reason I want to be pretty, the one I wanted to love was you! You've always been special! To be bound to you is right! Otherwise, if it weren't so... it wouldn't be perfect! Unless I was perfect, then I would not be able to get you to love me! Then what was I to do!? So, so always, I, I've tried, perfectly... hey! Why am I not special to you!?"
Quietly raising his eyes a fraction, Yanagisawa gave Kouko a penetrating look. Banri wished he could leave. If Kouko had noticed how badly she was shaking, she probably would have gotten up and left long ago.
"Answer me! Haven't I loved you since I was little!? Wasn't I raised with you and for you!? And yet, why am I not special to you!? Why am I not even important to you!?"
"So please answer me!", she repeated over and over again, whining like a little kid, unable to listen and beginning to tremble pitifully.
Ah, no way, such a---
"...You, are you an idiot...?"
Of sympathy there was not a trace. His expression was one of anger. Yanagisawa was angry.
"I don't think you ever understood me. It was always just about you. For that reason, you don't understand!"
Standing up, pointing at her with his finger, to his tearful female childhood friend Yanagisawa spoke.
"This was a careful decision. Really and truly, from the bottom of my heart, I am doing this for you. ...I did it for you! Why don't you understand that!? Do you want to get hurt because you fail to understand something I'm telling you? You're not an irresponsible kid, so understand! In particular, don't be getting the wrong ideas just because I happen to care! I'm not going to talk about lovers, destiny or any such thing! Because in reality, it wasn't like that! We didn't even fool around, not once! That was because I cared for you! If I had not cared, then with the right atmosphere, and the right feelings, what might we have done, we could have wound up having some fun! But that I could not do! I don't think one can become happy just by doing that! Because of that, it was something I absolutely could not do! I don't want to do such a thing!"
Banri couldn't look at Kouko's face.
"If I'm important... if I'm special, that... love, is something different...? Is it not permitted to include 'love'? Coming to love me, falling in love, loving one another, getting married, for eternity, speaking that way... why, can't it be? Is it not possible?"
Yanagisawa's reply was a shake of the head. Yanagisawa was crudely telling her that it would not work, the two of them together. Banri was thinking that Yanagisawa would understand just how much he was supporting Kouko. He wasn't blaming him, asking him to be flexible and not say such hard things. Because he was that sort of guy, maybe that's why he wanted to be friends.
A drop fell to the table.
"...This way, in spite of remembering our childhood...? Even though I'm special? In spite of that, there's no way? Then, then in short... it was my fault?"
That was how Kouko was defeated.
If she simply cried herself out, not her objectives, not her evidence, nothing would come to be more than a pile of papers.
"Because I was merely something to be despised? Then, to whatever extent you have memories, however long a time you give me in reality, there is simply no way? Could you not fall in love with me? If, if that's the case,"
In a small voice, he tried to call her. He was thinking it was time to give up. Kouko not knowing how to pull back, again sinking into depression before him, Banri wanted to hold her back. That is the reason I stayed here, he thought.
But that voice didn't seem to reach Kouko.
"If so, then I am already not needed! Always unneeded, always forgotten, done without! Made as if I never existed! If just one more thing happens to me that cannot be undone, I will be entirely gone!"
Hearing what seemed to be a scream in that voice, Yanagisawa said nothing more, rising from his seat.
Pulling his knit cap on his head nearly to his eyes, he swung open the door and went outside.
The inside of the shop suddenly went terribly quiet. He realized that the other customers all had their ears directed towards them, curious. Banri moved slightly, highly uncomfortable, when at that moment there arose the sound of Kouko gulping for air.
Bang, Kouko's hand struck her saucer, shaking it.
"...Just what have I done?"
Kouko watched Banri, covering her mouth. Opening her eyes, tears ran down her cheeks again, flowing down. Sorry, Tada-kun. Sorry. Sorry, sorry, so very sorry. Sitting down as if she were falling, she turned her crumpled face towards Banri, from the corners of her tightly closed eyelashes once more tears.
He was being apologized to, he understood at last. Banri searched within himself. The Banri who lived here as if nothing mattered at all, blowing up before that Banri's eyes was indiscreet, perhaps, but he wasn't hurt by Kouko's words.
"It's all right, Kaga-san."
"...I'm sorry...I'm sorry...!"
"Really, since it's OK. ...In such a time as that, you needn't worry about me."
Just now was nothing. You'll forget. You'll make it as if it hadn't happened. ---But it wasn't so easy to say that, the future being awfully difficult to manage.
* * *
Kouko stayed sitting there in the seat by the window.
Not knowing what else to do, Banri continued watching the tableau. The tears on her cheeks already dried, Kouko remained silent, her head hanging in shame, completely shut off from everything. Four o'clock passed, five o'clock neared, slowly outside the window it was starting to get dark,
"Good sirs, there are customers waiting for the non-smoking section..."
The café employee said to them apologetically. At last the time had come,
"It's about time we left, Kaga-san."
Banri prompted her,
Still silent, Kouko, instead of asking if they should get up and leave, went through the glass door that separated the smoking section. Bowing his head to the bewildered employee, the confused Banri followed her at once. For sure it was less crowded over here, with fewer customers and poorer ventilation, and an awful cloud of tobacco smoke and smell swirling about in the air.
Sliding into vacant seats,
"I thought smoking might kill you."
Distracted by Kouko's muttered words, uncomfortable smokers were looking their way.
"Err... noo, what did I say...? I didn't think such stuff was deadly, did I...?"
Having entered the smoking section with Kouko once again hanging their heads in shame, trading glances with the employees, Banri was embarrassed. If he were to order something more, would they let them stay here still? More importantly, was it all right if he stayed here still? Obviously dispirited, Kouko wouldn't want to go off by herself alone, but wasn't Banri's very presence a bother, as far as she was concerned? Perhaps what she needed was time alone to lick her wounds. If so, he wanted to disappear quickly.
Naturally, he wasn't thinking about "being needed". That she didn't require any human being apart from Yanagisawa Mitsuo even Banri understood. Worrying about Kouko, and wanting to keep an eye on her, was Banri's condition. He wanted to pay more attention to her condition than to his own.
Of course, it might be that he shouldn't be here--- a feeling that sitting too long a time, an ache arising from his rear just then,
"Want a smoke? Here you go, one shot!"
A girl they didn't know sat down next to them and extended her cigarette case towards Kouko.
"You wanna die? Use this stuff and you will. At the cellular level for sure."
"This person's not twenty years old yet..."
Confused for some reason, Banri blocked it. Kouko raised her head a bit, looking curiously at the cigarette case offered to her by that mysterious person. It didn't appear to be any major brand, like Mild Seven, or Marlboro.
Confused, Banri shook his head rapidly back and forth. The girl, with a cynical smile twisting her lips, spoke.
"Hey. You can call me NANA."
Thinking a bit, Banri,
Expelling his breath as if punched.
He remembered while he was hospitalized, forever reading the latest issues of shoujo manga. Probably overdone, a short one-length bob hair style with longer bangs, dyed jet black and a leopard print camisole. Aggressively strong makeup. Heavy leather riding jacket. Neck to fingertips jingling with excessive silver accessories. She even carried around a guitar case. Her appearance, such as it was, was that character.
Such cosplay... but why here and now? Chosen over other things. Such a person. Was this café some sort of power spot to draw in such strange people? The more he looked at her, the more he had to restrain himself from laughing out loud.
"You could say you, well... for me, it was something for me to see. By chance right next to me... so to speak."
He looked towards her black fingernails. In the setting of her silver ring was a skull.
"...I'm not Linda's junior. You were with Linda in high school! I'm a third year. Or rather,"
Twisting her lips so as to direct the fumes upwards as she smoked, NANA... sempai explained her surprising name.
"Linda's first given name is pronounced NANA too."
"...That, are you kidding..."
Banri was becoming overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all,
At long last, a snort came from Kouko's nose. And then from Kaga Kouko he got the same strange vibes.
"Omaken, eh? I'm fed up to here with that. The Yosakoi and such were such a pain, didn't they make me feel like I wanted to die?"
"...What about this year's Awa Odori...?", replied Banri, to which she laughed scornfully.
"Even more so time to stop. For sure. If I'm gonna die, let it be by music."
And then, thrust before them, a cheap-looking black and white flyer.
"Today at nine o'clock. Nakano City. Though it's nothing more than an amateur student band, Awa Odori can die a thousand times in comparison."
"Ah, thanks... this is what they call a 'live show'... is it? But I've never been to such a thing... are you going too, NANA-senpai? Well, of course... does it seem like a typical cover band?"
"Whaddaya mean, 'cover band'. They aren't like a cover band. Cause I'm a poet. Poetry reading."
"Po, poe...? Huh...?"
"If you have this leaflet, you get two drinks. If you mention my name, you can get more. Come and die."
With a broad grin, she gave them the finger. NANA-senpai wore her character to the last, and leaving things as they were, left the shop. With only the leaflet left behind in Banri's hand, "What shall we do?", he said towards Kouko,
"Let's go and die."
Kouko plucked it from him. Her tear-reddened eyes, upset wherever they sat, desperate from having been put upon, understood.
"...If it isn't perfect, then I ought to remain broken to the end. Unlike how I've been up to now, I want to do absolutely nothing. No half measures. If I'm going to be smashed to pieces anyway, then I want to become nothing at all. I want to die!"
And then standing up, spreading their arms wide and taking deep breaths--- the people in the smoking section of course really looked like they hated them, Kouko making as if she didn't see.
"What will you do, Tada-kun? I'm going even if I have to go alone."
"...It's a date! Of course!"
Leaving Kouko like that alone was worrisome, besides, that's the way it was. If she wasn't perfect, instead falling to pieces, she would do nothing as if dying, but then she would want to be brought back to life. Banri, at least, always thought so.
* * *
Unable to say anything about honorable defeat while killing time nor over dinner, they went drinking at a cheap tavern afterwards.
"...W, what? Even in my thoughts it was never such a dodgy looking place..."
A little past nine o'clock, Banri and Kouko were standing before the live concert place. Trying to look inside through the entrance, Banri winced. The steps going down were dark.
Looking very much out of place, looking around nervously, she pushed on his back with both hands,
"It's OK, you'll be fine, no problems..."
Kouko made ready to go down the steps.
"Hold on, just hold on a bit more,", Banri said, planting his feet firmly in resistance. Even more than in his imagination, the real thing was considerably more hard core.
"Between dying and killing, were the fans of that student band on the same planet?", Banri was thinking. "The tension here, for the first time in my life 'live', so to speak, will eventually be over, right?" If they were to spend some time going crazy, then perhaps Kouko would unwind a little. That was the feeling he had.
However, there were no students to be seen amongst the other customers gathering around the entrance. For some reason, most were well built, like foreigners, with body piercings and tattoos seeming natural for them. They wore grim-looking riveted jackets and leather pants, had impressive figures with biceps like logs. Above their bald heads, a vapor arose from their sweat. Ordinary people appeared as fasting monks beside them, all skin and bones. Their mouths open as they stood around, they watched the petrified Banri with suspicious eyes, like buffalo-men with their huge shoulders, both tattoed with "guts" (why?) --- anyhow, everybody living in the ordinary world would never be able to meet such a variety of people as were here.
"We, we're really going...?"
He reflexively looked over towards Kouko, inquiring,
"Let's go, it's ok! It's O-K, let's go! It's all right if we goooo."
Kouko stood before him firmly, looked at him with clear eyes, and nodded like crazy.
Perhaps due to three whole hours of drinking continuously, her breath reeked of liquor. Her voice was a little slow, but for the time being she seemed the same old Kaga Kouko. Her makeup was a little smeared from crying, but otherwise to every last aspect she was perfect. "Fuu... haaa...", she sighed, though she wasn't collapsing yet, in spite of having recklessly drank virtually everything on the menu, from fruit sours to cocktails. Banri, feeling dizzy on the way, had switched to an oolong tea, but Kouko kept drinking alcohol until she was finally full. Could she hold her liquor that well?
"Hey let's gooo! Let's goo! Tada-kuun, hey, it's OK, it's O-K, it's oookaaayyy."
Almost as if she were throwing a fit, Kouko started impatiently stamping her feet. He sensed several gazes turning towards them. Not wanting to be something oddly conspicuous,
"...OK, OK, let's go for it!"
For the time being, going through the entrance looked almost like running away.
Going down the steps leading to a basement, putting his weight against the heavy door and opening it,
"Wow! So loud!"
He couldn't even hear himself shout. For the first time in his life, the live music detonating around him, it truly was an eye-opener. Shaken by the violent oscillations from his spine to his skull bones, his feet froze with instinctive fear. Kouko's eyes opened wide, she covered both her ears with her hands, and shouted things like "Kyaa!" and "Hyaa!". Even grabbing each other by the arm and getting closer, they really couldn't hear their voices.
The crowd of sweaty, hot and smelly people pushed them aside as they were leaving, but with that energy they entered all the quicker. Tossed about by the subterranean rumbling, they felt like their bodies were floating. And yet here they were, still only at the reception desk. Inside the exploding storm, a pair of middle-aged people of unknown nationality were standing, as if confused, watching money being passed across the counter. So then, it's not free?
The confused Banri pulled out his wallet, and showed them the leaflet he'd received from NANA-senpai. Rather than taking his money, they gave him two drink tickets. And then, bam, with some sort of stamp-like thing, they were branded on the backs of their left hands. But, anyhow, to conceal themselves somewhat, they lowered their heads a little and the two of them went further inside. If they were to stand still, they had a feeling they would wind up angry.
And then, they were overwhelmed by the most terrible noise. Finally they covered their ears, realizing it was as if their brain tissue on both sides were being pounded upon. Had the other customer's ears been destroyed already? They seemed entirely unconcerned. Only Kouko and himself seemed to be nervous country bumpkins. It was scary, really. In any case, everything was scary.
"Though Kaga-san might be okay, I'm not okay!", he said, thinking he should stick really close to his one and only companion, but Kouko was looking around restlessly, and indifferent to Banri, she tossed her bag neatly into a locker. Crouching down by the lowest step, she stuffed her bag of evidence in and then kicked the door roughly to close it. To judge by the noise, her ladyship might even have broken it. And it looked like she'd forgotten to pull out the key.
Banri hurriedly stuffed his bag in with hers, pulled the key from the locker and put it away firmly in his pocket. For some reason, Kouko was moving restlessly, twisting around. There was nothing out of place with her ladyship, but she was straining to tear her black tights in several places, making holes in them.
As Banri looked on in mute amazement, she undid her necktie and opened her blouse widely, exposing much of her chest. Removing her hairband, her hair unfurled like a lion's mane. Roughly combing her hair with her hands, the combed back hair standing up and swelling, she suddenly got a wild look in her eyes. And then she rubbed roughly around her eyes, the long-ago messed up eye shadow, mascara and such smearing to where her eyebrows disappeared.
In some ways proud of herself, she showed off her look to Banri. The normally perfect Kouko vanished, suddenly a dangerous punk rocker girl. Passing on inside, going past a row of five women with lip piercings, the atmosphere hardly changed. Arriving back at the center of the chaotic noise, nobody batted an eyelash.
"...Well then, me too..."
Kouko didn't really want to disguise him, but for the time being she just messed up his hair with her fingers too. But since his hair was as limp as cat fur, nothing came of it.
Glancing at each other's faces and nodding, they once more proceeded inside. Over towards the stage, all you could see were the backs of the spectator's heads, like waves on the surface of the ocean. Because of all the noise, not even by shouting could one be heard. Approaching the bar counter, passing their drink tickets to the bartender, they were mutely shown a plastic menu. Pointing at beer, he showed it to Kouko too. Kouko chose a Moscow Mule. They were each handed a fresh cup.
At any rate, even if they couldn't hear, he raised his voice, Kouko shouted something too, and the two of them raised their cups to their lips.
Just then a group of people surged towards the bar, hitting Kouko firmly against the back of her head. Kouko spouted her cocktail all over Banri's face. While shouting something, she took her tie and wiped Banri's face briskly. They went back over to the bar. It was entirely drowned in the noise, Banri's ears had gone deaf, he couldn't hear anything anymore.
Leaning against the counter, Kouko got close to the bartender's ear and said something as loud as she could. Her torn tights peeking from beneath her miniskirt, she raised her heel and shook her high-heels. Disheveled, half of her beauty was hidden by her wild hair. While feasting his eyes on her, he noticed a big guy with tattoos all over his upper body approaching Kouko. Banri, though a powerless knight (his finishing move was to lie down and play dead), looked ready to rush over in heroic resignation when,
"Tsuzaaeeeenja, neeeeeeooo! Uruuuaaaaaaaaaaa!"
---Between the songs, several seconds of silence, just like an air pocket. Wrung out from Kouko's throat came a howl, as if from the earthbound ghost of a female cat which had died in a particularly cruel manner.
That voice. No, that face. Her disheveled hair starting to flap against her cheeks, her large eyes bordered in pitch black glaring and glittering wet. Is this how a wounded beast feels? Really, you look like you fit in this place, Kaga-san... Banri reflexively gasped.
Rebuffing the tattooed man, she took four cups in her two hands and suddenly struck a pose while turning back towards him. Twisting her narrow waist left and right, she said "Aha☆", her whole face a smile. Giving an obvious wink, she returned to Banri's side. Her white chest swelled outwards, restrained by her tight vest. The shadow was terribly bewitching.
Really drunk she is, this person.
For a good while now, deeply drunk, even more than he thought. Even deeper than she seems to be, looking at her.
"Ka, Kaga-san, wait a sec, though it's late, is this really OK!? Aren't you drinking an awful lot!? I mean... wow, that's loud!"
With what seemed like an explosion of sorts, they started singing loudly once more, and while he started to crumble from the knees up again, Banri shakily extended his cup towards Kouko. Kouko was shouting out, "NANA-senpai", or something. And with a smile, she drank up the contents of one cup. "Oh...", unintentionally having watched over Banri, she fluttered her hand as if to say "Drink drink!"
Banri too, if that's how it was going to be, bringing it to his lips,
This time, Kouko's face got sprayed. "Gyahaa!", Kouko's face dripping while she clapped her hands and bent over double, laughing uproariously. But that wasn't all. His throat burned, his nose was sore. He was dizzy. His ears hadn't been able to hear anything for a long time. It was as if his five senses were entirely paralyzed. "What's going on!?", Banri staggering as he tried frantically to support his body with his own two feet. Up to this point he'd drunk such things as beer, sour, highballs, and so on, but definitely not sake. And strong sake this was, like fire.
Kouko's face seemed unconcerned, gulping down the same stuff. "But, drink up, I suddenly feel as tired as a stone!", sitting down.
"Whoa Kaga-san! Be careful, very careful! I mean, what, what was that!?"
Confused, while taking her hands and trying to help her stand up, he looked back towards the bartender. While the bartender lady was using the same kind of cup to give something to drink to a customer, she stuck out her tongue at Banri and Kouko. Doing two things at once, the odd glittering must have been from her piercings.
Banri finally arrived at the conclusion that perhaps it might be better if they just left. With everything to this point, she might have unwound enough, and already it seemed about the right time for her highness.
"Kaga-san, let's go already! Eh!? Kaga-san!? Kaga Koukoo!? You're not here!"
When he turned around, Kouko wasn't there, and he looked around in confusion. Cup in one hand, he staggered around, looking through the gaps between the other spectator's backs for long hair.
"Just a second, just a second! Hold on, wait!"
On the stage three guys were waving chainsaws around. The tiresome fellow playing the drums was sneaking out, looking down his nose at it all. As if spurred on by that atrocious noise, the spectators on the completely-filled floor raised their fingers high, jumping up and down, in spite of the disdainful look, raging for unknown reasons. Kouko was rapidly heading into the middle of all that.
"Ka, Kaga-saan! Wait! Hold on!"
Banri shouted, his voice quickly swallowed up. On the stage the maniacs were jumping up and down to make things even crazier, then jumping down hard on the heads of the spectators below. Or rather, falling down. Between the hands of the crazy ones, their unforgiving faces and slamming into their heads, Banri was making no progress at all.
"Miiiitsuuuuoooo is a fooooolllll~~~~~!"
"Scram", shouted Kouko in a slurred voice, trying to climb up on to the stage over the skinheads in the front row. Her shoes were long gone. And then,
"I'mmmm going to diieeee~~~~~~! Ugyaaaaaaa~~~~~~~!"
"You've got to be kidding, this is the end.", said Banri, beginning to give up.
Welcomed by the chain saw squad as if she were their queen, Kouko dumped the contents of her cup over her own head. She threw away the cup, stuck out her tongue, and gave the finger with both hands. She threw her head back as she were stabbing with all her might at the heavens. The cheers shook the ground. The focus of the drummer's eyes, Kouko's miniskirt, was dangerously near her butt, and in a moment, all at once the problems increased. Her bra was black. Just a fleeting glimpse of her chest was seen. And then, both hands lifting up even higher, her neck and her chattering knees, that... that, was C-3PO's pose!
Banri climbed up, as if he were jumping on people's backs with his Jack Purcells. He went towards the stage. Not quickly enough to stop Kouko, that just wasn't possible.
Sopping wet, bathed in sake from the head down, Kouko inspired the band to dance like robots. For just such a moment, even their rhythm was chopped up. The chainsaws growled more and more violently. Any time now, it seemed he would be able to jump to midstage with a running start. Banri barely managed to reach the stage. Stretching out his hand to jump,
"Kaga-san, don't, don't!"
He grabbed Kouko's wrist.
He put his weight into it, all at once, taking her by one hand. His body was drawn close.
He had a feeling such a thing had happened before. Even before, even that before...? The crowd was just like--- around dawn, at the river water's surface.
If he were to fall, he would die. Die completely.
Crying like a child, shamefully, who was it? Me? Kaga-san?
Kouko's eyes were looking at Banri.
Standing his ground, Banri also looked at Kouko.
Had somebody been calling him like this? With all the alcohol, it felt like flames dancing around, spinning inside his head. Sparks whirled about, everything he felt, everything he saw, anything and everything, just like that caught fire. What was it? How many things, in a hurry, without time, are burned, vanish and are lost? No way! Already he was truly lost, not understanding. Since he did not understand, he didn't want to hear anything more. From the beginning, it would have been good for him to not have existed.
Ah, so it was.
Always, nothing but loss---.
Kouko was murmuring in a small voice. ...Murmured, sort of, her mouth could be seen moving. Their hands were still joined, the moment seeming to stand still, but,
"If you're going to die, then die quickly, you idiots. This stage is mine."
Jabbed forcefully in the lower back, Banri was pushed off the stage. And of course, Kouko together with him.
As they quickly fell down, with the guitar used to poke Banri in one hand, NANA-senpai could be seen with the mike in hand, grinning like a demon.
At the front entrance, Banri collapsed.
Stepping over the collapsed Banri, creeping down the unlit corridor, groping for the bathroom, Kouko could be heard entering.
"Are you okay...?"
Instead of a reply, one more time. Bravely.
Kicking off his shoes to get them off, still unable to stand, he somehow managed to enter the room, following the wall. His hands had gone completely numb. Supporting Kouko, he had walked here all the way from the place of the concert.
Falling to the floor with a thud, he rolled over on to the rug. The sound of the water pouring, the sound of the toilet flushing. And still he groaned, painfully.
Feeling a random pain where he sat, it felt like something was there. Sticking his hand in his pocket, out came the key to the locker.
"...Ah... we did it... the stuff in the locker, we left it, didn't we... hey, Kaga-san, again, we forgot something..."
There was no reply.
To block his feelings he covered his ears, drawing himself inside, and unnoticed, Banri's eyes seem to have closed.
* * *
When he woke up, he felt vague.
Still lying on the rug, he felt so heavy he only lifted his eyelids. The world was still in middle night, and in the room light did not penetrate; it was dark.
Kouko was in a corner of the dark room.
Leaning her back against Banri's bed, sitting on the floor, she looked outside through the door-wall. She was crying.
Elbow propped on a partially raised knee, chin in one hand, the other hand combing her bangs, the light from outside the window illuminated her cheek, tears running down it. Her throat sounding hoarse, her nose running, the fingers of the hand supporting her chin twisting her lips, Kouko kept on sobbing.
Even though Banri was waking up, she probably didn't notice. Just one person, huddled in the deeps of solitude, not caring what others see, that figure still crying defenselessly, marvelously, looked rather like a young boy.
In other words, just like me, Banri thought.
Though nobody should be crying aloud like that in this room, it felt as if here were split entirely in two, and he were watching himself cry.
Long ago, perhaps he had cried like this, what he was seeing on the other side of the room. This he knew: this had happened. Such feelings had come over him.
Like a pale, thin film covering the corner of his vision, just then,
A faint glimmer, a mysterious single syllable came to mind.
When he raised his shoulder, a towel-blanket fell down. Kouko must have draped it there. Kouko, at Banri's voice, raised her tearful face as if taken aback.
"...Just now, what did you say...?"
By what was certainly the voice of a little girl, Banri's strange dream was quickly destroyed.
"...You said 're'."
"...Your hand. Look..."
Banri pointed at the back of Kouko's hand. Bending her wrist and looking at the back of her hand, "This?", she said hoarsely. There was a faintly glimmering fluorescent yellow 're' symbol there.
"Ah. You too..."
At Kouko's word, he tried looking at the back of his own hand. For sure, the same 're' glimmered faintly. Was that so? Was it the stamp from the reception desk at the concert place? To make it easier to recognize in the darkness at reentry time, it was of fluorescent paint. "Now I see", Banri started to nod his head.
"I mean... why 're' of all things..."
Without a single sound in the room, the two of them stared at their respective 're's for a little while.
Were they able to think quietly this way because it was the dead of night? Was it because they were barely breathing? Or, was it because their ears had been beaten down by that awful noise? ...That, probably.
Staring at the back of her hand, it seemed she would start sobbing again. Was the syllable a switch that had enabled all of her grief? Re... Being on good terms with Mitsuo would they go to 're'staurants? Being on good terms with Mitsuo would they go to pick 'le'mons? Would they watch a 're'ntal DVD, would they ecstatically dance the , or zap eggs on the 'ra'nge---
"Kaga-san... are you okay?"
"...Sorry. I was thinking about Mr. Two Dimensions just now."
"W, what? That's surprising... I mean, that doesn't have anything to do with 're', right?"
"No. There's no connection. Something Mr. Two Dimensions said, I suddenly remembered it... then, I started crying again."
Turning a sort-of smiling but tear-stained face towards Banri, Kouko straightened her legs and sat down neatly.
Leaning her back against the bed, she slowly tilted her head back, as if it were quite heavy.
"Mr. Two Dimensions will not become Mr. One Dimension. He seems he said that to get things right, to his own satisfaction, that he would have to create his own dream girl. As for me, while hearing that as half joking, I thought we were somewhat kindred spirits. 'I want to be bound to a perfect companion with a perfect scenario'... saying that he and I are going for the same thing, I thought. But Mr. Two Dimensions, since he's what they call an 'otaku' boy, he works in the world of literary creation. Since I'm not an otaku-ish girl, I work in reality. That's different from a simple preference in hobbies, I thought. Enjoying himself in creating fiction, Mr. Two Dimensions is still rather childish, even, it seems. But, ...its not like that, is it?"
Combing her disheveled hair as if it were a nuisance, while looking up at the ceiling, in a low voice she continued talking.
"He was always more mature than I, an adult. That was how I understood him to be. Apart from me, nobody can imagine stuffing the perfection I dream of into their bodies. In the real world, it cannot be done. The world, in it's own selfish way, cannot do it. What would human relationships become if they were forced to be so? ...For Mr. Two Dimensions, or rather, a person barely come of age, assuming he has that sort of understanding, would be able to enjoy talking about it. In spite of my being of the same year, because I'm an idiot, there is sooo much that I don't understand. I don't understand why Mitsuo doesn't like me as I am. From the very start, I haven't understood how one can say, "I have not been able to make my dreams come true."
That hurt a lot.
All of it.
Still looking up at the ceiling, still crying, Kouko's voice could be heard awfully, painfully blocked.
"Mitsuo, did he not say that I matter to him? 'Because I cannot have happiness, I cannot love either.' Didn't he say something like that?"
"Yeah... he did, didn't he? I think so."
"After hearing that, I got to thinking. I had never thought whether or not Mitsuo would be happy. I had simply been chasing Mitsuo around saying I loved him. But, could you say that I was really thinking about Mitsuo's well being? I had never respected Yanagisawa Mitsuo as a human being, as an existence in reality. My goals were all that mattered. ...Perhaps I failed to understand that he had a life, an existence. It might be that I was treating him as no more than one of the characters in my own world."
As if she were grasping at nothing, Kouko reached out her left hand in the darkness. The 're' waved in the air.
"Crying like this, getting hurt like this--- my obsession is to blame. This... ugly... obsession. ...The Mitsuo whom I love must love me. I would not accept that the one I love does not love me back. I would not accept that I am worthless. I would never recognize, never accept my being so. "Tell me... Tell me it isn't so... Tell me that I'm not worthless!" Saying such, I was only pushing the responsibility on to Mitsuo. Nonetheless, it was actually me who could neither accept nor forgive myself. I was arbitrarily judging my worth by whether Mitsuo loved me or not. Unfortunately, I had set things up that way. ...What I did to Mitsuo for a very long time was wrong."
Panting, Kouko continued, "but it took me a long time to realize that." Whether she was crying or smiling, Banri could no longer tell the difference. Still, her breathing was making a lot of noise in the darkness.
"...Well, is that not so? Everybody, to some extent, has such feelings, don't you think?"
While looking at his own 're', Banri was trying carefully to speak gently, to seem as optimistic as possible. Whether he managed to console her or not he did not know, but that was the idea that came to him right then.
"...As I am now, I agree, but then again, for whom would it not be very difficult normally? I think it's hard! Being imperfect myself, if I were not to face it myself, I would cease to be, so to speak. Wouldn't nearly anybody want to look away? ...At least, I am like that."
I am like that.
Having put it into words, looking away from reality and being surprised, his own form all at once came sharply into focus. That person, 120 pounds of meat, was stretched out on the rug.
His breath was catching, but if he went silent here,
"I have a really hard time noticing it when I am rejected."
Now, making a speech to Kaga Kouko, he found that he had averted his eyes from his own form.
As if staring off into the darkness, Kouko was looking at Banri's face.
"'Rejected'... by whom? A person like Tada-kun, was rejected by somebody?"
"...Those the old Tada Banri knew. The old Tada Banri was thought well of by many people. His family and so on. I think it can't be helped, though, but... of course it hurts, and so, I cannot return home. They don't even understand. My parents, are even now waiting for the 'real Banri' to return and say, 'I'm home!' Because my current self, however I am introduced, I get this feeling of 'that isn't him.' That at any moment, the real son, Tada Banri himself, just like that, will return to them---"
Bringing up her knees, it was almost the old Kouko sitting there, resting her elbow on her knee. She propped her chin with her hand. Every time she talked, her head rocked back and forth.
"---It seems to me as if they were wishing for my current self to disappear, as if he had died."
With what he was putting into words, in the bottom of his heart, deeply submerged and unseen, his grief was coming into view, very quickly and clearly taking shape.
He didn't want to say he was afraid, he didn't want to see even one such word leak out of him.
"In truth all along, I haven't been able to avoid being scared, really scared! My personality, so easily vanished, at any time could easily return to me, right? After all, if I were cured, wouldn't my current self just die? Myself, dying... wouldn't everybody else be happy? What with myself, staying myself, wouldn't everybody feel forever dejected? Myself, myself in such a world, what's the word, pr, ...predicament, nowhere else, nothing, you could say,"
"Being dejected like that, stop it!"
...That was dangerous. Really.
If Kouko had not spoken up so strongly, who knows what may have happened to the rage that had been welling up inside him, which now turned to tears, overflowing from his eyes.
"I’m stopping! I stopped. Absolutely."
Wiping roughly at the back of his hand, he noticed Kouko sitting up straight in the darkness.
"Well, if Tada-kun were to disappear entirely, ...this evening was a disgrace, for me, for us. I want to keep a night like that a secret. Wouldn't it be better not to tell anybody? Nobody else! Not in this life, nor anywhere, nobody but Tada-kun! Nobody at all."
"Shall we? So we shall. Really!"
---Thank you. Kaga-san.
Rescued, Banri rubbed his eyes with his fingers as if he were still lost.
"So, don't disappear. Don't die either. Don't be afraid of such things. They aren't going to happen! Because I, absolutely, will not forget Tada-kun. And then for me, for myself, who was a fool, who was ashamed, for me who could not help myself this evening, for me who only once this spring---"
With a single sob, Kouko took a deep breath, for reasons he did not understand.
"Whatever happens, don't forget me...!"
Still not understanding, this moment was ending.
"...I won't forget! I simply cannot forget. How could I forget? As for myself, well,"
As the words came out, Banri was thinking of something else.
"Kaga-san, I love you!"
Even if it were remembered, even if it were forgotten entirely. The results were always the same.
Having moved too quickly, he could not go back. Today, in this moment already, never again.
At the very same instant, he was being born and he was dying. No matter how important it was, no matter how he wanted to stop ahead of time, it all was lost equally. In fact, nobody could change things.
But, for that very reason,
"...I love you! Kaga Kouko. Really."
She was dear to him.
Kouko opened her eyes wide, the 're' on her hand covering her mouth. It sure was, though Banri also. It was a big surprise. Absolutely safe, they said, and suddenly it was a thing neatly and completely cut as if by a razor.
But, he loved Kouko.
However it happened, Banri loved Kouko. In his head and in his heart, if he were to notice, he was full, full of Kouko. He was full to bursting. Nothing but an awkward, klutzy, beautiful woman, every day he was thinking of her. Without realizing it, he had become like this.
And then, if he could, he wanted Kouko to become so too. He wanted her to think only of him. It didn't have to be today. Someday would be fine.
"...Saying such things. To confess on a night like this, that wasn't very honest of me. Sorry."
Dragging along his towel-blanket, Banri placed himself as far away from Kouko as he could. Making it to the wall, he sat down with his knees up once more.
Dumped, then on the same day getting drunk and going to a guy's place, then that guy saying he loved you. So cliché. Such a dangerous situation. He figured Kouko must be scared.
He threw his feet and hands out feebly, since he had not the spirit to take advantage of this night, and it was his intention to make an easy to understand appeal.
"Though I'm not speaking of forgetting, nor any such thing. Nor was it my intention to pretend nothing had happened. ...About what just happened, I don't think you are suddenly going to forget about Yana-ssan. I mean, it's all right if you turn me down for now. Ah, though that wouldn't be pleasant. ...Anyhow, there's tomorrow."
"T, tomorrow...!? Tomorrow!? What!?"
"Don't we have to pick up our stuff? It's probably in the locker where we left it. Don't you remember?"
"B, bags...!? Eh!? We did!?"
"Yes, we did. I mean, didn't we leave the stuff behind when we escaped the whole mess? How about that for fate?"
Tilting her head in puzzlement, Kouko,
"...If you call it that... yeah, something, over again. About the same thing. But still rather nice, ...should be fun for me."
Little by little, she began to laugh into the darkness with a softly shaking voice.
"Whatever we left, it looks like it'll be okay in the end. It seems we're unexpectedly sturdy. I mean, we only lost our shoes. Again, in fact!"
Her voice had gone rough from crying, but nonetheless Kouko kept on laughing. She got Banri laughing too. Wanting to cry, wanting to laugh, his chest hurting, he was scratching his head in confusion. Touching the tip of his nose, his bangs were too long.
Perhaps they were waving for Kouko.
But, as for himself, loving her was not something he could stop.
But even if they could not be lovers, being friends would be good, to pass time together.
And so--- after this again, how many things had they left behind? He wondered how many things they had left behind, how many times had the two of them fallen down? It didn't matter. He wanted to be with Kouko even so. That being so, he loved Kouko. Thinking on that, Banri smiled once more.
How many moments he could spend with her he did not know, though all of them were surely going to shine brilliantly.
So they could shine, she had been born. If he were to blurt out something like that, as if joking, now it might honestly be believed.
"...It's about that time, isn't it? The first train will be leaving shortly, Kaga-san, so you can get back. I could walk you to your place! Won't the others there be worrying about you? Have you called?"
"It's okay. I'll take a taxi back."
"Do you want to take a shower? I swear on my life I won't peek through the keyhole!"
"I said it's okay. Though we were a disaster, I won't contaminate the taxi seat. Really, thank you. Excuse me."
"For a lot of things, for everything. ...Really, it's okay, down this street, then I'll be able to catch a taxi. I'll be fine by myself, for sure."
Before Banri could begin to get up, Kouko looked all around her, mumbling about her bag. And then, brushing her long hair from her face in annoyance,
"That so? It got left behind."
"Tomorrow evening, let's go pick it up together! I mean, together we can go down there."
"It's okay, it's okay! I can go by myself!"
"Why? I'm not going to do anything. I was only going with you to the taxi stop! While we're at it, I want to go by convenience store. Ah, I feel like getting some ice cream."
"Go to the convenience store tomorrow! ...With how we look after today's disaster, I absolutely don't want to be seen in the light!"
"Since I've already seen enough unpleasant stuff, I'm fine. Besides, it's a bit late for that, what with that C-3PO act on the stage."
"Ewww! No way!"
For Kouko it was indeed a bit late, covering both ears and keening. Just like that, she trotted across the room, heading for the entrance. Chasing after her in confusion,
"Hold up, hold up, hold up! Put these on!"
In a corner by the entrance some convenience store sandals were lying, jumbled together. He tried to turn on the lights, but Kouko cried, "No no no!", and in order to escape she flew out the entrance door and was gone.
"See you tomorrow! I'll absolutely see you here!"
Called like that even, it didn't look too bad. Reluctantly, he intently watched Kouko get on the elevator from his door, and once it started down he went over to the veranda.
Kouko came out the entrance, dragging the sandals as she turned towards the sidewalk. On the roadway, redly lit by the free taxi sign, just one taxi waited. She got on that one.
Banri, pulling in his head with a feeling of relief, he nonetheless noticed that Kouko could be seen looking up from the taxi window. Of course she looked, or something like that he understood, but Banri calmly waved to her. He wondered if she saw it. He decided she hadn't.
* * *
The topic of the day--- you cannot deny the signs, he thought.
As he walked, gazing out at the scenery, a tea plantation spread out before him, fluffy green domed stripes continuing into the distance, Banri was thinking. It smelled strongly of manure. "Hmm, what I see, what's that?", the tall electric fans for protection against frost looked down upon him, noticing and investigating him.
And then, afterwards, unable to stand it any longer, escaping--- because they were there.
He took Hikari from Tokyo station to Shizuoka, arriving in under an hour. After taking a breather at the Starbucks by the transfer gate, he took JR who knows more stations. His home station's monument: a tea bush disguised as an onion top. Apart from that, everything around the place seemed to say "tea".
To get home took not quite two hours. Some people do a lot of commuting, to school or to work, in their worlds, perhaps. A season ticket for the bullet train cost money, and Banri was on an allowance. In truth, he didn't have much choice. Nevertheless, he wanted out of the house, and that was the reason he gave Kouko.
"THE Shizuoka", so called, felt like walking through a tea plantation, some building's eaves extending out, trying to be seen as a town.
He entered a lane deeply shadowed by fruit trees, through an open gate and went to open the door. It was unlocked.
Speaking of remembering, he was already remembering.
"This is home!", he'd been told, and since for one year he lived there, the memories of that time had already given him the feeling it was "home".
He was taking off his shoes so he could surprise his mother when she came out,
"...What are you doing!?"
"I had some free time, and for some reason I came back here."
She stared in wonder at the son who had suddenly come back from Tokyo for no particular reason.
He only had enough for one way of the round trip... that was Banri's real reason for coming, but mother didn't care in the least.
By the morning after his confession to Kouko, he was feeling acutely embarrassed, remembering it. They'd arranged to meet up that evening, but he had no idea what they could have talked about if they did. In the how many hours until the evening, he didn't even know what to do to make it a lively occasion.
If that's the way it is, then let's go home, he thought. Going home for a bit, until the evening time would certainly cease to flow, the wait filled with conversation. Frankly, they talked too much. Though he didn't feel the need to run away from the memories of last night, at least for the moment he was able to escape from living alone.
And besides, afterwards, there was one more thing.
"I haven't eaten aaanything since morning. I wanna eat something."
"Why so sudden? If you're coming back, then call and tell me you're coming back! I'm going over to Grandma's place to work in her garden this afternoon! Since you're back, you want to come too? The season has just arrived, and it's a real mess over there."
"It's okay, I'll pass. Today's just a visit. I've got things to do this evening."
"Eh? What's that? Is that so?"
Having asked for food, and having said a few things to butter up his mom, he went up to his second-floor room.
There was something he thought he ought to look at.
Throwing his small solitary bag on the bedspread, he had no choice but to open the room's closet, filled with one year's worth of memories. Having taken to his new home only plain clothing, his high school uniform was hanging there, placed neatly in order. His mother had done that, of course.
He then pulled out a cardboard box. Pulling it out on the floor, he ripped off the tape and opened it. A broken cell phone and a high-school graduation album, stored away as remembrances, perfectly preserved.
How many hours before?
In the quiet of his home, he'd received a text from Kouko. The message, perhaps because of the tension of the morning, maybe due to the hangover, was awfully long. In that place, such a sentence it was.
'Thinking about things like being rejected, refusing Tada-kun would be pretty much the same thing.'
Reading it, he did not understand it right away.
He considered it for a while, thinking. Almost certainly he had to another person--- the Banri from before knew many people, perhaps that Banri had rejected someone, so to speak.
That he had lost all his memory of the time when he was living in this room was a pain he could not avoid. He even worried that people might try to come over. But, being unable to remember hurt, and Banri completely refused to tell his mother. He didn't want them to come and meet him. He didn't want to make contact with them. He didn't even consider getting his cell phone repaired, so he would be found by those from before. And then he left home, as if he were escaping.
I've died, he thought, and wanted to forget.
Being lost, for the second time and knowing there was something big he could not get back, was scary.
Setting the self he had never known aside, he picked up an album from where it was stashed in the cardboard box.
He wasn't perfect--- something large had been broken in him. That sort of thing was hard to accept. For the moment perhaps, he couldn't do anything.
But, he wanted to change.
Being rejected hurts. Not being accepted hurts. Looking at pain directly hurts. By the recognition of that pain, first of all, accept the way you are now, he thought.
Even though he'd not been required to in the time he'd lost, if anything was accomplished by the birth of this self, he wanted to make that time important. That is to say, you cannot help but do it. So he thought.
From now on, if he met somebody, even somebody he'd met in the past, even himself, whomever it might be, he did not want to reject them.
For that reason, he opened the album. He needed just a little bit of courage. When first he opened the album cover, a strange, light sound came out.
When he immediately saw his own face in it's proper place in the picture, a smiling class portrait, he gasped a little. Third year, class 4, Tada Banri. Tenth in the line.
He traced his fingertip slowly over his unknown self, and his unknown classmates' faces. He still had a feeling of dread towards what he had felt, but could no longer recall. He suppressed those feelings; he wanted to know who they were. He wanted to become able to.
But, his heart was beating fast.
To the front and down the line from the unknown Tada Banri, the person photographed giving a peace sign. The fifteenth person in the line.
From inside the album, a bunch of Polaroid photos had slipped out. Picking them up, he examined them. Quite a few of them were scribbled on, in bold letters. On one, in a different handwriting, "Banri's an idiot, nearly", was written. The two in the picture were messing around, looking at each other cross-eyed. "You've forgotten even your graduation!!!", was scribbled around the picture's edge.
"Linda passed on to college, Banri got held back.", was all else that was written.
There were pictures of just the two of them. In the classroom, in the gymnasium, on the grounds, in clubrooms, in uniform, in jerseys, smiling widely, even the fillings in their teeth showing, and a long wooden bridge.
Smiling, cheek to cheek.
"...Wh, what...? What the heck...? ...Linda-senpai...?"
Remember, don't forget!
Did Linda say something like that?
He stood up.
His socks slipping on the flooring as he took off running from his room,
"Banri!? Isn't your ramen boiling!? Where're you going!?"
"Hold on! Hold on, lemme see..."
As he pulled on his shoes, what he understood,
"To the bridge!"
The bridge wasn't very far from the house. Not entirely understanding yet, he searched for something as he ran. Just what he was looking for still didn't yet know. "Still, if I don't go...", he thought. He ran and he looked. If there was something he had to do there, something he had to get, whatever it was he wanted it. It struck him that he wanted nothing but to do that.
There was a paved path from amongst the mountains, so you could ride down. At such times he thought, "I've gotta get a scooter license, I really do." As he was passing by, he saw to the side a red banner on which was written, "The Entrance for the Seven Gods of Good Luck."
Before long, the long, long bridge came into view before him.
"...What, how ridiculous...!?"
It hurt to breathe. Gasping, he started to cross the bridge. This was the bridge from which Banri fell. What on earth happened at that time, nobody knows. Since the Banri in question had forgotten, and not even the police really knew.
"...Linda-senpai... How could it be...!?"
Show me, please, he muttered. Why, were you next to me? You, who are you? To me, what, what are you? Why don't you talk with me any more?
Passing the midpoint of the bridge, suddenly his feet stopped. Exhausted, he began to collapse.
"...What is this weird sound...!?"
Oddly cloying, the suggestive feeling brought by the ringing of the bell echoed unexpectedly amongst the mountains. Iya~~~~n, boka~~~n, ufu~~~~n, with such a mood. The ringing of the bell--- who did it?
Dizziness took him to his knees. He clung to the guardrail. So as not to look down, he closed his eyes. It might have been a hangover. Unable to stand up, Banri covered his face with his hand. Dizzily, his feet shook. No, was it the bridge that was shaking?
It was at that moment.
While the idiotic bell was sounding, on this bridge, he realized he was hearing the sound of many feet running towards him.
Reflexively he looked up, and then, he saw a bunch of people passing by. He saw the form of the lead runner. The guy saw him too. He was looking fixedly at Banri's face, his jaw slack, looking like a fool.
Is that me?
Calling his name, grabbing him by the elbow, was that Linda?
What, what's this? What the heck is going on? To resist the dizziness, as if his brain were being spun around, he bit his lip. Mumbling, he felt thick-headed and slow, as if he were anemic.
Opening his eyes once more, it was just the bridge still, continuing on. There was nobody else. He couldn't hear the bell anymore. ...Was it a dream, maybe? Was it an aftereffect of his accident? Was his head somehow going funny? Or was it simply from his hangover? Or, was he just misinterpreting something he had seen?
Coming back to his senses, in his back pocket his cell phone was vibrating.
'What's with you, where are you? Out? Something I, today in some free time... I mean, I'd like to talk a bit. About yesterday, various things... could we do that?'
"...I'm... not here..."
"Huh? What? I can't hear you very well."
A dying cherry tree by a dry river bed, a big sky. The voices of friends. A long bridge. A strong breeze. Other than Banri, there was no one else on the bridge.
Only Banri stood there now, alone, standing still amongst the scenery. In the middle of reality, existing. The ramen was boiling, his mother was getting frustrated, in such a moment he existed.
If he were able to recognize it as it was, he could perhaps forever be at peace.
* * *
Tada Banri was looking at Linda.
The sports science lecture suddenly getting cancelled, amongst the students hurriedly breaking up, he spotted Linda's form. Linda noticed Banri's gaze too, and waved, "See you, Tada Banri." While Banri gazed at that face, he could not move. There was so much he wanted to ask her. But he could not. Not knowing her reason for keeping the secret, he didn't know what he did and didn't know. Wanting to ask her, "What? Do you have something?", Banri kept on looking at Linda's face still.
A beautiful girl, her long beautiful hair carefully done, was looking at the back of Banri's head. Her name is Kaga Kouko.
At Kouko's profile, with a complicated look, but hiding so as not to be discovered, a slightly sunburnt guy was watching. His name is Yanagisawa Mitsuo.
Behind Mitsuo, having noticed earlier where he was looking, a girl was thinking about whether or not to call out to him. Her name is Oka Chinami.
Though the familiar faces were present, though he had not taken sports science, another guy had come into the classroom. His name was Satou Takaya.
Passing through the background, like a dark shadow there was a woman. Her name, of course, is NANA.
My name is Tada Banri.
I've died, an eighteen year old boy.
Unnoticed by anyone, without anybody knowing, I've always watched after Tada Banri's affairs. I see everybody's affairs.
I'm sitting in the first seat behind, taking it easy, legs stretched out. Today the sunlight is really strong, and the classroom is warm, making everybody sleepy. While staring at the boring back of Banri's head, I find my eyes are closing by themselves. I'm getting awfully sleepy.
For now --- black-out.
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