Golden Time

By TAKEMIYA Yuyuko

Golden Time Volume 2 Chapter 1

Golden Time Volume 2 Chapter 1

Chapter 1[]

Tada Banri was being dumped by a girl.

Because of the overly annoying noise coming from several guys at five in the afternoon at a Caffe Veloce, Banri was still off guard,

"But we only just started going out,"

"Yes, though being with Tada-kun is so much fun..."

"Therefore, from here on out would it be OK if we were just friends?"

Stating his request with a three lined conversation like that, he went quiet, hanging his head.

For no particular reason, he still had the wrapper from a straw in his right hand.

The wrapper swayed limply in the breeze from the air conditioner. His back bent, Banri inhaled the heavy smell of tobacco smoke into his lungs.

The non-smoking section existing in name only (can you call decorative plants a separation from the smoking section?); seated across the table from Banri was Kaga Kouko.

Earrings glittering on both her ears, her glamorous coral pink lips quietly closed, taking a sip of ice tea through her straw. She was opening her big eyes as if trying to peek at Banri's now fallen expression. Perhaps waiting for Banri to say something, her back straight, she put the glass in her hand down on a small tray.

Tada Banri, however, remained silent.

Getting uncomfortable after a bit, Kaga Kouko also dropped her gaze.

Several minutes passed by, idly. The two of them continued looking down at each other's hands.

I am the Banri from before, and I want to break into this awkward silence, saying "This is awful, hold on, do something please!", but there is nothing I can do.

And now, even such a prepared request, because this guy cannot deal with it emotionally! When little situations arise, his mind goes to pieces, because he can never see the world before his eyes! Or rather, he returned from Shizuoka a little bit ago, having seen what was back home, and from that, ---what a mess. I would shout, but nobody would hear me.

Because I know that, I am sitting quietly on a seat behind and to the side of Banri.

As it is, nobody hears my voice any more. Nobody sees my body. Nobody knows of my existence. Because I, am dead.

To put it simply, I've become a ghost.

Wandering about without a body as a ghost, I drift about like this, always near Banri's side.

...That shouldn't be all that difficult for a living human being to believe. But as for me, while I was living, I hadn't believed in the existence of ghosts. From my own experience, I've gained an alternate view of the world. Even now I know nothing about the existence of UFOs. Neither do I know anything about the continent of Mu. Nor do I know anything about sea serpents nor the Loch Ness Monster. Nor about ESP. But one thing I do know about: the existence of ghosts.

While I was alive, my name was Tada Banri. I was Tada Banri. From the time I was born for eighteen years, I existed as Tada Banri.

In the spring of my eighteenth year, I fell from a bridge into a river. At that moment, I fell out of my body, so to speak, and I, the Tada Banri that was, was left behind as a soul without a body.

On the one hand, the Banri who'd lost his soul lived for a time as "The Memory Loss Boy", easily became a college student, and was now even being dumped by a girl. Such were the circumstances in which we found ourselves.

Now, the living Tada Banri, his denimed rear situated on a narrow seat, bent over and vaguely pouting, eyes glazed over, breathing the smoky air, wordlessly sipped slowly on his iced café latte.

Surely, inside, he was a wreck---.

Reaching from behind and to the side, I move my hand towards Banri's shoulder. I pat his shoulder, telling him to calm down. To my hand, it definitely feels like a living body. But Banri doesn't feel my touch. Not even noticing my existence, not even a blink of uncertainty. He might not have even noticed, but he was grinding his teeth so hard they were creaking. Doing that, sooner or later the lower left wisdom tooth would get to bleeding and hurting.

A forgotten storm blowing through Banri's heart, I suddenly understood the reason why. I even think, if there were anything I could do, I would cheer him up. I know what Banri wants to do, I want to answer him. But, whatever words I use, this voice never reaches Banri's ears. There is nothing more I can do.

The culprit in putting Banri into his state of confusion: Linda--- no, am I wrong? There isn't anybody else. It is this me.

Something Banri had seen a few hours before, on a short trip home he'd made to Shizuoka... which, since he'd woken from his accident, had become sealed away in his high school graduation album. Stuck inside, how many pictures?

Records of when I was alive, in other words a record of Banri's unknown Banri, were stirring up Banri's heart.

And now, in front of Banri's eyes, the girl to whom he had just confessed yesterday was sitting. Several minutes ago she had shaken Banri cautiously,

"...Tada-kun?"

She said, cocking her head to the side in curiosity. "Well, what I had to say... did you hear?"

Abruptly, Banri lifted his face,

"Eh!? Y, yes!? I heard, but!?"

At that moment, with all his heart, he nodded ambiguously,

"Uwaa!"

He knocked his half-emptied glass of iced latte over, really hard. The glass fell to the floor and broke to bits, the loud noise echoing to the back of the shop. The other noisy customers suddenly all went quiet, looking over here. Without thinking, I covered my eyes too. Aah, he felt guilty... if a ghost in a ghostly way, could have caught the glass in mid-air... oh well.

Banri stood up in a hurry,

"Wow, wow, sorry sorry sorry! Excuse meee! I've spilled it! Excuse me, is everything OK!? I'm very sorry!"

While calling for the staff, turning in every direction and bowing his head, he lifted Kaga Kouko's bag from the floor where it had been to a chair, grabbed a bunch of napkins, and tried to contain the flow of latte that was turning into a small sea on the table. In spite of this, drops were staining Banri's bluejeans. Kaga Kouko put pocket tissues from her bag into the embankment too, but the seat and floor were getting to be sopping wet.

An employee with a mop and dustpan came quickly, gathered up the pieces of glass, restraining Banri by telling him "it's dangerous". Dropping his feeble butt into a seat, "Ahh, no more, no more...", Banri, rather upset, let his shoulders slump and sighed.

"What a careless person I am... already, sloppy, too crude, too indecisive... I mean, I'm really sorry Kaga-san, are you OK? Your clothing and such, it didn't get dirty?"

"I'm fine, nothing came this way."

"Your evidence bag? It didn't get wet?"

"Really, I'm fine, nothing, no-thing..."

So as to not interfere with the cleaning, the two of them half raised their feet, held for a brief moment in this pose by their abdominal muscles.

The unshaven mugs of his Jack Purcells, and the toes of her beautiful high heeled sandals, were lined up, nearly touching. The mop came up to my feet too, and I automatically raised my feet to the same pose. As if I could interfere with the cleanup not having a body, as if somehow these feet could get in the way of the employee in his careful mopping.

Banri, and the Kaga Kouko who dumped Banri, faced each other that way for a little while with their feet raised, their feet not touching, keeping their distance perfectly, the two of them alike, their eyes downcast and not saying anything.

The two of them blinked many times, as if they were in a competition against each other. They didn't look all that much like "good friends". Somehow even I felt uncomfortable, and we all looked downwards.

* * *


The first-period Chinese I lecture finished, their busy old Chinese lecturer left the small classroom and then the students followed, one by one, out into the dark corridor. Up to thirty people were allowed to enroll for the language lecture, and it just so happened that all of them were freshmen.

"Tada Banri, well done."

"You really stood out today. You did it."

Suddenly he had quite a few friends. People smiled when they passed by, lightly slapping Banri's shoulder.

Answering as needed with an "Oh", or an "Ah", he heard "Tada-kun well done!", "Super well done!", "Really, really good" ...this time, they were girls. The threesome was dressed almost, but not quite, alike in their showy hairstyle and clothing, and one by one they each waved at him, smiling. It seemed that suddenly his time had arrived! Guys and girls alike were entranced by Banri! So quickly he'd become the most popular in the Chinese class! But it wasn't that way at all. Even Banri understood that they were simply teasing him.

Half desperately, he was about to smile and say, "Especially well done!", and wave back to the girls,

"Banri, hey, don't bother."

Yanagisawa Mitsuo (whom he tended to call Yana-ssan rather than Yana), with whom he'd become close friends since they started college, was calling him.

"Ah, Yana-ssan... it looks like I'm already a mess."

Too exhausted even to smile in courtesy, Banri finally, slowly shoved his texts into his bag. Today's lecture was truly awful.

In the middle of the lecture, he was taken to task by the speaker for absentmindedly staring off into space. "Tada-kun, come to attention!" Trapped, he recited, "Maa, maa, maaa, maa!" ---He was forced to repeat the four basic tones of Mandarin Chinese to the point of going mad. And after that, as the rest of the students read their texts he got suspicious again, and "Tada-kun, Come to attention!" "Now!" "Be an example for everybody! Now!" "Maa, maa, maaaa, maa!" That was it.

Yanagisawa sat on the edge of his desk, waiting for Banri to get ready while,

"You are quite a mess. Ah, here's some chewing gum!"

He gladly collected the gum from where it had fallen, to one side of the desk.

"Such torture! I mean, already, from the very first period, I'm lost. Horribly defeated. Why do such things happen to me in particular? And the girls were giggling a lot..."

"Well, during that time of the 'Maa!'s, you made the most incredibly good face."

"A good face? You're kidding, what kind of face was I making?"

"This kind. 'Maa!'"

He made an imitation of Banri's face, suddenly opening his eyes wide while lowering his left shoulder quite a bit, and sucking his cheeks in furiously. Of course, in keeping with that awful mug,

"R, really? I made that kind of face? So I've become this department's number one funny face?"

Disconcerted, Banri pulled a mirror out of his pocket, and opening it looked at his own face while trying to say "Maa!" again. Not to where Mitsuo would see him doing it, but certainly modeling in three dimensions what he had a hard time imagining, he found himself more and more gloomy, wondering 'How many times have I shown this face to everybody else...?'

"Huh, what's that? That's sparkling something awful!"

While Mitsuo laughed, he wasn't pointing at his face, but rather at the incredibly flashy mirror in Banri's hand. For something a college male might have, it was too much, overly luxurious like something from Swarovski.

"...Ah, you noticed, of course? Do you think it strange that I have it?"

"Do I think it strange? Well, I don't think it suits you. How'd you wind up with it?"

"It was given to me."

With a snap, he closed it and handed it over to Mitsuo. Turning it over to look at it, his simple good looks stiffened.

"...'Remember the anniversary of our escape! Your good friend, Kaga Kouko'...?"

Reading the message written on the back of the mirror with a permanent marker, Mitsuo looked at Banri's face. Once more he looked at the message, and then again at Banri's face.

"What's with this? This is awful."

"Ya... awful, or should I say... I'm not sure as to what she means."

Looking back and forth from the mirror to Banri's face repeatedly, Mitsuo hesitated to speak, looking doubtful. Well, it might even have been an act. As for Banri himself, he thought it quite strange to have something of his called "such a mirror".

"It's not like that, Yana-ssan. It's evidence of our friendship, Kaga-san and I, they're matching mirrors. In that way, of the time when Kaga-san and I became friends. ---That kind of thing."

"'That kind of thing'...?"

"It's merely a statement."

Taking back the hand mirror from Mitsuo, he held it gently in the palm of his hand, sparkling coolly. It was a declaration done as it should be. Kouko had pursued Mitsuo some ten odd years so far, and for now, Banri thought he ought to let others know about their entering into this new relationship as friends. He was thinking about what others must be saying, and thought it a good time to set things straight.

Mitsuo, his face was still pinched like a fox, was muttering things like "Declaration...?"

The mirror weighed heavily in his hand.

Chunky and rounded like a faba bean, on the silver back in white Swarovski crystal an extravagant rose was depicted. Obviously expensive, completely feminine, it didn't suit Banri in the least.

The more he looked at it, the more truly difficult, incredibly complex and extremely hard to describe the feeling became. But Banri carried it around, stuffed in his pocket. He polished it every time fingerprints got on it, and he was careful how he used it.

Because Kouko had told him to do so.

"...Well, in short, it's because Kouko gave you that flashy mirror? To Banri? ...Because you'd become friends?"

"Yes"

"...When? How?"

"On Saturday"

His prominent brow frowning a bit, Mitsuo, still not fully satisfied, was asking with his expression for a continuation of Banri's answer. Banri searched a bit for the words, averting his gaze and looking out into space.

So--- that, what happened on Saturday.

Returning from Shizouka, Banri went by foot to meet up with Kouko. They went to the live house locker to get the stuff they'd forgotten, then to Caffe Veloce to drink tea, then she'd dumped him, they'd became friends, and then she'd given him this mirror.

If he were to tell it all, that was all there was to say.

But he didn't want to tell it straight to Mitsuo like that.

Because he wanted to hide the part about "being dumped" if he could. Mitsuo had dumped Kouko, who in truth had loved him, and in the evening of the same day (even more shamefully), Banri had confessed to her at once. But, she dumped him quickly, the very next day. It was too embarrassing to talk about, even if it was true.

And so,

"Kaga-san, like this you see, 'Well, Tada-kun, you've got some snot stuck on you', tossing her hair~, 'Try looking with this mirror', fluttering her eyelashes~, 'I'd like to give you that mirror, so you'll be able to take care of yourself the next time you get snot on your face.' We'll match, as proof of our friendship!', flashing her eyes...'. She gave it to me like that."

With a stupid joke, he lied.

He couldn't look over at Mitsuo. He had no idea what kind of face he was showing.

In reality, about this thing, she had said, 'In thanks for your having gone out with me to have fun, and in apology for having gotten drunk and caused you trouble. And, as proof of our friendship from now on', as if it were a blessing over the present. Apparently.

Written on the black paper bag in white letters was "Barneys New York".

From the neat and tidy appearance of the paper bag, it looked like it might be something high class, so Banri immediately raised both his hands in front of him. He made that gesture of refusal, and also said with his expression, "You needn't bother with getting such a present."

But, in what was practically a show of strength, Kouko had restrained him deftly. In front of him, her eyes glistening, she had said, 'I wanted to buy it for you, no matter what! Please! Accept it!'. Being asked so very beautifully, there was no way he could not receive it.

And then, encouraged to go ahead and remove the wrapping still on it, this beautiful hand-mirror with a rose design was revealed.

However you looked at it, it was a girlish thing, and very expensive. This time, for sure, Banri was seriously bewildered. It was a shock. How was such a slight, careless, round-faced, hunched over bumpkin to receive this sparking, shiny, gorgeous rose mirror, fit for a queen?

Besides, looking at it from his own point of view, even calling it proof of their friendship from now on was rather strange. In other words, this was a memento of his being dumped... he thought, was it a sort of consolation prize?

But, according to Kouko, 'It may not be Banri-like, but, no matter what I want you to make use of it! Because in this mirror there is meaning, an awful lot of meaning!' --- and so on.

Thinking back upon yesterday's give and take with Kouko was a bit late, and to no purpose, when right before him Mitsuo snorted, as if a little disgusted.

Banri somehow, timidly raised his face. At least, nothing worse was happening.

"...Where, when, was the snot?"

While comparing Banri and the mirror sidelong, Mitsuo's inquiring voice seemed really doubtful. Well then, first of all, shall we get on with this worthless piece of fiction? It feels like we're making a mountain out of a molehill.

He couldn't help but ask himself; after all, it was something only Banri, by himself, of his own accord, felt. Just a little. What of it?

Besides, he couldn't tell the whole truth, he was not under such an obligation. But, he thought, shouldn't he keep his relationship with Kouko entirely to himself? Perhaps? He might have been forgetting about how he was managing his relationship with Kouko.

In that case, remember you idiot! Surrendering himself to the growing opportunity,

"So, that wasn't what we said on Saturday! Take a look back at Friday. You gave Kaga-san quite the manly whack, didn't you? Hey, remember? In one fell swoop you chopped her down, didn't you? You said the two of you were no longer related to each other...!"

He even included a gesture as of swinging a sword downward from above.

Rather quiet and averting his eyes, Mitsuo responded with only a groan. He had thought that what he had just done was simply from ill temper, but,

"After that, Kaga-san and I went out to relax and to drink. From which, we went to the live house, and we forgot some stuff there---"

Abbreviate the middle part. ...Besides, he didn't think he was under any obligation to tell it fully.

"---Because of that, on Saturday, we went together to get it back. The stuff we forgot, that is. Then, when we were having tea, suddenly inside my nose there was Pettonton, the semi-transparent self-absorbed alien."

He stole a sidelong fleeting glance at Mitsuo's face.

Mitsuo gave a small nod, as if to say "that so?", but seeming to have realized that he had neither a reason nor the right to interrupt, his mouth was closed tightly and his eyes were still cast downwards.

Such was the state of the friend in front of him, Banri's chest finally ached a little bit for him. Compared with him, he didn't have any responsibilities. Didn't have any, but... his so-called conscience, was calling him scum. The stone somewhere in his chest didn't fall, in fact he could feel it dimly, caught somewhere.

What do I do? Though he was his very closest friend, speaking of events that had happened to you, but that he could not speak of frankly, wasn't an enjoyable situation. But, he didn't want to speak about what he didn't want to speak about.

"...To the live house. That Kouko, honestly. ...Something doesn't fit."

Mitsuo's voice was quiet, as if speaking to himself. Banri leaned his jaw a little off to the side, and stretched to enter his field of vision, combing up his bangs.

So it was. To the live house. We went. ...It's not a lie. Just a little short on the details.

Mitsuo, his lips crooked, appeared to be brooding, his right thumb rubbing his jaw, but his gaze was still fallen to his feet. What could he be thinking? Was he feeling the strain in the story due to the various omissions strangely made to it? Was he keeping silent because it wasn't his right to interfere with their business anymore?

A strange feeling lodged in his chest, there was one more thing he understood.

Banri's making omissions in his story to Mitsuo, that was not the matter for today.

That was nothing other than the matter of his loss of memory.

He didn't think the conversation was particularly necessary. As far as the nineteen year old human being called "Tada Banri" was concerned, who had lost all of his memories through his eighteenth year, and even he understood it to be a big event, insofar as his personality was concerned. He just wanted his friends to understand him. So, always, from the time they met, he sought the opportunity to talk about it. But that opportunity didn't quite arrive. Misunderstanding how he spoke, they always rejected him as a pitiful, if not sick person.

If the opportunity were to arise, he wondered what kind of thing he could honestly say. With regards to memory loss, with regards to Kouko even. About everything that happened on Saturday. If he wanted to talk to friends, everything.

But that was not now.

Understanding within himself that it was only an excuse, feeling suddenly the urge to do something so he wouldn't seem to have suddenly fallen silent, Banri opened the mirror again and carefully looked at the reflection of his nostrils. His nose was clean.

"Kaga-san really busted out something awful! Though about five times there she threw up."

To only use a cheerful voice, to talk like that was his plan. But, the pale thin face of a nineteen-year-old male reflected in the mirror, looked back at him faintly, more miserable than ever, less confident than ever.

"With Kouko as Banri's friend, at a live house, with boogers, with aliens, vomiting, eh...?"

Mitsuo stood up before Banri and walked away, as if he were confirming the words he'd said, opening the classroom door wearily.

"What a mess... I mean, of course you don't understand. ...Well, it has nothing to do with you anyway."

Suddenly changing course, Mitsuo turned around as he'd realized something. Standing in the dark windowless corridor, he looked straight back at Banri's face. Once more, seeing him like this from straight in front, Banri noted how really handsome Yana-ssan was, but,

"What do you mean, Banri? On Saturday, if you had only called, we could have talked about what you didn't understand. But there was neither voice mail nor text message all day. You ignored me, and went out to have fun with Kouko?"

"Eh... Though you're telling me so, well... that's the way it turned out."

"..."

With a sound awfully like a growl, Mitsuo's face finally darkened.

But Banri said, "Eh, kid? Wow, you're really bothered!", the moment Mitsuo's face became threatening, and he blinked as if coming to his senses, shook his head from side to side twice, and slapped his own cheek quite hard. The impact even made him stumble. The whole thing took only five seconds,

"Yana-ssan's fallen apart...!"

"I have not."

With a thud combing up his hair, Mitsuo looked back at Banri once more. And then,

"Nothing's broken. ...To put it simply, I am realizing that finally I am becoming just a bit human, clumsy and dim-witted."

Taking a small breath, he stopped talking.

The meaning of it was not well understood by Banri, but after a little bit, his voice replaced by something weak, not very masculine,

"...There are many things to think about. ...If you want to talk about such things a bit, like that stuff on Saturday, you can call me! But... oh well. Enough already. It's OK. It doesn't matter."

Having said something like that, as you might have expected this time, for sure, definite feelings of guilt crowded around Banri's chest.

In reality, many things had happened on Saturday, and if Mitsuo had called he'd entirely forgotten about til now. He may have ruined their friendship.

His hands full of his own problems, if there were any phone calls, or even any text messages, he ignored them. He didn't recall any texts on Sunday either. But of course, Banri was only thinking of his own problems, the whole time wrapped up in a blanket on his futon like a tuna-fish; he didn't remember about Mitsuo at all. He was only thinking of his own problems.

Unable to justify his own insensitivity,

"No, I'm sorry!"

He slapped his forehead trying to behave modestly.

"I even returned home for a bit, flailed about, and completely forgot to call you up! If it's all right with you, I can listen to your story now. Shall we go to the cafeteria or somewhere? I can skip second period easily enough."

And then, having been invited in all sincerity, in friendship to go and play truant, Mitsuo frowned and sadly shook his head from side to side.

"I can hardly be the one absent person, and... what about you, don't you have Civil Law I? Don't you have to be there?"

"I don't have to. Rather, what are you taking, Yana-ssan?"

"Logic"

"That's not a required course, why did you take it!? Is the lecture interesting or something?"

"Completely."

"Well then cut it out, Monday's second period let's go together to Civil Law! Maybe it'd be better to change to that way from now on. Registration still hasn't closed, has it? Which Civil Law class were you in at first?"

"Wednesday fifth period, somebody called Professor Tsukamoto."

"Fifth period! Tsuka who?! Why take such a little thing as civil law, nobody else took such a thing!"

"No, though the guys in the second period were decent... rather, I had already bought the textbook for Logic... 4500 yen... they change only the color of the binding from year to year, and I heard if you didn't show the professor your brand new textbook, he wouldn't accept you for the class..."

"So expensive! Garbage!"

"...But I wanted to take this period's Civil Law class, though. There was even going to be a famous speaker from television. But, look, I spotted Kouko in the first lecture. Because of that, I stopped and thought..."

Sighing once more, even more deeply, Mitsuo frowned. He muttered that up til now he had not needed to run this way and that to escape Kouko, and as he muttered, his backpack, which had been hoisted to one shoulder, slipped sneakily down to his elbow. As if he were overbalanced by a heavy bag, he wobbled on his feet. Banri, seeing that,

"Err, Yana-ssan, are you, like, feeling OK? ...You aren't a bit shook up?"

He looked again at his friend's face, carefully.

Perhaps it was due to his standing under the old fluorescent lights, but now that he thought about it, his color didn't look too good. On top of that, over just this weekend, had he somehow lost weight? Just a little.

It was spring. May. High season, so to speak, for student apathy. Entered in the university, starting to live alone, the change in lifestyle was big, cut off all at once from his childhood friends, and on top of that, he had said he'd had a fight with his parents. Living through this life, his spirits had fallen a bit, even if there was a bit of bad timing. He had the feeling Yanagisawa Mitsuo was depressed.

And then, just like a trigger,

"...Perhaps, if you wouldn't mind much? The matter of having dumped Kaga-san."

His head still hanging, Mitsuo answered him nothing.

If he was guessing correctly, taking the opportunity to remind of what had happened before, in attitude or speech, was hardly the right thing to do right now. Mitsuo’s dark face looking up at him made Banri practically jump, and finally, in a panic, he followed along inside.

"Bu, but I thought the Yana-ssan of the time was very 'manly'! Besides, Kaga-san would be OK! Understanding your feelings, she can get back on her own two feet! She’s a wonderfully strong person!"

But,

"...That may be. Very much so. Right away, she went to a fun live house. Very much so..."

As soon as he raised his face, Mitsuo glared sharply in reproach, growling at him. But if he didn't follow him, it might make the situation worse. Banri hurried, but Mitsuo however suddenly went quiet, in the end slapping himself on the face twice. Oh! If Banri didn't go inside, then without a doubt he was going to do it again. And so, lowering his face, he bowed down, as if chanting a prayer to a some sinister pagan god.

"I thought that if I could separate myself from Kouko, everything would get better... Despite that, Kouko came to the same university as me... I thought that after all, nothing had changed... Because of Kouko, it was coming to nothing... I thought that if I rejected her clearly, all would be well... That's why it happened... It was bad that I believed it was all Kouko's fault... But from the moment I dumped Kouko as if by sorcery the 'start of my shining life' suddenly ceased to exist, all it accomplished was to make Kouko cry, and moreover now, I'm coming to hear that Kouko's spirits are reviving. Strangely, I was even offending you. ...Ah, sorry... sorry sorry! To put it simply, I, I, I, I well, I was a jerk..."

"Ya, Yana-ssan, hold on..."

Brushing away Banri's unintentionally outstretched hand, Mitsuo looked towards the ceiling, his eyes vacantly staring off into space. And then groaning,

"...I've been incredibly insensitive... ...How should I put it? I've been a churl, or more bluntly, how to put it... a piece of crap...?"

Banri could no longer do anything more about the situation than watch over it.

"...Well then... the piece of crap is going to logic class... bye."

Mitsuo, still looking up at the ceiling, left alone, waving his hand toward Banri. With a strangely vacant gaze and voice. There was no way such a condition could be normal.

"Hold on, hold on, hold on!"

Banri unintentionally became like  as he settled down and chased after that departing back.

"Yana-ssan, seriously, wait up! Err, well, let's walk to the classroom together!"

"...Huh? Why? It's right over there."

"No, but something... or rather, you're really going to not skip class!? Let's do it! Let's head for the cafeteria!"

"...My stomach isn't empty yet. I haven't missed attending yet."

"It's OK, logic class is no big deal! Or rather, if you flunk it, we can take it together next year! What's more, look, I... In truth I've got a bit of something I want to talk about. Recently a few things have happened, and I'm not sure I can resolve the situation on my own. I haven't explained things well recently, but really, I'm sorry for having ignored you on Saturday! So from now on it's time for some male bonding! Let's talk together, as thick as thieves!"

Suddenly, Mitsuo's feet stopped. Turning towards Banri, strangely quiet, he looked him in the eye.

"Various things happened? Like for example?"

"That, for example, well..."

Repeating once more, 'For example', Banri stopped moving entirely.

I did not explain things well, I left various things out of what I said, for example.

That he had noticed that Mitsuo had come to be the love of Kaga-san's life, for instance.

But she was rejected just like that, among other things.

Rather, what are such things as memory loss?

It looked like he dated Linda in the past he could not remember, for another. When he returned home, he had seen a photo of that, but the 'Linda' of now, revealing nothing, as his club senior doing well for him, yet another. What the heck all that meant, he did not know, and it was making an awful mess of him.

And so on.

"..."

---In the end, he couldn't say anything more.

Banri's mouth still half open, he cast his eyes down and went silent.

Not saying anything more, in front of his friend, he was quiet, unable to move.

Even though he was given the chance to talk, nothing was coming out, because he didn't know what would be OK to talk about. Or perhaps, as far as he was concerned, what the heck was going on, what was he thinking about it, what was he feeling about it? Inside himself, he came to realize that the very idea of talking with friends did not exist.

In short, like anybody else--- he thought of his own affairs as if they were events from a world far away.

These situations, happening all at once, were almost too chaotic; even one at a time he would have a hard time dealing with them.

One example, the matter of being dumped by Kouko, as a matter of fact, he couldn't speak of how much of a shock that was. Whether in pain and crying, or in misery and agony, he was unable to deal with such feelings, not individually. Though of course it was rather complicated for him, in reality, it didn't hurt that much. From now on, as a good friend... even saying such a thing, he didn't think that was a good idea.

With regards to Linda, even more so. To say nothing of what he was feeling, as it was he honestly did not know. What happened in the past he could not remember, beyond that, he could not understand what Linda was thinking. As for the fact that they used to go out together, why did she need to continue pretending not to know about it?

Still, "What might it be?" "What shall I do?" "I don't know." "Why might it be?" ...it was that, over and over again. No matter how many times he asked, there was simply nobody answering. Talking with himself was entirely useless.

"---I don't understand anything. I don't know. For me, really, I don't understand anything. I simply don't remember."

In some ways as if he were paralyzed; inside his head he was in a daze. Messing up his hair rather than scratching out his brain, trying to somehow wake himself up, this time his hand was stopped by Mitsuo.

"...It's OK, I understand. For the time being, both my heart and yours need some rest, it seems certain. Alright, let's go be overcharged fair and square."

* * *


Supporting each other's troubled hearts, binding as friends, they wobbled down the stairs, barely managing to arrive at the first floor student cafeteria.

Because until noon there was still space, there were a lot of seats. Here and there were people chattering yet, and students seeming to be taking a late breakfast seated here and there, beyond whom,

"...Whoa..."

Seeing it suddenly in his field of view, unconsciously Banri reared back. "What?", Mitsuo looked over towards where Banri was looking, noticed and groaned similarly. He stopped walking.

The school cafeteria was fading into a heavy yellowish shade, but that one person's appearance was shining too brightly, sparkling as if it's natural energy were radiating outwards.

As far as Banri was concerned, right now he still didn't know with what kind of face to greet this unknown person. For Mitsuo also, perhaps it was about the same as with Banri... or perhaps now it was difficult to face that person.

Shining glossy and bright, her long, deep brown hair was curled beautifully.

She had a deep, deep blue hairband with shining rhinestones affixed to it.

Her hair flowed straight down her slender back.

They understood even from behind that this was quite the beautiful woman, that hair, that style, the things she had, from her whole body shone forth an aura that said she wasn't an ordinary person.

Feeling their gaze perhaps, or maybe she heard the groans of the two guys,

"Ah..."

Turning back towards them, there was no mistaking her beautiful face.

On her carefully prepared, showy features, bright rose pink lips. They both gasped, so splendid was that beauty.

Dressed perfectly, with impeccable fashion and brand, Kaga Kouko was seated at a somewhat shabby table.

Banri and Mitsuo, and then Kouko's gaze, exchanged looks wordlessly. Each of them according to their circumstances, they were severally at loss for words. How many seconds did the awkward silence continue?

"W, well", Banri awkwardly tried to start the conversation. Morning, Kaga-san, how're you feeling? But look, Yana-ssan didn't make a greeting, neither did Kaga-san--- he set out to take the first step with the seeming tension, but,

"...Maa!"

As if struck by an arrow, Kouko stood up yet quicker.

From between her alluringly rose colored lips, her teeth flashed, pure white with a tinge of blue visible. Graceful like a dancing butterfly she spun around once, swinging her skirt.

"Maa! Maa! Maa!"

Both her hands were squeezed together tightly before her chest, in what was nearly a caricature of a surprised look.

Then, opening her hands suddenly, she slowly tilted her head to one side sharply, and before long from her surprised expression transformed into a wide open, extremely happy smile.

Her hips dropping into a straight, long stride, without batting an eyelash she stepped briskly up before Banri's eyes,

"You're Tada-kun, aren't you!"

He was very much Tada-kun, but--- that moment he was being hugged energetically. His protests ignored, she made as if to kiss him on both cheeks, not quite touching him.

Sh, she was a foreigner...

When Kouko let go of the still astonished Banri, he looked back at her happily laughing face. On top of that, this person was not normally a foreigner. When she was excited, she became one.

Geh, take a look everybody! I got to meet my favorite grandfather after five thousand years buried in the rock on the other side of the world! And on top of that, Grandfather, you brought me as a present a diamond the size of a melon (you were planning two!?)! Sheer happiness!

...Sort of, a warm welcoming excitement.

Despite having just been dumped the day before yesterday at Veloce, there was nothing in her gaze but Tada Banri.

Kouko stopped before Banri's nose, her smile brightened by happiness. Almost too close to him, Banri's field of vision was almost entirely blocked by Kouko's perfect smile. And then she clasped her hands before her chest. Arranging her feet modestly, she bent back a bit and turned her sparkling eyes upwards. Gazing worshipfully at Banri in a posture rather like Xavier,

"My good friend, Tada-kun...! Good morning!"

She was even misty-eyed.

"Because we met this way by chance in the morning, this will be a really good day! Hey, it was absolutely fated long ago that we would be the best of friends!"

She batted her long dark eyelashes adorably while she said that.

Still looking straight at Banri like that, she slowly shook her head from side to side with that smile on her face. She gave the appearance of "This warm feeling, welling up! Ah, I can't stand it anymore!"

"Oh..."

Somehow, his mouth opened.

Go for it! Do your best, Tada Banri!

"...Morning. ...Kaga-san"

As if in ecstasy from listening to Banri's greeting, Kouko moaned and closed her eyes for a few seconds.

"That voice is Tada-kun's. That way of speaking. Incredible..."

Blood rushing to her head flushed her cheeks rosy and warm while, making a face as if she were getting to eat the chocolate of the century, soft and warm, her eyelids rising. You're amazing... but he couldn't say that, not at all.

"It reminds me of something I've missed... hey, our previous existence, have you thought about it? I have. I was the youngest novice sister in a monastery, and Tada-kun lived in the deep forest as a shepherd... that's what I believe. Every morning Tada-kun had to deliver cheese to us. Hey, isn't that incredibly romantic? Thank you, all my life I thank you, I'm thankful for this fate, that we've met this way twice now!"

"...Oo..."

Banri was filled with overflowing with a groan.

For some reason, somehow or other, this was way too much.

What about that excitement? This feeling of drama. Behaving like a foreigner. Let's be friends, she said, and in two days Kaga Kouko had gotten to this point.

And now Kouko was waiting for Banri's reaction. Eyes wide open, brilliantly sparkling, she silently gazed at her close friend Tada Banri.

What do I do, really—no, in truth. Not knowing what he should do, Banri for the moment, tried to put his hands to chest. Not Kouko's; to his own chest. And then, as if to be able to open his eyes the same way, he smiled with all his might, while gazing back at Kouko's sparkling eyes, trying to rock his head back and forth in the same way.

Apparently quite satisfied with how Banri was doing, Kouko, once more looking pleased, returned to swaying before him. Still without words, it was a little show of reflecting Xaviers, presented in male and female, so to speak.

Mitsuo exclaimed, "Scary...!", as if he could hardly stand it any longer, and covered his mouth with his hand. Banri only partially saw that he had jumped well back.

"Well, Mitsuo---"

Her swaying ceased, still standing before Banri's eyes, Kouko looked over towards Mitsuo.

As far as she was concerned, she loved Mitsuo. He was her formerly destined lover. From her point of view, though, he had separated himself from her destined scenario.

Banri unconsciously gasped.

What would come of Kouko's strange excitement in front of Mitsuo he could not tell. Facing him was her 'foreigner flavored suddenly fated friends mode', but... what should he do if she made a scene before Mitsuo? Carefully, he looked her over once more. For the time being, she didn't seem to be carrying any hidden weapons (not even a bouquet of roses).

She was wearing a white frilly blouse over a high-waisted, houndstooth checked one piece dress, black tights and black high-heeled, low rise boots. Because of the arrangement, changing immediately below the swell of her chest, it made her appear even more delicate and feminine. It was awfully nice to see.

Kouko turned about to face Mitsuo, the beautifully painted nails of the fingers of her left hand gently arranged, restraining the soft and full swelling out of the region of her heart.

"Mitsuo, you are just like a lonely hunter going out into the wilderness... your face seems like that..."

Eyes closed dreamily, she murmured softly and earnestly.

And then, her right hand extended elegantly, like a loving mother about to touch Mitsuo's cheek. Mitsuo pulled back at once. Kouko quickly drew closer, touching his face against his will. Because of the power in those fingers, trying to hold down that body twisting in revulsion, from an outsider's point of view, it was becoming like an iron claw hold, but,

"To be sent to a monastery to quietly pray my days away, perhaps should have been my destiny from the start..."

"Hugugu..."

That was enough for Kouko, apparently.

Looking down upon the captured face of Mitsuo, her eyelids, light pearl cross-hatched by eye-shadow, glittered as she wore a dramatically tragic look.

From an onlooker's point of view, looking at how the two of them appeared, Banri instinctively gasped. Well, for sure... I'm glad it didn't come down to bloodshed.

All of which meaning, with the end of this performance of the Kaga Kouko Theater, would things be OK for the time being?

Though you dumped me, Mitsuo, and hurt me too, I am being healed by the presence of my wonderful friend! While recovering, I'm tough and beautiful! Thank you, everybody, for the help you've given me! I'm feeling fine! --- Such was the essence of Kouko's theater, and it was, well, amusing. But what exactly were her real motives, what did she see in Yana-ssan's face; he didn't feel like asking such unromantic questions right here, right now.

Matching up with the demise of Mitsuo and Kouko's one act, he realized that somebody was giving direction, "Music, start". Surely that was a voice from heaven, as if the stage director for this world were speaking, and,

"You are such a shock!"

Banri shouted with all his might.

Standing and facing Kouko and Mitsuo while walking slowly in a circle around them, assuming a pose, pointing his finger at them with a somehow evil face, as it were an emissary of the devil to liven up this ending. Nyahahahaha, nyahahahaahaa!

"You are such a shock!"

...In reality, he didn't know the lyrics very well. Derereredere, derereredereeredee, dereree... still, he used to know them! With the high-pitched voice he had held back, he would make their hair stand on end! Ready, set,

"In order to protect our love! You are taking off!"

"What!?"

The singing wasn't from Banri.

Surprised, he looked back. The stolen song's singing, five times higher than his limit, as high pitched as if he'd been impaled up his rear. He looked at the owner of that voice.

---He went as still as a stone.

"Soo, briiinngg back your looooveee~~~~~!"

What he had thought to be a voice from heaven, ...was very much so. But it wasn't. He had not heard a voice from heaven, nor a stage director's voice.

It was Linda.

Course registration forms rolled up to look like a microphone at her mouth, in a pose of leaning against the seat at the corner of the table, she sang hotly at the top of her voice, echoing still, her fist shoved in the air,

"...Haven't you taste in songs, Tada Banri?"

Those hands were saying "Hi!" to Banri.

"Linda---"

His voice shook, and though it could be heard, it sounded as if it were from somewhere far away, like the underworld.

Hurriedly, he added the honorific "senpai".

Yes, this is the person, he thought in his heart.

This was absolutely the person in that picture he found at home, clinging to him, carrying on with him. It was this face. This was Hayashida Nana. Her white skin, her eyes. Moreover, her age. Above all, her name. There was no mistaking it. There was a one in ten thousand chance, not quite an impossibility, but it wasn't very likely.

"Err... good morning. Something... if you look at the condition of the guy with you, Kaga-san, the image of 'Champion of the last Century' simply doesn't come to mind..."

Kouko tilted her head to one side, as if to say 'What are you doing?'

Banri nodded in greeting to Linda once more, in a underclassman-like way, while absolutely convinced that this person was the one in the picture.

Linda knew his past. They were connected. And yet, she was hiding the past. She was acting as if Banri's past did not exist.

What the heck, why?

Continuing her assault on him despite Banri's embarrassment, the back of the chair supporting her stiffly, Linda gave a big stretch. Her face was smooth, without makeup, probably not even eyebrow pencil. Getting up, a long-sleeved layered T-shirt covering half-way down her fingers, she crossed her blue-jeaned legs.

"Nooww, stop teasing your friends and come back here, Kouko-chan. If we hurry up, we'll get done before we run out of time. As for me, I plan on skipping second period anyway."

She turned to face Kouko, making the course registration forms flutter. Seeing that, Kouko hurriedly turned aside, returning to the sit at the table across from Linda.

"Sorry for making you wait, I'm working, I'm working, let's get down to writing!"

On top of the table, other than some cups of stuff to drink, there was a huge schedule table, the size of a tatami mat, and syllabus booklets that were distributed when they entered the school. Various kinds of writing implements were scattered upon it. Banri and Mitsuo noticed it, wondering what it was.

"We're discussing Kouko-chan's schedule right now."

Smiling slightly, Linda explained for them.

"This girl had no idea what were the required classes. Her schedule was ridiculous. She's taken no language class, and she hasn't bought her book. Now there's hardly any class with room to get in... yes, and yet this year she’s only taking about 24 credits. Not enough."

Kouko, her lips a little tighter, let out a sweet and innocently apologetic laugh and shrugged her shoulders.

"But, but if I did well, then I could take just language mid-year, and then I'd have all my required credits, right?"

"You should. Maybe."

"Then it's perfect!"

"Not quite perfect. ...About halfway there?"

"Halfway there! Hooray!"

What senpai suggested was good, of course, and Kouko looked over the "halfway done" schedule form and gave a sigh. Finally, she scribbled something down on the registration forms with a silver ballpoint pen, and looked up with a sweet smile. Linda looked at it with a suddenly serious eye,

"What I mean is that lately, 'taking only 24 credits', isn't that rather dangerous? Getting thirty credits done wouldn’t be awfully unusual! Aah, one more thing for later: you're going to want to get into some four credit course... Tada Banri, are you set? You’ve registered for your classes?"

Unexpectedly, she was trying to get Banri involved.

"Uh", mumbled Banri, momentarily at a loss for words,

"Well, for the time being, though my registration is already done, ...ah, but this guy keeps getting me into trouble during some wonderful lectures."

Casually, Kouko tried to close the distance, raising her hand to Mitsuo's elbow, bringing them closer to looking like a couple.

"I call this guy Yana-ssan. Yana-ssan, this is Linda-senpai of Omaken. We are greatly indebted to her, as she saved our lives, Kaga-san's and mine. I mentioned her before."

"Ah, yes, that time these guys were in trouble," Mitsuo said, giving a small nod to Linda while she glanced at him, Banri quietly keeping his mouth shut. Restlessly, he scratched near his nose.

This was not what he really wanted to talk about.

Mitsuo's classes didn't matter at all... no, nothing mattered. What he wanted to talk to Linda about was something else.

But frankly, how to do it?

'Why are you pretending not to know me? Linda-senpai, you really do know me, don't you? I saw you in the yearbook! In photos too. We were really close, weren't we? You know I'd lost my memories? Though I don't remember anything of those times, why is it you haven't said a thing? You and I, until I lost my memories, we had a special relationship, didn't we? I would like at least one thing from your mouth, a clear answer: yes or no. As it is, continuing to pretend not to know me, how am I going to settle my mind?'

---Trying to think, he looked about ready to break out laughing.

But he just couldn't say it.

Even if the two of them were alone in this place, he wondered if he could speak of this at all.

Even the matter of the yearbook and the photos, let alone asking about their shared past, where they were specially close, he thought. There was nothing to deny. The answer was 'yes'. There was no other possibility.

And yet, Linda had to have some unknown reason for pretending to know nothing like this. Saying nothing to Banri, she was hiding something.

Banri was not so dimwitted as to repeat to himself over and over, "Hiding everything like that, why, why!? What should I do? Think, think!?", or maybe he was simpleminded. At least for now.

"Glad to meet you", good humouredly waving her hand, leaning against the back of her seat, Linda grinned at Mitsuo. "I'm Linda, Hayashida Linda", introducing herself with an air of long practice.

Looking at her, Banri thought once more, "She's a good senpai." Friendly enough to even put off going to her own lecture to counsel a younger student, even somebody she didn't know. Kind, and a person you really could rely on. Being together with her was fun, and he was thrilled just to be near her. ...So it was, until only a few days ago. Even if he didn't study it out, he thought that even now it should honestly be so.

At the present time, for sure, Linda didn't want to be known to my current self. Therefore, knowing the former Banri was not something that could be spoken of. Just that.

If he wanted to know more, perhaps, it wouldn't be bad to establish a good working relationship with the current Linda.

With respect to Banri, that--- yes. There was no hope. Having met Linda by chance as a club senior, he would make a good impression as junior. There was no way he would expose what she was hiding.

Above all, she seemed to be worried too. Perhaps, because of those worries, she chose to behave as if she didn't know the former Banri at all. He didn't feel like interrupting her with that conclusion, though. If he were told that what was there before him at that moment was important, he would also agree, he thought.

He really thought this to be so.

That was a confirmation of his identity, Banri decided.

Stop thinking about this already! Why should I, it's already over.

Forget about it. ---Yes, I've forgotten.

With a chuckle, Banri lifted his face, deliberately like a junior, like an idiot.

"I mean, Linda-senpai, this guy Yana-ssan, he's taking Wednesday 5th period Civil Law class~, could you please tell him something about it~?"

He was trying to speak to Linda sweetly.

"Huh!? Seriously!? Tsukamoto's Civil Law class!? Why something so crazy!?"

Linda frowned, and covered her mouth with her hand as if in shock. Are you trying to torture yourself, my dear? This, too, seeming but a momentary play, she said to Banri, "I'm not making fun of you!", and like a female soldier, she quickly put on a straight face.

"Eh... What's the terrible thing I'm doing?"

"No no no, it's horrible! It's always bad, you, err, Yana-ssan? Because that is truly awful. "Wednesday's fifth period 'Civil Law 1' every year has a seriously difficult test, with past year's notes and references not allowed, less than seventy percent on the test and less than seventy percent attendance (no use in arguing) is failure, and because there aren't many people, answering the roll call for somebody else is impossible... for Civil Law most wait, and furthermore, if you don't study seriously... no, they say that even working diligently, it's quite hard."

"Are you serious?"

"That's why everybody takes Monday's second period Civil Law!"

"...Is, that so..., ah... seems I messed up... What to do, this is really awful... Am I already repeating something next year...?"

"Though it's OK to repeat it. Monday second period's easy Civil Law class is most people's preference, though how many people waited, and then fell in the trap of taking the demon of Wednesday 5th period again, who knows..."

From what Linda had to say, Mitsuo was getting quite worried. Watching this from the side, Kouko casually cleaned off her pen nibs.

"Aah ah ah, Mitsuo, what kind of mess is this? Ah good, I have the perfect schedule set up for me. I've even taken Civil Law perfectly."

Even at other people’s problems, her face smiled beautifully. While her pretty nails glittered, she went cleaning up her writing implements.

Openly hostile, Mitsuo glared at Kouko. Kouko was completely unperturbed. On the contrary, smiling, she looked straight back at Mitsuo's face, cheerfully adding on "sorry to hear that", and whether on purpose or not, humming in good humor.

While Mitsuo was practically trembling all over, he slowly looked over at Banri's face,

"...Banri, come with me a bit!"

"W, where to!? And mess up Kaga-san's studies!? Hey, be careful! Mother Bear has cubs in the spring, and could get rather irritated!"

"You got it wrong! What I'm doing now is going to second period Civil Law! Anyway, I'm going to catch the professor when he leaves the lecture, and ask him if I can take it from now on, though I haven't attended even once yet! I'm throwing away 4500 yen!"

"Ah, ahh, that's good, that's good! Good luck, Yana-ssan! Hurry up!"

"Oh!"

He took off running, but Mitsuo, looking like he'd forgotten something, suddenly stumbled a step or two and came back to them,

"Idiot! You'll lose the credit entirely! You'll have to do it over! And then you'll cry!"

With an awfully sudden jerk of his chin, both his arms flapping like gull's wings, he let out a stream of abuse directed at Kouko. And then he took off running again. This time, he flew directly out of the cafeteria, and could be seen using his long legs freely to run up the staircase.

While she watched, Kouko laughed rather scornfully and coldly.

"What was that? Did you see? Mitsuo's a child. He cannot have friends, so he goes it alone."

"...Ka, Kaga-san"

"Whaat? Tada-kun."

As far as Banri was concerned, she appeared a friend to the last. Smiling at him, she tilted her head to the side quizzically.

"Welll, aren't you being a little too rough on Yana-ssan...?"

"Rough? Me? No such thing; we're normally like that."

"No, what if the nun treated the woodland hunter like that..."

"But he's not just an acquaintance."

"Eh! ...W, what're you saying...? Weren't you childhood friends! That's scary!"

"No. I didn't know him in a previous life."

"We're talking about this life! I mean, just a minute, seriously, with what kind of history can you be like this? Not long ago you were glued to Yana-ssan's face, dreamily muttering 'Mitsuo...'!"

"That was the last act of our play, Mitsuo and I. To the music of Tada-kun and Linda-senpai's wild orchestra, the curtain descended. With that, our relationship is already over. Therefore, he is somebody that I do not know."

Kouko declared this very coldly and without hesitation, her beautiful lips formed into a prickly pout, her slender chin upraised. Without so much as a twitch of her eyebrows, that kind of coldness. "Eh", his speech cut off, Banri too fell into silence.

Well, Banri had been thinking for a while now, "these guys' relationship isn't very good..." Mitsuo avoided hating Kouko, though while Kouko chased after him in love, he wasn't nice to her at all, if they met up they only fought, to all appearances they were abusive to each other. It looked like there wasn't even a memory of the two of them having been friends.

And yet, because he knew of Kouko's awkwardness, Banri saw the two of them as something different. Because Kouko truly loved Mitsuo, he had grown used to it. Put simply, it was excessively ‘tsun' in the ‘tsundere' aspect of their relationship. Precisely because he understood that, it didn't set his teeth on edge thinking about it. Though he liked Kouko, Banri also softheartedly worried about her.

In the end, after ten years (more or less) that Kaga Kouko and Yanagisawa Mitsuo had been childhood friends, she had been dumped once and for all. Was all they had left simply the sheer seriousness of it all?

What an empty relationship they had. In any case, though confirmed as friends with each of them separately, it was little comfort to Banri. But thinking on what was before him now, he let out an unconscious sigh.

Linda stretched as she stood up.

"Well then, I have to go to a lecture too. Are you two all right now? Is there anything else you want to ask me?"

Kouko stood respectfully for Linda, also acting the part of junior,

"We're good, thank you very much. Thank you for having helped us. Next time for sure, allow us to do something for you."

With the slow pace of a true princess, she bowed her head. Linda waved her hand and smiled as if she were embarrassed.

"Don't worry about it. It wouldn't bother me if you came out to the club, and if you were to practice hard, I'd be really happy. That said, it's tomorrow mid-day, OK? We'll meet at eleven, have lunch while we meet, and practice starts at one o'clock. So don't be late."

Pointing at Banri with a slender finger,

"You too, Tada Banri! Practice. Awa Odori. The same place as before. You haven't forgotten?"

"Ah, of course not! Yes sir!"

"Yes, good answer. Tomorrow then. Don't miss it, because it looks like some of the fourth year senpais are going to be there."

Linda hung her bag from her shoulder, stepping away from the table easily. As she walked away, not a sound arose from her vividly fluorescent Nikes.

That reminds me, seeing Linda off with a smile, he looked at Kouko's face.

"Were you bothered about staying with Omaken?"

Certainly coming back from the previous practice session, Kouko seemed to have lost a lot of her enthusiasm. It seemed to him that she'd said things about how embarrassed she was by her awkward dancing, and that there was no way, she could not stay in the club.

"That's right. I did."

Nodding her head deeply, Kouko looked back at Banri intensely.

"Lately, I've had various things too... didn't you? I've overcome them, and now I, I'm really looking forward to things."

Her smile sparkled brightly. Her pure white teeth showed through. She carried herself like royalty. Banri even reflexively wanted to applaud.

"That so? Good."

"...You really think it's good?"

"Yes, I do! I would be happy to be able to dance the Awa Odori with Kaga-san, nothing would be better! To me, running into difficulties is part of growing up."

Her body twisting, Kouko slowly closed her eyes, as if she were drunk.

"Thank you for the support. As for me, anyway, I'm thinking of taking on a new challenge. Even Awa Odori is one! Hesitating like this is wrong. Thinking about this and that, being scared is wrong. I believe living that way is a waste. Every day, we must progress... right?"

Her eyes flicking open, she looked at Banri. Banri nodded to her,

"Right!"

Her large eyes sparkled to the point of being dangerous.

And then coming several steps closer, suddenly a few inches from Banri's nose Kouko became serious. Banri gulped reflexively; Kouko could not be stopped.

"Advancing day by day! And then earnestly forward! Forward! Forward! One way or the other, forward, progressing! That will be my life! To go forward living like that, that is what I have decided! It will be a super proactive life, on the GO! I will see it accomplished perfectly! Advancing, continuing forward until I die! I will do it, absolutely! Becoming perfect, going through life, looking forward positively, even unto death!"

She caught Banri by the shoulder. Comrade! With that kind of energy.

Having gotten to this point, Banri averted his eyes at once.

He laughed uneasily.

Saying only that much, he retreated backwards. Her hand leaving his shoulder, "What?", Kouko's lips looked displeased, but no. The feeling was distinctly that of fear. Why does this person run to such extremes?

Though she'd dumped him, she was looking towards the future. That so? She'll even go to the club! Wow, that's good! ...To the extent she settles down to normality, it'll be easier to get to know her. And it somehow seemed that in her previous existence she didn't even know Mitsuo, her good friend up til now. Why would one have to suddenly jump so far, to the point this person in particular has gone?

He said to himself, "Oh well, she cannot moderate herself precisely because she is Kaga Kouko", though he also cared for her.

One cheek puffed out extremely cutely, Kouko spoke to the drawn-back Banri.

"Tada-kun, since we've come to be true friends, if we have anything we want to talk about, could we just talk? Let's not keep secrets!"

"Well, though you say it... what's that tension, that fear as if of that group of the 'Crystal God'... really Kaga-san, wasn't it you who said carelessly, in shock from a broken heart, 'Hello Neo-Children?'"

Kouko, who had just promised that he could say whatever he wanted to, suddenly, as if she were saying "hold it!", her eyebrows rose into beautiful arcs. Yes, she's angryyy. One serving of anger. Anger, coming right uuup.

"What are you saying! That cannot be! This a universal question of living as a human being. I don't want to be trivialized like that!"

As you might expect, seeing that beautiful, magnificently ordered, showy face with an expression brightly flushed in anger, was rather terrifying.

"Ah, whoa...!"

Banri, falling down before her as if she were a Heian-era princess,

"No 'Whoa's!"

With a snap, a finger thrust out towards his nose, and once more he threw his head back sharply. It had nearly gone up his nose to the second joint.

"In other words, Tada-kun should move forward too! No, not doing so is wrong! Do it! Now! Right away! As best friends, it wouldn't be right if we didn't move forward in about the same way! Because if I couldn't do so, I couldn't be a perfect friend!"

"Eh... no way..."

"Look here, again a voice like that! What a weak looking mess! 'Whoa~' 'No way~' Talking like that isn't allowed! Making such a dumb face isn't either! Yes, even though I was,"

'Even though I dumped you', hesitating like that is no good!

---Whether in fact, or in saying so, he thought.

Now even Banri, suddenly realizing the gap in space and time between the two of them, looked back at Kouko as if through distorted memories. Noticing that look,

"..."

Even the energetically yapping Kouko's vocal cords suddenly fell silent, as if broken.

Staying this way, both of them silent, "..." (Do you usually speak like this!?) "..." (I didn't say anything, nothing at all!) "..." (But how about trying to talk!?) "..." (I'm not doing anything, really I'm not.) "..." (If that's the case, then put that awkward pantomime of yours in order!) "..." (I understand, that's the funny part.) "..." (We've done something right!) ---up to this point communicating well by gaze and by gesture,

"...A, anyhow! It's because it's like that! ...It's like that! In short, let's give it our best with Omaken, Tada-kun and I! ...That... was what I had to say."

Kouko put her smile in place. Well then, Banri relaxed too. For now, whatever he'd forgotten didn't matter.

"Well, look, we're not just first years, are we? Fo, forward! Powerfully! Full throttle! Bet your life! With all one's might! Let's try hard! Life is not to be wasted! Right, that's the way it is!"

Searching for approval, his fist clenched, Banri answered only with a sigh, but in her own way Kouko took the meaning to be 'yes'.

"Right!"

Taking a breath as if a bit relieved, she suddenly turned and easily grabbed her brand-name bag from the seat where she had left it.

Hanging it from her shoulder by its strap she turned around, her glossy hair in thick curls brushed over her left shoulder. Smiling still, revealing her sparkling white teeth, she showed only the right side of her neck to Banri.

That standing figure, a gorgeous beauty. A woman just like from the movies, or a tele-drama, having lept from the world of fiction, she was like everybody's dreams, brought to life.

Kouko was perfect, of course. Once more easily captivated, Banri thought. ---At least, with regards to outward appearances, nothing but 'perfect' came to mind.

If she were to open her mouth, somehow subtly defenseless, but she only seemed to require a bit of touch-up here and there, her appearance truly beautiful, and blessed to sparkle all the time. Because they were friends, he could not talk about things like 'appearances only'.

And then, bringing together the heels of her booties, with a smile she flickered her long eyelashes.

"Hey, Tada-kun, are you free now? Won't you go with me to the student affairs office? Since schedules are coming out, I'd like somebody with me."

Kouko spoke as if she had rehearsed it. Even as a friend, was it natural to invite somebody in such a way? And she added a wink from her big eyes.

Mitsuo was running late to Civil Law while he was skipping, Banri thought, but,

"Then, afterwards let's go to Civil Law. That OK with you?"

Having been told like that, how dared he refuse? What to do? My friend, fated from a previous existence to go out with me, has invited me. What's more, my friend is a beauty to die for.

Hmph, though I was dumped the day before yesterday.

* * *


Side by side, Banri and Kouko left the cafeteria, walking towards the student affairs office, which was on another floor.

Looking out the windows from the dark, old school building, it was dazzlingly bright.

Perhaps because the weather was nice today, there already being signs of summer, there were mingled here and there amongst the students going back and forth a few wearing short-sleeve shirts.

Banri, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and a hoodie with "The Clumsy Student" across the back, was getting a little warm, and removed the hoodie as he walked. Rolling up the slightly sweaty, ratty feeling thing, he tried to force it into the bag. However, he was unable to stuff it in very well because of what was already there, and continuing up the stairs to the landing, he slowly came to halt in the narrow corridor.

"Are you OK? Could I carry something?"

Realizing that Kouko was reaching out to him,

"No, no, I wouldn’t make you carry my stuff..."

Trying to refuse, he had realized that his shoelaces had come untied. Oh well, but there was nothing that could be done about it: he was a sloppy kid.

"Well, sorry to have to ask, but could you hold this for a moment?"

Having Kouko hold the hoodie he'd taken off for a moment (and praying to God it didn't smell of sweat), and crouching down by the wall, he first retied his shoes. So as not to block traffic, Kouko also moved to the side of the corridor, at Banri's side.

Seen close up, Kouko, who was waiting, holding Banri's hoodie reverently, as if it were something important, had really slim legs, of course. The line of her calves elegantly refined, was like a work of art. Such ankles: if you were to use any force, they'd snap. Above the knees too she was shapely, no extra flesh sagging... No, he wasn't planning to look, but there she was, right next to his face. If you're trying to cross the street, you look to see if there are cars coming, anybody would look over there. It was that kind of thing.

He glanced sideways, wearing a serious glare as he sighed, thinking, "Wearing heavy black tights in the mid-winter is fine, but isn't that too hot in this climate? Does hot or cold even matter to this person, if it's stylish?"

Then, Kouko was moving those slim legs uncomfortably.

"...Ta, Tada-kun, by any chance, are you looking at my legs?"

"I'm not looking, I'm not looking."

While Banri answered back clearly,

"Though I'm not looking, Kaga-san, aren't those black things hot? Doesn't it seem like 'coordinating the coordinates'?"

He tried to ask here plainly. Was it common for a guy to recognize the subtleties of girl's fashion? Uh oh, he could not say no. That much, Banri already knew from the internet.

"My, my tights?"

Kouko looked back at the Banri's upturned face for just an instant, her expression complex.

"This... though it's a bit hot, in truth there are reasons I don't take them off."

She answered like that. Banri got back up,

"Of course, girls have their reasons..."

In one motion, he stuck his hand deep into his bag. For now, in order to stuff his hoodie in there, he wanted to turn all his fallen textbooks sideways.

"We sure do! We have many concerns. Actually, it was swallowed by a snake."

"Ehh, that's awful!"

Thinking he wanted to make Kouko laugh again by saying some ridiculous joke, or lightening things with a smile, Banri went to take back his possibly sweaty hoodie, looking over towards Kouko.

However,

"It was yesterday, in our garden. It was the worst of luck. I'm wearing tights to cover up the damage. As a girl, of course, I don't want to show such things."

Kouko was saying it with a straight face.

No way... this wasn't a joke, was it?

"...Wh, what? Swallowed by a snake...? Kaga-san...?"

"Yes. And what a shock it was!"

No surprise, that.

Banri, forgetting about rearranging his bag, looked back at Kouko's beautiful white face, picturing it in his mind. While she screamed, Kaga Kouko was slowly being swallowed by a big snake, feet first. In the garden. The snake's stomach gradually swelling, her shape could not be seen, losing form as it was digested... Yet the next day, Kaga Kouko came to college, saying "Forward! Awa Odori!" and such.

Wasn't that enough "problems"?

Getting dizzy, Banri shook his head, and took a deep breath. Getting plenty of oxygen to his brain, he miraculously got things in order.

"Err... just in case though, how far were you swallowed...?"

"'Up to where', eh?"

Kouko blinked from Banri's question, and then,

"Enough, you're joking...! Wow you're funny! Tada-kun, you dummy, aha! It was nothing but a joke! Ahahahaha!"

She suddenly broke out in happy sounding laughter. Surely thinking something like "Eh, what a crazy kid..." about Banri, she covered her mouth with her hand, but she seemed unable to contain her laughter, her cheeks gradually going deep red, laughing still as her body doubled over as if in pain, hugging the hoodie she held in her hands tightly.

"'Sw, swallowed', but not vertically! Stop it already, Tada-kun, you're too funny! Like this, this! Swallowed sideways! 'Up to where'!? Did you think I'd been slowly swallowed from my feet to my head!? There aren't such snakes! In Tokyo!? In my back yard!? Probably not even in the jungle, where in the world did you get that idea!? Really, you are really too funny, I've decided that! Sideways it was, sideways sideways, sideways swallowed!"

With his left wrist representing her foot, and his right hand the snake's head, he mimed how it might bite from the side.

"No no no", Banri replied calmly back to the princess lost in laughter.

"...Then, you weren't 'swallowed', but rather 'bitten'...? What, you thought 'let's be funny', and made a mystery to solve? Were you inventing something like that?"

"No, you're wrong! Swallowed is the right word! Because while it was trying to bite, it was trying to suck the flesh of my calf into it's throat! It was sucking really hard! Like this!? Such a snake in my back yard!"

Suddenly Kouko, moving her hands as if she were a udon noodle maker, tossed Banri's hoodie into the air, stretching it out long and thin. "M, my hoodie", Banri moaned,

"Give it to me! Because,"

She grabbed the hood part and spun it around. Then, winding it around his neck,

"'Kyaa! It hu-hu-hu-hurts!', she said!"

"But I wasn't kidding!"

"Then how are you alive and kicking so energetically!?"

"It wasn't at my neck! It was Bibinba's neck!"

"Bibinbaa!? ...You mean... that star in Kinnikuman!?"

"What're you talking about! Here on Earth! I mean a cat! Shizuka's cat!"

"Oh, I see... no, but aren't you changing the tone of the story!? Where the name comes from, or is it from the Kamei family... is it that Shizuka!? Why didn't you tell me clearly from the start!?"

"Neither! My lit-tle bro-ther! My little brother Kaga Shizukaa! He's a chubby little thing! ...Or rather, OK, I can't be talking that way. So you understand this better, listen, he's my little brother. Are you good to this point? He's called Shizuka. That good too? Good, right? He keeps cats. Bibinba's one of them. He's a Himalayan. Yesterday, he was attacked by a snake in the garden, and he was strangled. It had already gotten to be twice around, no, about three times around. It was completely there, all set to enjoy it's meal! So I was already in a panic, anyway I jumped at it, like this,"

Kouko grabbed the hoodie wound around his neck with both hands, pulling him towards her.

"'Ughh! Let go of Bibinba! Urgghhh...!' ...Uh, that must hurt..."

"Ooou... ouou... or rather do you need it so tight..."

"But, if it was like that... and it was! It was like that!"

Grabbing one sleeve of the hoodie and slowly unwinding it from his neck, she started to swing it around, much like a cowboy. The other students passing by avoided it, treating it as an annoyance.

"I used centrifugal force! And then, I did like this!"

Her hair flying, Kouko swung it widely, and the hoodie struck the wall. Though for sure it was once Banri's, the dead hoodie, it’s power lost, slithered to the floor.

"Thinking, 'Phew... I did it...!', I turned my back on it to go in the house and get a garbage bag. If I had done that...!"

Kouko crouched down for some reason, grabbed the sleeve of the hoodie, and reached down to touch behind the calf of her leg,

"I screamed 'Kyaa!' It was like this, like this! Shouting 'It bit me!', and 'Kyaa!', even kicking my feet it didn't let go, swallowing me little by little, it was already a disaster! I was getting more and more in a panic!"

"...Aw, awfully so...! So just what did you do, in the end?"

" 'Get it over with!' "

Cutting off any more useless questions, in a very unladylike fashion, she hit near the hoodie's sleeve cuff, as if she were giving the snake's head a karate chop. Like a head stuck in a guillotine, it looked dead. If it had been aGreen General, it's goose would have been cooked.

"Oh..."

Somehow feeling for the snake, Banri held his own neck. In the 'Naked Terminator Pose', Kouko briefly basked in the afterglow of victory.

"...You know, that looks pretty bad. Tada-kun's hoodie has gotten all beaten up...!"

Realizing it, she picked up the hoodie's corpse.

"No way, I'm sorry! Silly me, I'd gotten lost in the conversation!"

"Don't worry about it, it was already that way to begin with."

"There's no reason! Enough already, what am I going to do? I'm going to get it cleaned!"

"That's OK, really, I do my laundry. I mean, it's only old UNIQLO stuff anyhow. It was sacrificed, but it was a really good story, worth listening to, I think."

Taking the hoodie back from the apologetic, blushing Kouko, and having said nothing about reimbursement, or any such thing, he stuffed it quickly into the bag in front of him.

"No, it was worth listening to, really... Kaga-san does it all the time, getting rid of snakes."

"No way! That was the first time in my life I've touched a snake!"

"Was Bibinba OK after all that?"

"He almost jumped into the washing machine from the mental shock, even this morning he nearly didn't leave it."

"Drum type?"

"Yes, the normal vertical type. ...Ah, enough already of me, now, I was gibbering from the tension..."

No, your tension from the start was incredible. The which, well, he didn't say.

Kouko, blushed as if she were finally embarrassed, covering her face with both hands like a little girl, looking around nervously. "Eighteen year old snake killer Kaga Kouko-chan..." muttered Banri, and Kouko raised her fist like a little kid, as if to hit Banri.

"Enough already! Forget about it!"

"In spite of it all, you've been chatting with me in high spirits."

"Be, because! Am I right? Isn't this topic something else? Didn't a snake came out, attack our cat, and my life was put at risk, ambushed from behind? In the back yard? Isn't this kind of thing rare? ...Over there, it doesn't happen, does it? In Shizuoka?"

"No way. Shizuoka is a big city."

He'd seen snakes run over by machines in the tea fields, but how could he say it? His grandfather on his father's side collected mamushi around there to pickle them in sake (the trauma: saying things like "if you drink it, your memories'll come back~" to get him to drink it), but those were only minor details.

"For sure. And so I already, since yesterday, was talking to anybody, talking and not stopping, thinking, 'I can talk!' I had already taken it to the limit."

"But you know, it would have been good of you to send me an e-mail about it."

That, it was only for a moment.

Even this didn't matter, being the continuation of a joking conversation.

It wouldn't have been all that strange if he had missed in the dimness, for only just a moment, Kouko's eyes trembling forlornly.

Banri had spotted it.

To a person just dumped, sending an e-mail about such things wasn't enough. ---To Banri, it seemed as if Kouko's very heart were speaking these things.

You don't have to speak of fated friends, forward looking lives and such in a state of high drama. Anybody can do so. Anybody doing so is not making unpleasant decisions. Therefore, doing so, she wasn't forced to get on with her abandoned scenario. Though she knew it was strange for her, it wasn't like there was no other way.

Because, it isn't so, and I don't have to...

That was what Banri heard.

"...So this morning, I thought, 'Let's go talk to Linda-senpai!' "

Suddenly, Kouko broke out with a smile like a flower blooming.

"But, senpai, when she got to looking at my schedule, she let out a big sigh and set to thinking. This is awful, she said. Already, I couldn't just say something like 'Yesterday a mouthful of my backside was being swallowed by a snake, you see' "

Laugh, Tada-kun.

So it seemed Kouko was asking him.

"No way, I wouldn't say anything either! Not at all!"

Banri laughed too.

He didn't see anything else. Pretending not to notice, he laughed merrily while he thought some more. It seemed that Kouko didn't have any friends to casually talk about everyday things with.

As far as she was concerned, now, she had lost her whole world: Mitsuo. Already, in Kouko's world, even the ordinary things people could do to casually keep in touch had become unsatisfactory.

"But, that's fine. I was able to speak with you. ...And it seems you understood me?"

Gently softening her smile and dropping her gaze a little, Kouko murmured in an uncharacteristically soft voice.

It seemed the demon of her nerves had fallen at last. From the chuckle that issued from her lips, to her swelled chest, even Banri saw and understood it all, breathed in deeply, and let it out. She seemed to recover, little by little, her mental stability, and apparently self-conscious about how difficult she had been to handle, going to extremes as she had,

"...I'm such a mess..."

Shrugging her shoulders, she gave a wry smile. I'm, such a mess. Aren't I? And so on.

Kouko had had enough of it too.

She understood, and her chest rose.

Very much so. To be able to regain her footing in only two days was nothing to sneeze at. She wasn't that clever a person.

Hardly two days had passed today, and Kouko, as she was, just herself, wasn't good at facing Mitsuo who had dumped her, and Banri whom she had dumped. For that reason, she couldn't be jumping here and there absurdly in her normal fashion. In order to not show a downcast or hurt face, she had to play her part. Unable to speak as a clever person would, it probably wasn't easy.

There was nothing that could be done. He felt as if his heart were being squeezed.

The more he thought about Kouko's feelings, the more painful they were. In general, Banri's convenient imagination was convinced perhaps, but, he thought that in Kouko's heart, standing next to him, was an unstoppable force of will.

After all, of course, he loved Kouko. The more he thought of it, the more he wished to get closer to her heart. Stubbornly, in spite of having been dumped, he wanted to be her helper, at least.

For the first time, Banri thought it would be good to become a part of Kouko's scenario. No, he wanted to be, even.

Now appearing on stage, Tada Banri. As Mitsuo's friend, Kouko's friend. Various things have happened, but he was now the understanding and fated friend of Kouko. Am I allowed to take on such a role? ...It's all right if I'm not your boyfriend. In Kouko's lonely world, if such as I is acceptable, I'd like to be on stage. If there is room on this stage, I would like to stay a long time.

And then I pray, that eventually many players on her stage may appear, brightly colored, sparkling for moment spinning.

He believed this from the bottom of his heart. It was the first time he had harbored such tender feelings for another person. At least, as far as Banri himself could remember.

Prompting each other, "Shall we go?", their exchanged glances were pure friendship.

It seemed they had truly established a relationship as close friends, Banri staying beside Kouko, Kouko also, seemingly relieved, smiling quietly. And then, at that moment, as they both slowly opened their mouths, about to start talking about something,

"Morn-ning Banri!"

Thump, he was struck lightly in the middle of his back.

He looked back.

There was nobody there.

"Wait, wait, where are you looking?"

No, now he understood--- there was no way he could fail to.

That voice. There was just no mistaking it. Her voice was over the top, excessively girly, saccharine sweet, like from an anime show. On top of that, for some reason she was addressing him without honorifics.

From about than a foot lower than his, her little face was laughing.

Incredibly, she was eighteen years old. A micro-sized pet fairy. Even Mr. Two Dimensions approved of her as a multi-dimensional life-form. Such...

"O, Oka-chan..."

...a thing, Oka Chinami was.

* * *


Thinking, "What should I do?", he suddenly felt an alarming aura prickling over the right side of his body, coming from around Kouko.

As far as Kouko was concerned, Chinami, clearly, was the enemy. Undoubtedly, she was thinking something like "The thieving cat who stole my beloved Mitsuo!",

"Mornin' to you too, Kaga-san! Wow, your clothes are really pretty again today. I knew it, from a distance, I said to myself, 'That's Kaga-san!' "

Though Chinami was innocently jumping around, Banri remembered the danger she was in and gasped. Why Oka-chan, why are you acting like that, off guard in front of Kouko? Shouldn't you be careful of those fingernails? The person before you is the snake killer Kaga Kouko!

"...Okachi, nami..."

Kouko slowly turned around, looking down at Chinami, muttering with an expression like Cleopatra's, tasting poison.

"Ahaha, you got the break wrong~! It's not Okachi, but rather Oka, Chinami!"

Then why so off guard! Banri casually put his foot out to the side, try to insert himself halfway into the space between Kouko and Chinami.

Chinami was innocent to the point of being dangerous to herself, and again, as always, she was cute enough to die for. Her long eyelashes and round, cute eyes prominent, her features were pure, like a foreigner-child. Tied into a large knot, her hair was full and dark. Her slender body covered by a deep blue dress worn over blue denims, her slim ankles peeked out. On solid, light brown leather sandals, already wearing her trademark rugged day-pack, while to Banri who, as usual (as a male), did not understand attire all that well, Chinami truly exuded the presence of a fairy princess coming to them from the forest.

Banri could not stand it any longer.

"...Oka-chan...!"

"Whaat?"

"Uaa~~~!"

His body was swaying, wobbling. Don't breathe such air! It's contaminated here! Return to your forest! He couldn't help but want to cry out. But her cuteness filled the limits of the universe. The cell phone in her hand had a really flashy strap, including even an Indian feather decoration, delicately cute, and already, he couldn't help but be dumbfounded. Even her hairpin was somehow cute! It's not possible to be so cute.

"What was that about already? Banri, what've you done?"

"It doesn't matter one way or the other!"

"What the heck?"

You're the one I should be saying that to, what's with that, that "Nyaha!", way of laughing!

No, but---

"..."

Kouko was watching.

With a hard yet beautiful face, like that of a statue of a goddess, unsmiling, chin pulled back, she was slowly and quietly looking over Banri's agony, and then the transcendentally cute Oka Chinami.

As if he'd remembered, "So it is, your place is by my side, minion...", Banri dejectedly and quietly returned to Kouko's side. If Kouko was the evil queen, then Banri was her attending servant. Her Boyacky, so to speak.

Not even glancing back at the servant that had returned to her, Kouko, her expression unchanged, continued to look down upon Chinami. Between the high-heeled Kouko and the flat-sandaled Chinami, there was all of six inches of difference in height.

And so, after a little while,

"...Why?"

Her rose colored lips in a haughty queen-like smile, Kouko opened her mouth.

"Hm? You asked, 'Why?' "

Eyes round in puzzlement, Chinami asked back, "Eh?" Much like a squirrel, asking "Who's eaten the walnut I hid beneath the dead leaves?" ...that kind of feeling.

Irritated, Kouko's aura flickered. Her attending servant Banri understood.

"Though I don't expect to hear anything, I'm listening. I have an ooo-pen mind. I do! My humanity is noble, so while you admire my perfection, answer me quickly. Answer in two seconds. Twoo, oonnee,"

"Eh? Two seconds? Hm? 'Humanity'?"

"You're disqualified, dullard! Begone!"

Gruffly and jealously waving her hand, Kouko averted her face in irritation.

"Well then! We've got things to do!"

Chinami wasn't at all defeated. Slapping her stomach like a sea otter hitting a shellfish,

"You see, I wanted to hear about your schedules, Banri and Kaga-san."

On her smooth cheeks, dimples stood out clearly. Chinami smiled happily while Banri and Kouko looked at each other. Sparkling to the point you could almost hear it, those cheerful eyes frankly shone. For some reason or other, Banri and Kouko wordlessly exchanged glances. When their gazes met, he felt he heard a nod... he wanted to think it was his imagination.

"All I wanted to ask was, wouldn't you like to do a drinking party? I was thinking, let's invite you! Hey, look, didn't we talk about it before? We talked about having a party of people with two-syllable last names. Well, it would be called a gathering of people with two-syllable surnames for the time being. I was thinking I wanted to have a drinking party for just the first-years. I was the first to say something, so I'm the organizer. This week or next, wherever, I've planned for a budget of about 3000 yen. If there's any day that doesn't work because of part time jobs or whatever, we can adjust a bit too. What would be good for you two?"

"A drinking party!?"

Having heard such cheery talk, Banri of course,

"I'll go! Of course I'll go, whenever it is? Thanks for the invitation!"

In good spirits, he couldn't help but raise his hand. What's more, with that hand,

"Isn't that great, Kaga-san!"

Much too familiarly, he clapped his hand on the evil queen's shoulder. Kouko's temples twitched.

"...For now I hear you. ...What's with this?"

"Eh, saying 'what's with this' like that? Weren't you invited too! Speaking of which, isn't this the first time you've truly been invited to anything apart from a religion? Of course we're going to take part, you're moving forward positively in life! Oka-chan, Kaga-san has nothing on her schedule, she's basically free, so it's OK! Ah, and I've got spare time too! Cool!"

"Waah! That's great!", Chinami gave a little jump, taking Banri's hand in high spirits, "It's going to be fun~!"

"I, am, not, going."

At Kouko's eerily low utterance, the two of them stopped jumping around.

"I wouldn't go to such a thing. Frankly, I don't feel like getting mixed up with Oka Chinami, not even one micron. If I wanted to waste time like that, it'd be better for me to go dig a hole in the garden! And then, you know what I would do with that hole? I'd fill it up! As if it'd never been dug! I'd be busy! Digging up, filling in, digging up, filling in, digging up, digging up, filling in! Oh what a mess, really busy! Busy running around! That's about what my schedule looks like!"

She directed those last stinging words, somehow, at Banri too.

"Besides, that's right, I've got to go to the Student Affairs Office. By myself."

And then Kouko, giving a smile without heart, turned her back on Banri and Chinami and walked away, by herself.

"Ah, hold on, wait! You said we were going together!"

Banri, the sorrowful minion, ran after her back, confused.

But Kouko didn't wait for Banri. Her heels clacking unexpectedly loudly and quickly, in the crowd of students Banri lost sight of her back.

"...Huh?"

Looking around the area for a bit, Banri scratched his head. Was she angered by something insensitive he'd said? Did she hate him? He tried to run further after her, but by force of will he stopped himself.

Perhaps he had been too caught up in the moment, thinking they were somehow understanding each other. With the situation as it was, it looked like even running up to the Student Affairs, catching up with Kouko in her current state, probably wouldn't turn out well. Above all, for the time being certainly, his stubbornly running after her would be annoying.

Chinami followed along behind Banri too, looking around for Kouko the same way as they talked.

"Did Kouko-san get mad? Would it do any good to send her a text?"

"Yeah..."

She opened up her cell phone right then and there, but, changed her mind and stopped. She didn't want to annoy her in her impatience. As yet, it seemed to him that Kouko herself, the stubborn girl, did want to understand her feelings. For now, if they sent texts or called, they'd just be "dropped".

For now, he took a deep breath. He told himself, have patience, have patience. If she was a friend, then left alone for a bit, then once she'd calmed down she'd get back in touch. She should.

Without having called, Chinami faced Banri, took a little breath and spoke disappointedly.

"As for me, though I wanted even Kaga-san to come to the drinking party... It was no good, I guess."

"...Err, Oka-chan"

"Hmm?", her eyes blinking innocently, Chinami looked up at Banri. This was his chance, for sure. There were some things he wanted to ask her.

"Kaga-san has a bad attitude towards you. Well, though she's not a bad person, and for the time being I will stand up for her, could you not get angry or annoyed at that? Though I would think that if she talked like that all the time, she would lose out on invitations to parties."

"Does it seem like it?"

"No, but... hey, by chance, are you really so black-hearted after all? Do you have some sort of terrible plot under all this, trying to lure the girl you cannot stand? Into the deeps of the Oka-chan jungle to be entombed there, to be slurped up and swallowed by the dark Oka-ffleshia, chewing up and spitting out nothing but bones? Were you thinking something like that? Are you getting ready, opening up your petals as if licking your chops?"

Even though he could understand, Banri was stringing together rude words out of frustration, but,

"Wha, what the... what kind of creature am I?"

Making eyes truly innocent looking, but seeming a little worried, she bent her head to one side, looking doubtful. If she'd had big rabbit ears, standing up, their tips, perhaps, would be trembling.

"I am inviting her simply because I want to invite her!"

"Wait a sec~, already you've said, 'Eh? The flower below me? Am I a perverted carnivorous flower!? Hmph!', like that."

"I, I didn't say anything about any flower below... Really, I want to invite Kaga-san too. I find myself rather strongly captivated by her, you see. Whatever she says, whatever she does, I feel I want to watch. She has caught my interest. This, though it seems there are so many people out there. Besides, she's super~ Miss Beautiful."

"...Well, certainly. Super~, Miss Beautiful she is."

"Around our university, Kaga-san is the most beautiful person I've seen. My senpai in film studies, though she said she was last year's 'Miss Campus', ah, from now on she's nothing; Kaga-san is always prettier than her. She may have done well against the other universities' quasi-Misses, or in talent shows, or even working, but if you were to compare her to Kaga-san, though they'd spoken badly of her, she'd come off like some 'Jane Doe' with split ends and no fashion sense. It feels as she had spun a tall tale, as if she had gone off hunting for bear, dressed in a fur vest and carrying a hunting gun. Yes, she had to have made it up."

A 'Jane Doe' with split ends and no fashion sense... at those harsh words, Banri's breath burst out. Oka Chinami, saying such hard things, yet adorable, making a face as if she were appealing to him. Whether she was cunning, or interesting--- perhaps a girl with spunk suited Mitsuo, because he might have found such. As far as he was concerned, Chinami's latest remarks had lifted his opinion of her.

"The thing is, I like beautiful people. I mean, everybody likes those who are conspicuous. They positively cling to those who stand out, wanting to see what's the big deal. So when I happened to notice Kaga-san I unconsciously called out to her~ even though I understand why she could dislike me. I mean really, I suddenly wanted to hug her from behind, forcibly! Her surprised face would be so cute~, embarrassed like that, making her cry... and then, then... she would turn towards me! She would look up! Click! Just like that!? Would that be a crime!? But, hihi! She's cute~ for sure!"

"O, Oka-chan, Oka-chan...!"

"Hmm? Whaat?"

"They're opening up, those thick wet flower petals!"

In the end, the two of them wound up heading for Civil Law. Kouko didn't show up, she'd probably just gone home.

"Isn't it rather crowded? Aren't there any seats? Banri, can you see?"

"Yeah, it looks pretty bad."

Chinami wasn't tall enough to look through the glass window fit into the door. Banri looked inside, checking to see if there was space for so much as a grain of rice to fit into a seat.

He spotted Mitsuo, seated all the way in the middle.

"Oh, there's Yana-ssan."

"What's that? Was 'Yana' taking this class? How's he doing, is he paying attention?"

"Err, well..."

Mitsuo was carelessly resting his chin on his hand, his eyes half closed in boredom. His hair fell smoothly to his cheek, favoring the clean line of his jaw, even yawning the guy was handsome. While the girls seated nearby looked towards Mitsuo, they argued about something in whispers, squealing, secretly excited about something. They were probably saying things like 'That guy's no good', 'He's not good looking', and so on.

Doing it so as not to be noticed, Mitsuo pulled something slowly from his pocket. Pleased with himself, secretly smiling, he peeled off the paper and plopped in his mouth. That was---

"Oh...! He's chewing the gum he found earlier...!"

"Eeee..."