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Tada Banri was making dinner.
Right after you come through the door, on the left side. A corridor all of one tatami wide, the little kitchen was part of a multipurpose space.
By the sink and his poor excuse for a stove, a single burner portable unit, Banri stood there, by himself, hunched over, double-checking the flame with a serious look in his eyes.
Since he moved here, or rather as far as this Banri's concerned, since he was born, this was the first time he'd done any real cooking.
He'd never before played with anything more than eggs. Worse, nothing more than boiled. Once, saying to himself, "Shall I make something myself today?", he'd bought a side dish to warm up, boiling some pasta and putting on a ready-made sauce, but normally he just made boiled eggs.
I mean, this guy really likes boiled eggs. In the morning, he got out boiled eggs. At noon, the school cafeteria or boiled eggs. In the night, whether eating while mixed up in a drinking party somewhere, with something from the supermarket, something canned or with pasta, boiled eggs. Boiled eggs are all right with me too, but I never ate them to the extent this guy does.
You'd think that omelets or fried eggs might cross his mind as alternatives, but Banri hardly made such things. Right after moving to the capital, while his mother was still there, he tried once to make ham and eggs, but it didn't turn out well. He burned the whites in his brand new frying pan, and he couldn't stomach it.
In any case, this room's stove was bad.
Even though it was new, of recent design, an electric (not induction heated) single burner stove. If you didn't have anything else, you could install an ordinary gas-burning stove yourself. Though you wait and wait, this stove's heating power is such that the frying pan doesn't heat up enough, and the egg dropped inside simply sits there.
As for me, while curiously watching Banri cooking something other than boiled eggs, I was forced to move from the kitchen to the entranceway, seated on the familiar second-hand stool. It was one of the favorite things Banri had bought from a thift store shortly after moving here.
The arches of his lowered feet reached exactly to the footrest, at just the right height to feel stable. Kicking back, sticking the backs of his shoes into the stool, propping himself up with his elbows, his body fit it really and pleasantly snug. ...I'm doing this, though of course I don't have a body anymore, waiting and watching the shape of Banri, standing there, grabbing and poking at things with his chopsticks.
As a matter of fact, as for me, I still don't really like this room. There was a room we'd already inspected that I thought was good. At the time, I was frantically trying to whisper in his ear, "This is good! Take this place!", but of course he couldn't hear me. Well, I don't think he would be setting stock in commentaries heard from a ghost. But even if he were spooked by a poltergeist, would that change his mind from now on? If I felt like it, I might be able to make the furniture rattle... to do such a thing, of course, would only be a prank. Only one month after moving here, I'd move again, but the deposit and key fees are outrageous.
So--- one month. Since Banri became a student and started living alone in that room, little by little, one month, so to speak, the days have passed.
As far as an outsider could tell, the days were good.
Making friends, registering for classes, even joining clubs. Getting kidnapped by strange cults, getting stranded, even getting dumped by a girl, Banri was somehow peaceful. Living like this, he was doing well.
And now today, this evening. Banri ought to be celebrating (though quietly), welcoming this evening as "the first time cooking decently for himself".
The registration season passed by and the new students became simply first-years, the storm of new student welcoming parties ended and the chances to go out drinking got fewer, and soon he was even going to be tired of eating boiled eggs, so Banri was resolved to do this.
"Let's do some good cooking!", he said.
And then, "Let's send an e-mail to Kaga-san!", ... he said.
I think he's pathetic. But, he's cute. At least I think so. What Kaga Kouko thinks so far, that's not my problem.
Banri, finishing sending her an e-mail to the net, had decided to appeal to her heart through conversation.
"Where'd you go today?", "Sorry about today", "I went home too", "Let's go together to tomorrow's rehearsal!", and so on, the e-mails he'd continued sending since being left behind on the way to the student affairs office had so far all been ignored.
Continuing to send her e-mails one-sidedly, "Hey? How are you? You there? No?" and so on, even though there were no answers coming, was feeling awkward. Before long there wouldn't be more things to tell her about, nothing else came to mind, when it occurred to him: the results of his cooking. He would e-mail her a picture of his cooking. It was a technique common even on TalentBlog, so maybe it wouldn't look like he was a stalker.
Using pork he'd bought from the supermarket and bok choy sent to him from home, Banri was trying to make a simple shabu-shabu. The recipe had been given to him by telephone from his personal Mieko... his mother.
Slowly, taking his time, he added the bok choy and pre-sliced pork with absurd care. One month's time was transformed, gently filling the pot with both hands, carefully measuring the ingredients with a spoon while putting them in. Banri did according to what his mother told him, completely.
The kitchen timer sounded, and ready for the moment, he lifted the lid off the pot with both hands, steam lifting up the sweet smell of the bok choy. Saying, "...Horray! I did it!", Banri struck a gutsy pose, showing off for no-one but himself.
It looked like it turned out pretty good. This time, the timer on his rice cooker had gone off perfectly. Using a rice scoop just the way his mother taught him, he stirred the freshly cooked meal, happily filling his nice round rice bowl. Carrying the pot as it was to the little table, he put it down, a copy of TVBros doing duty as a pot stand.
He arranged the chopsticks, the ladle and the plate, set ponzu sauce at the ready, not forgetting the finishing garnish: a green onion. This was already the perfectly done "cooking".
Hey, I was a little surprised. Well done. No, really. Wasn't that rather well done? Without realizing it, I applauded Banri. I didn't expect to be heard, though I wanted to make it so. Getting down from the stool, I sat down also, opposite him at the table.
Banri tried to stick his chopsticks into the pot at once, but suddenly stopped. Still seated, he stretched out his arm, pulled his cell phone from its charger and slowly took a picture of the dining table. Yes, mustn't forget your purpose. But try to eat before it cools off.
Looking across the table at that cell-phone, I started to hide myself. Will the first person it's sent to be Tada Mieko? He had been able to prepare it with just the flavor of the Tada house. Though perhaps he was taking that into consideration. And then, with regards to Yanagisawa Mitsuo, to Yana-ssan he just said "No". Then Satou Takaya also, "No", ...wait!? What'd they call that guy? What kind of name for a guy was that? Continuing with Oka Chinami too, "No", with a barrage of little bird track symbols following after. Actually, what I saw there was a barrage of the heart marks that go with her.
And now, down to business. The most important e-mail he sent to it's destination: to Kaga Kouko.
'Dinner just now (three food marks). For today, the bok choy and pork hot pot challenge (flexing biceps mark). I tried to make our home's original recipe (sparkling star marks), a taste of home (smiley face!)'
He saw what he wrote, rewrote it, changing it again, changed his mind and rewrote it and changed that, but in the end returned to what he had written in the first place. Yeah, that was a good idea. And then he sent it.
Putting his cell-phone back, at last, Banri started eating from the pot. He said, "Thanks for the food", which though heard austerely only by myself and the television, the flavor was quite good, it seemed. Eating a mouthful, he grunted, greedily (and apparently happily) scooping up the cooked white rice. He found himself chasing his food, so to speak. In the time of boiled eggs, he’d never seen such energy.
"Ah... soo goood. ...Is that what it was? It tasted like our own home cooking..."
While Banri put his big mouth to work, he was muttering to himself a little sadly. Watching the warm steam rising from the pot, his chopsticks stopped moving for a bit.
Come to think of it, the whole year Banri was at home, the pot didn’t appear on the table, did it?
"...If it's true, then it seems I must've missed it. ...Maybe that's it..."
Was this guy getting used to living alone, or was he speaking to himself more lately? Or rather, ...no, Banri.
In fact, it was something a little difficult to say--- and, an e-mail was coming back from somebody on the cell-phone. His right hand still holding the chopsticks, with bad manners, Banri opened the cell-phone again. It was from mother,
'It's a recipe from CookPad! (♥) I haven't used them even once (sweat drop)'
Banri hung his head.
...What was with that? It wasn't any particular flavor of the Tada household? He felt sorry for all the effort he had just put into it.
* * *
"Wow, as usual, cheap!"
Buying the daily special at the lunch shop Linda showed them before, Banri was feeling true respect. According to the shop-keeper lady, today's main special was sukiyaki. A mouthful of hamburger cooked together with salad greens and miso, kinpira, even macaroni salad to the side, three dollars of desperate deflation. Where is the Japanese economy headed?
"Or rather, cheaper than that."
Pointing at the cup of Starbucks she had in her hand,
"A tall latte, five dollars. But isn't this nearly 400 calories?"
"Very nutritious", said Kouko, posing as if doing a toast, a self-satisfied look on her face, batting her long eyelashes. Already, she had the same silvery plastic bag of the daily lunch special in one hand.
Meeting up at the student hall entrance after second period, Banri together with Kouko headed for the local hall Omaken used for rehearsal. While passing people on the narrow sidewalk without a guardrail, they walked fearfully, one in front of the other.
Their way to and from the law school campus passed through this area: aging office buildings and exam cram schools, eateries crowded close together in rows, and at lunchtime, the narrow sidewalk overflowed with office workers and students all at once. The two lane road had fairly heavy traffic, what with people using it as a bypass for the main street, trucks and taxis flying through, and lots of on-street parking, it had been badly planned.
"It looks surprisingly fattening, milady."
Banri, turning to look at Kouko behind him, tried to strike up a friend-like banter. The spotless Kouko was not speaking as she cautiously rounded at a distance the garbage collected in front of a bar, and jumping over a puddle of stuff that looked like it had flowed out of a ramen shop, saying "Eww" as she followed closely behind Banri.
Yesterday, having been separated from Kouko the way he was after the awkwardness with Chinami, there was not even an e-mail in reply. Banri was very anxious about what might happen, but as it turned out, he had worried needlessly.
He didn't know if there were going to be any lingering problems.
As for Banri, he intended to revive himself, a little while after he e-mailed out the picture of the dinner he had cooked for himself. An e-mail arrived from Kouko, 'Sorry! I only just realized my cell-phone had been buried in my bag til now!' After that it was one message after another, "So it was", "Yep, it was", messaging back and forth as usual, who knows how many times? Things had stayed good today too. Banri and Kouko together as good friends, heading for the club meeting. The two of them went on with their relationship as friends as if nothing had happened.
Kouko pouted cutely at Banri looking back at her.
"From here on I'm going to dance like crazy, no problem! Or rather, me without latte, I could not live one day."
And so on she talked. Banri, "You've got to be kidding!", his finger pointing, kidding her back.
"Look at you now, exaggerating like that!"
"But it's the truth! It's an addiction. Since third year middle school, it's been something I drink every day. Rain, wind or sun, Tokyo, Hawaii or New York. Though I could always have healthy soy-latte or no-fat latte, today I'm lifting my normal ban. I've got to save up for Awa Odori, right? Wouldn't it look bad for me to be wobbling on the way? I'm storing away the calories firmly inside."
Smiling perfectly, Kaga Kouko would not look out of place doing the latest commercial for Starbucks.
And now, somehow, Kouko was really looking forward to taking on the Omaken meeting.
Her willingness showed even in today's outfit. She was wearing her deep brown hair up, her slim neck without a necklace. With only small diamond studs in her ears, and wearing old knee-length pants under her skirt, she was dressed simply, in jersey cloth that would be OK if she were to sweat. Though Kouko looked rather sporty, nevertheless she didn't look like she was planning to dance. Peeking out from her shoulder bag was a binder as if for a lecture, and she carried another paper bag. A folded T-shirt and something jersey-like could be seen there. Though the way she dressed only 'felt' sporty, it was enough for Banri.
"Is that so? You think you're going to lose weight dancing..."
C-3PO, frozen up with salt from sweat... if he said such things he would offend for sure, so of course, he didn't say it, but well, she was surely thinking about such things.
But, as if she had heard it perfectly clearly,
"Tada-kun, just now, you were thinking 'in spite of her hardly being able to dance', weren't you?"
Kouko looked at Banri's face sidelong while she walked quickly, passing him from behind. Her light-colored lip gloss glittered more beautifully than ever in the sunlight, and her impish smile shot Banri in the eyes.
"I, I wasn't thinking that! Really, I wasn't thinking that at all!"
"It's not a big deal, but just you watch. Because today I will redeem myself. Nobody's going to be calling me C-3PO anymore!"
Brimming with self-confidence, now Kouko turned towards Banri's face and spoke.
"You really could say that last time I could not dance well, that I was doing my own thing. And then I understood the reason."
"Ah, you didn't have a sense of the rhythm, did you? I wondered if I didn't have it either. And afterwards, my body was all stiff. That was awful, Kaga-san still young, yet so pitiful..."
"That's not right! It's because I had closed the doors to my heart that I had gotten into such a mess. Definitely... the 'me' of that day was, as it were, squashed flat in every way, scared by everything and shrinking back miserably from it all..."
Taking a gulp of her latte,
"...But, the 'me' of today is different from the 'me' of that day. I have been born anew. I will not go back to such a miserable state for a second time. The new Kaga Kouko, wide open to her feelings, moving forward towards a new challenge. Open to the music! Open to the rhythm too! Open even to be seen! In a word, I thought, in 'dance' that sort of awareness is important. The body doesn't matter; it should be the spirit of the dancer, her very soul. Don't you agree? The audience will remember being moved. Hey, isn't that so? You think so too, don't you? It is absolutely the truth!"
She watched Banri's face as she walked backwards. Proudly hugging the cup of latte to her chest, suddenly batting her long eyelashes, her wide eyes brightened so much as to swallow him up,
"And so, by that theory, I can surely dance already!"
Standing there, right in the middle of the way, she was an impressive nuisance. She really stood out. An office worker coming their way frowned, bothered by having to avoid Kouko, who was blocking the way.
"Have you got a problem...?"
Banri mumbled back, his head tilted to the side, but,
"It absolutely is! Well, still... there could be a problem, just one."
Kouko slowly twisted and bent, her leggings riding up so that Banri could see her calf.
Banri covered his mouth. It was his turn to shriek. It was a shocking sight. For a moment, he was going to faint, the plastic bag with lunch at risk of falling to the ground.
"What do you think of this? It hardly looks like it's healing from that day."
Whatever he thought,
"Tha, that wasn't a poisonous snake!?"
Yep, my foot. What's with that self-satisfied look on your face?
On Kouko's white calf, the aforementioned snake bite mark remained. Surprisingly, the distinct shapes of the teeth were still there. The wound was swollen and red, seemingly feverish, looking bad to the glance, and around it internal bleeding had afterwards painted ominous speckles of purple and yellow here and there. It was in a rather bad state. Hmm, Kouko looked down at her calf for herself, checking it out with a doubtful expression.
"...This looks rather like something drawn by Pucci... Do you know about him? Emilio Pucci?"
"No, I didn't know! I mean, isn't your leg going bad!? You really didn't go to the hospital!?"
"Oh yeah, but by the way! Yesterday's hot pot! That was reallly terrific! Tada-kun, an expert cook, I had no idea you had such a special skill! Sooo cool, I think!"
"Do such things as my hot pot matter!? Could you be more 'open' to heading for the hospital!? Because it's awful! That thing! Most of the time!"
"...In ~order to protect our love... heheehee~heheehee~..."
"Get a grip!"
Kouko quickly restored her leggings and hummed while they walked briskly. Walking despite her injury didn't seem to be a problem, but was this person really OK? Banri chased after her, confused.
Making Kouko promise that if it didn't subside she would go to the hospital the next day, they separated in front of the building's restrooms so they could change clothes.
For changing into, Banri had brought a pair of half-pants he normally used for sleeping, and his practically unused yellow T-shirt, which had been brought from home stuffed in a cardboard box.
Whether it was cheaply done, or it had been washed off by mistake, the design had flaked off entirely, and the present Banri had no idea what it might have said originally. Moreover, when he tried wearing it, the tag scratched the back of his neck, moving around just a little bit, but rubbing his skin painfully.
Because of that not thinking at all of whether he could dance, reluctantly, perhaps even embarrassed, he'd put it on inside out. In any case, the design having been worn off, if law students asked, then he'd say it was for emergency evacuation drills.
With a towel to dry his sweat hanging from his neck and his bag collected, he entered the rehearsal room and,
"Oh, a first year, just now arrived."
"Or rather, aren't you wearing your T-shirt inside out?"
"What? Just come out of the bath?"
With neither Kouko nor any other women yet visible, there were a number of older guys done changing, gathered and seated in front of mirrors affixed to the wall. Though Banri had only just entered, they noticed him and called out to him.
Banri quickly took off his shoes and came up into the old-fashioned room.
"Excuuuse me! My T-shirt's IS inside out! What's that about 'just come out of the bath'?"
He politely approached the circle of senior club members, careful with how he behaved. He still wasn't matching the names and faces at all, and in truth he was secretly nervous.
"Look here, that towel. Officially, hanging it from your neck like that is crude."
Putting his hand to his neck while giving Banri a friendly smile, the super-short-haired senpai reminded him in some respects of a monkey. Certainly so-and-so-sempai... these members of the Omaken somehow, nobody could call them zeroes, and these kind people seem to have carried their own share of the burdens. Their burly shoulders peeked randomly through absorbent T-shirts, and as Banri was answering with lines like "Is that so?", without thinking about it, he tried to conceal his pitiful shoulders with both hands.
"The towel goes here, like this. This is the Omaken 'style'.
So-and-so-senpai stood up and suddenly turned his back towards Banri. Folding up the towel so it was long and narrow, he stuffed it in his back pocket, making sure that fully half of it was dangling out.
If you tell him something is really cool, Banri will do it at once. He went all around the room, looking at what the senpai were doing, asking "How do I do that!?" The kind-hearted senpais nodded encouragingly at him, saying things like "There, there! That's good! You're looking good! That's the rhythm!" It was only their way of giving a lot of attention to this year's only freshman male, but though he hardly knew them he accepted it dutifully as their underclassman.
While Banri played the foolish junior-classman, he noticed what was on their feet.
"Are those sneakers? What kind are they?"
A pair of sneakers, looking like new, their laces still untied, were spread out on top of some paper.
"Yes, good thing you showed up. Do you wear these too?"
"There was a guy who wanted to buy these, and all of us were trying them out. But they're oddly small and narrow, and they don't fit anybody. If they fit you, he said you can have them for 5000 yen."
Banri looked over the sneakers once more, this time carefully, as something to be bought. Might the soles have been made thick enough to stand up to abuse?
"Sixty-five is it...? That's rather steep, I haven't got a part-time job yet... ah, but, these sure are cool."
"Aren't they? They're cool! They haven't been worn but once since they were bought, but even were they used, they might as well have been new. Besides, this is a popular model, shown in magazines. Wouldn't they usually be 20000 yen or more?"
Normally over 20000 yen... Banri took one of the sneakers in each hand, looking them over hard.
So light they felt as if they were floating in his hands, they were NewBalance running shoes.
With regards to footwear at the present time he had: the leather shoes he'd worn for the entrance ceremony, his favorite Jack Purcells he wore nearly every day, some sandals from a convenience store, and then of course his least favorite, some cheap, out of style, no-brand sneakers he wore on rainy days. Just those. As a male college freshman, he was about ready to have another pair of shoes. Besides, if he bought new shoes, what kind would he get for 2000 to 3000 yen? These might be good at 5000 yen.
"OK then. Well, give it a try!"
"I'm getting there."
Thinking "Something like Cinderella...", while the evil stepsisters, or rather, the nice upperclassmen watched attentively, Banri gingerly tried to insert one foot.
"How is it?"
"A little tight?"
He realized that from the tips of his toes to the heel, it fit good and snug.
"No... it looks like its OK for me. Will it be better on both feet?"
With one foot already set, he stepped lightly around the room. Though the laces weren't tied, nothing else seemed out of place, and it didn't seem like size was a problem. Crowding around Banri, uh... their eyes wide, there was quite a commotion amongst the guys. Was this kid somehow Cinderella...? Glass NBs fitting him perfectly, what is this kid...? This skinny, slump-shouldered, unpopular seeming youngster, with the apparently disposition to blemishes...? This kid's amazing...!
"Look, it fits perfectly! I'm Cinderella Boy! Wow, my foot is light!"
Putting on both shoes upon the paper, Banri could be seen jumping lightly around the place.
His feet accustomed to the heavy Jack Purcells, these modern, stylishly and lovingly crafted running shoes, they seemed as if he were wearing wings. Perhaps because he was on tatami mats, the firm souls felt comfortable under his feet. This is good. Absolutely good.
"I've decided! I'll buy them! I want 'em! At 5000 yen, I'll go for it! But who should I be paying?"
Just as Banri carefully stepped back to the spread-out paper, he saw the entrance door opening. Linda entered first, then some older girls, and then, done changing, Kouko came inside the room.
"Oh, you're just in time. Look here! This freshman's buying the shoes!"
Lifting her voice and turning towards them, it was Linda. Banri was a little bewildered. Since the shoes were for guys, he'd naturally thought the seller was a guy.
"These are Linda-senpai's shoes?"
"Yep, they are."
Wearing her usual long sleeve T-shirt under another T-shirt, plus knee-length nylon running pants, and for some reason barefoot, Linda, as always aloof from the world, came towards them in her easy way,
"Does it fit? It isn't too small?"
Like a shoe-store clerk she leaned over Banri's feet, as if she were double-checking his toes, pushing down on the shoes from above with her thumbs.
Swaying just below his eyes was Linda's straight, shiny hair. It smelled fresh. It was parted straight. The nape of her neck was slim. ...It was perhaps a little dangerous, seeing her like this from close by.
Moreover, something you don't see everyday: the tops of Linda's feet were unusually white, all the veins showing through light blue. Completely different from his own feet, they were incredibly beautiful. Obviously, if they were held gently, tenderly in one's mouth, sweet seeming, "...Ah, Linda-senpai's 'feet' were like candies, as they are, I want to eat them---", but putting things like that into words was a way to go straight to the inferno of the perverts.
"They, they're sorta OK..."
While answering without hesitation, Banri hurriedly averted his gaze.
What was he thinking all of a sudden? Idiot idiot idiot, you stupid idiot. Linda's feet are too beautiful, but that's no good. They really are pretty. Her fingers are long, her nails specially done, looking like pink tellin shells, even her smooth looking skin, if he were to touch it surely... ah enough already, really! You stinking fool! Since he'd put on that jersey, a strange and fatal transformation had befallen him!
He turned his head with all his might. And there was Kouko's face, suddenly, perfectly, completely before his eyes. Not knowing what he should do, his first impulse was to put on a joking face. Tilting her head to the side as if mystified, Kouko, dressed in a shocking pink jersey, was looking back at Banri's face. That perfectly prepared, white and beautiful face.
Ah, she's beautiful too... sorry. Maybe I really have some strange foot fetish...
Linda didn't even notice the perverted oinks sounding nearby and squatted down, grabbing hold of those distracting feet of hers,
"Hey, are they really OK? Up to a minute ago, just what size were they?"
She twisted his foot around and checked the size under the soles of the shoes.
A little rough with her hands, having bent his ankle like that, but she really was a gentle and good senpai. Banri finally having regained possession of himself, he automatically, in his heart, silently hung his head. For a junior to be thinking such things of this good person, about licking her feet and such, he ought to be excusing himself to the max. At the least. He ought to be doing some serious reflection. Really.
And, at that moment, on Linda's neck, below his eyes, he noticed something. It was a clothing tag. The long-sleeved T-shirt she wore inside had turned out little outwards, and from the neckline a tag could be seen.
So cute... even having thought that way, shouldn't he apologize?
While grinning like a scatterbrain who just got surprised, Banri tried to speak softly so that only Linda would hear.
"Linda-sempai. We match."
"Oh? How so?"
"Look here", Banri pointed at the tag sticking out from the neck of his own T-shirt's back side.
At that moment, it seemed, was when Linda first looked at what Banri was wearing. And then, her eyes widened.
As if beaten, her shoulders went stiff, and clearly her breathing had paused.
I wonder if she's realized her mistake, Banri thought. That sort of thing could really surprise you.
"Ah, I put mine on inside out on purpose though. For some reason, the tag scratches me something fierce."
Linda didn't say anything else.
"I'm kidding!", "Seriously!?", he said, confused and putting his hand to the back of his neck, his face going a little red perhaps--- she was not expecting a Banri like that at all. Linda, her eyes still wide, stood up without saying anything else. Like a person seen in a dream, or a hallucination, in some respects his behavior seemed bizarre.
And then, the height of her gaze hardly changed, she stared fixedly at Banri's face. Linda's face was frozen in place, her eyes still open wide.
'What kind of look is that?', Banri thought. Peeling the skin of his face to the flesh, through his eyes to his brain, seemingly so as to see through to his very thoughts. That look was like being examined under a powerful X-ray.
"...Eh? Uh, err, ...what're you doing?"
Bewildered, for an instant, Banri flinched.
What? What? What's going on...? Becoming agitated, he rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand.
Was Linda perhaps trying to see the real Banri she had known in this Banri she didn't know? If, if that was the case, ...his forehead suddenly broke out in a strange sweat.
But, why now all of a sudden? For what reason? Was there something I did? What the heck should I do? What should I do to fit into this place? My wish is for things to stay as they are. Banri the underclassman and Linda the upperclassman, because they said some nice things to each other, he wanted things to stay like that.
Linda kept on staring straight at Banri, who was keeping his mouth shut. She continued like that for several breaths.
And then, finally.
Finally, smiling as always, showing her teeth,
"Me too, on purpose."
Up to this point silent, gazing, now she laughed with a smile, as if it were all a joke.
Simply embarrassing a mere lowerclassman by giving him the evil eye. And she really had him going there. She'd deftly changed the atmosphere into such a joke. Involuntarily, Banri let out a sigh. He hadn't even noticed that he'd been holding his breath.
Ah, things are back to normal. Good---.
"It does scratch a bit, doesn't it? Mine does too. Since I wear something over it, I didn't think there'd be a problem with wearing it inside out. But for a guy to see it, I mean, having it pointed out can be embarrassing. Of course, I wonder if I ought to go change."
"No no! It's not embarrassing at all! You did it on purpose!"
Banri pointed challengingly to the inside-out, worn yellow T-shirt, hanging down in the space between the two of them, and his voice changed completely. Messing around, pretending to be a comedian, he held his index finger up while he puffed out his chest absurdly.
"Such a design this is! Linda-senpai's too, such a design! They match! A daringly stylish match! We're two of a kind!"
"What the!?", Linda blurted out, laughing softly.
Then seeming to have a hard time breathing she twisted, lowered her face, and looked away from Banri's eyes. Three seconds later she got up, swept her hair out of the way,
"Cool! I get it! Well then, it was by fate that we matched, and if those shoes are for Tada Banri, then I'll give them to him for free! In any case, it's only Banri, right? Sort of."
As usual, he was so relieved he was spouting foolishness. But suddenly there was gratitude as well, Banri lifting his voice in surprise.
"What was that we heard!?" "For free!?" "Isn't that favoritism!?" There was an uproar amongst the upperclassmen. "If it's free I want it.", "No, I want it for me.", "Auction it.", "I wouldn't make my little brother wear worn shoes." --- talking altogether like the French palace guards in 'Rose of Versailles' upon finding something had been completely sold out.
"No way, no, no, way. If you guys buy it, you'll pay me 5000 yen! Are you underclassmen? Cute, precious, one of only two first-years? This isn't about money. Right?"
With a smile, Linda tried to pique Banri's interest.
"Eh, eh, but, but, is it really OK!? Eh, really!? ...Is it really OK!?"
Taking the shoes off and hugging them to his chest, Banri was virtually jumping in delight, hardly able to restrain himself. Of course, it wouldn't do to be too presumptious, would it?
"It's OK, really. I caught a glimpse of them in the store, and they told me they were the very last pair. Even though they didn't have my size, I bought it in a hurry, on impulse. Then, as you might expect, it turned out to be too big for me. Even with the laces tied, my heels rattled around, and they didn't look good. I don't know anything about an auction and any such thing. Still, we're only spiffing up the little guy because he's always unfortunate, you see, but he wears them well. I'm telling you guys, this guy was born for these shoes!"
"Ah, then, I'll pay just half price! Please let me pay 25, even that would still be an incredible bargain!"
While Banri started looking through his stuff for his wallet, Linda took the shoes from Banri's hands.
"So, don't worry about it. Here, I said, let's give a really good present to the cute underclassman. And then he will worship these up-and-coming upperclassmen!"
The second part a joke, Linda laughed. Not looking like she intended to let Banri pay, she quickly gathered the wrappings from upon the tatami mat and repacked the shoes in their box. And then having deftly dropped it into a paper bag,
"Here. They're a present, Tada Banri. That they are good, they fit perfectly, they're good shoes and that you are happy to have good senpais, when you wear these again, remember!"
We, we really are classmates, aren't we?
Or rather, we, ...such things... no, let's stop.
Let's stop this.
I'd chosen to forget. I'd hoped things would stay 'as they are'. Had you not wished that not so long ago? With everything he had, Banri returned an underclassman-like smile.
"...Yes! Thank you very much! I'm happy! I will absolutely take care of them!"
As if he couldn't quite get some words out, he hung his head. And then playing the fool, he suddenly turned on one foot.
With a happy-looking face holding the paper bag up as if it were something sacred, wearing the grin of a fool and walking like one,
"Wow! I've been given shoes! Yay!"
Pointing at the paper bag for Kouko while showing it to her proudly.
"They're NewBalance, gray and super cool guy! I'm incredibly happy! I'm happy!"
Making as if he were hugging them and twisting his body, to the point of shaking his hips, Banri had every intention of showing his delight 1000 percent, over and over again.
Kouko wasn't laughing, nor anything else.
Her white, perfectly made up face was stiff. At once, Banri thought, "Eh, is there something awfully dirty stuck to my teeth?" Or, is my zipper open, a jungle snake aiming at Kaga-san? No, isn't that impossible with running pants?
What on earth? Gazing fixedly into Banri's eyes as if puzzled, Kouko brought her face close to him. Then, she lowered her voice to a whisper so the others wouldn't be able to hear.
"Was that mere chance...?"
Gazing steadily back at the foolishly behaving Banri without averting her eyes, Kouko quietly closed her mouth for a little bit. As if she were about to nod off, her long eyelashes cast shadows, making highlights deeper than black mascara. And then, like that, a smile came to her face and once more, with a little more volume, she asked him a short question.
"...Did something happen between you and Linda-senpai...?"
His voice was intended to be boundlessly cheerful, but unexpectedly, a bit of irritation got mixed in. As if he'd been plainly attacked, he was not entirely in control of himself.
What on earth was Kouko worried about? When she doesn't even know anything about the situation. When she doesn't know anything about Linda nor Banri. And where in this self, where in the world, is the part she wants to worry about, so to speak? Or is there? When I haven't even told close friends nor anybody, you want me to explain it all to you, is that what you want me to tell you?
Almost, almost you--- taking a breath, ready to open his mouth and tell Kouko something he didn't know for himself,
"Well then! Let's eat lunch, and then start the rehearsal!"
One of the senpais clapped his hands together loudly, raising his voice. "Yes!", "Hey!", from here and there voices returned in answer.
Banri came back to himself.
Before his eyes was Kouko.
The girl to whom he had even confessed his love. Even now, he thought regretfully, his companion. Prettier than anyone else, awkward, but truly a gentle woman.
In complete desperation, he too yelled back "Yo!" with the breath he had been holding. So that nothing else could happen, he pulled himself together, got himself moving, and distributed the sitting cushions like a good underclassman.
Kouko was still looking at Banri like she wanted to say something, but at that moment,
"Yo! Shall we do Awa Odori!?"
Several men and women in suits that he'd not seen before pushed open the door without warning and came inside. It appeared that fourth-year senpais were popping in after a long absence, with everybody but Banri and Kouko raising delighted-sounding voices, running over to welcome them.
"Hurray, senpaai! Very long time no see!”
"How goes the job hunt!? Have you already decided on anything!?"
"You fools, the real thing is yet to come! Of course nobody's got a tentative offer yet! It's tough, being prepared and all, and you guys will be out there before long too!"
Gasp! Their shrieks echoed in the small rehearsal hall. But at once even that turned to laughter, the clamor of conversation swallowing it up.
"Oh yeah, oh yeah, senpai, we've finally had some first-years join! Yo, Tada, Kaga-chan, get over here!"
Being called over to the one senpai like a pet dog, Banri and Kouko were roughly pushed in the back, not waiting for them to answer. They were brought before the fourth-years.
Linda pointed at the two of them with her thumb,
"Look here, these are the kids that got into trouble. The kids we found while at training camp. We told you about them, the ones entangled in that strange church..."
"Ahhh! Those kids!", the suited senpais nodded, seeming interested. For some reason extremely self-conscious, Banri and Kouko managed weak smiles and said, "Ahaha...haa...that's so...", while hardly able to exchange a small glance amongst themselves. It was as if the conspicuous fools they had been yesterday were brought vividly back to life. One of the senpais elbowed another, and while they looked at Kouko they chatted, "Really pretty really pretty really pretty", "A first for Omaken" and so on, whispering intensely. But it was all quite audible.
Linda brought her mouth close to them,
"Tada Banri and Kouko-chan, these guys are the fourth-year senpais, and this is the former president, Hosshii-san."
...There it was, that 'so-and-so-sshii' pattern. Was Kouko thinking the same thing? Even Banri could see her eyebrows raised slightly.
"And behind him are just regular senpais. They are currently scratching around, trying to find their jobs."
They cried back, "What's with 'regular senpais'!?", "That's awful!" Linda simply smiled sidelong.
"I mean, really, work hard, make yourselves a company and then hire all the Omaken juniors automatically, please. Or rather, I mean, did you bring us souvenirs? Treats?"
"Treats, yummies, mamaa, papaa", everybody teased the fourth-years.
Banri got into it too, and took part, and tried to draw nearer to one of the unknown guys in suits. Kouko too caught the spirit, and reached out tentatively, taking part for the moment.
"Noisy buggers, keep your hands off! As for treats, they're over here!"
The former president, the tall so-and-so-sshii that had been introduced, set a cardboard box he'd brought under his arm on top of the tatami mat with a thud. With a 'whoa!', the active Omaken members leaped at the box like a bunch of starving hyenas. With the mess they were making, was it snack food, or what?
Energetically tearing off the paper packing tape, somebody opened up the cardboard box. And then, everybody able to see inside at the same time, the clamor transformed into vague confusion. All at once the voltage dropped. One self-satisfied face,
"It had to be, absolutely. Even on time for rehearsal. It's for Awa Odori."
The former president. The other fourth-years looked around, holding in their laughter.
Each of them looked at what they had in their hands,
"...Though we really need them..."
Having gotten their hopes up that maybe everybody would get donuts from Mr. Donut or Krispy Kreme, or chicken from MOS Burger or Family-mart, or maybe manju buns with meat filling, or ice cream, or even something to drink, their hopes were dashed.
Banri too felt defeated, gazing at them solemnly, reflecting on his disappointment along with the senpais. There had been stuffed into that cardboard box fans for everybody in the group. For whatever on earth sense it made, on the one side was "YES", on the other was "NO"--- They were Yes/No fans, so to speak.
"Hey, show a little more gratitude, the fourth years all made these specially for you. Aren't they the real thing? They're my own design! Anyway, use them when you practice for the performance. Nah, look, look, smile! Shout! Shouldn't you be glad!?"
Everybody showed the "NO" side towards the former president. They were convenient, for sure.
"Wh, what the... such awful-looking lower-classmen you are! Man... even if I don't go nor cannot go to the employment agency again, my feelings have been hurt! Am I without a job offer, unpopular, without friends? Are you suggesting that I am becoming an insignificant bum without job nor prospects!? Waahhh!"
Watching the former president grieving amongst them, for various reasons, the NO sides facing him making him so pitiful, Banri lowered his fan. It looked like everybody else felt the same way.
...Well, as you might expect, there wasn't any more criticism... they had been about to weaken, as if they were exposed to a bitter headwind... or rather, they saw the shape of their own future... that sort of atmosphere was hanging over the rehearsal hall.
One of the senpais, leaning importantly against the wall, lifted up a cloth sack.
Removing the bag, a beautifully polished little musical instrument, a kane bell, was revealed to view. Of elegant silver, attached to a long handle, it was shaped like a little frying pan .
The senpai, holding it, with one hand serving as drumstick, 'Ko Ko Kon!', rapped on it as if to test it. There was a sharp, piercing sound. Surprised, everybody looked over that way.
And then, they took a breath.
The rhythm started slowly, the rhythm of Awa Odori.
Well, it was a festival.
"Whoa... something good, the feeling from that!"
"Ah! The dance, it makes me long for summer!"
Even the suited senpais, suddenly looked over towards the instruments, their eyes gleaming. It seemed that the festival-going blood in them, fostered by the Omaken activities, had been roused.
While ringing the bell, the guy doing the ringing made eye contact with Linda. Excitedly, he also spoke quickly. Linda smiled and nodded quickly, pulling from her pocket a white object. Then it dawned on Banri why she had been barefoot. Crouching down, she quickly put on tabi socks, and standing with her heels still exposed,
"We still haven't started the practice, though today we will just be stretching still, for the moment with this feeling. We'll be borrowing a taiko drum starting with the next practice... one, two,"
With her fingertips, she took hold of the fan by its bamboo roots.
Whoosh, with her heart in it, the tips of their toes pushed into the tatami floor.
Her knees lightly lifting up, she danced flutteringly, like a butterfly.
Banri was captivated by that surpassingly brilliant dance. Though she was wearing a short T-shirt and track pants, dancing, she became a dazzling flower. From the sudden turns, her arms stretching out, and her feet springing up, the tatami mat rang.
"How's this?", tilting her chin upwards slightly, as if trying a pose, her gaze glamourous. "Yo!", the fourth-years cheered her on, their sharp whistles slicing the air.
Linda was not the least bit shy. Neither was she embarrassed. Still, she was the only one dancing and having fun, and even on this side I'm beginning to get upset from only watching. Even Banri was slowly getting impatient. I wanna go, me too, he was thinking. Before long, even the other members ran out of patience, and taking their fan's handles pressed them to the side of their jerseys, near the back, and then while lifting them one-handedly like Linda, they slowly began to take on the Awa Odori style.
Banri stepped out on the tatami mat too, on his toes. At first a bit carefully, gingerly alternating his gait, he dropped his hips into the men's dance. With the knees flexed. All the time, as if he was floating. Isn't it strange? Isn't it funny? Doesn't it get to be embarrassing? Briefly looking at the mirror, he discovered that he had slipped into the group, dancing like the others. Moving a little humorously, but truth be told, making rather good use of his entire body, the dance was quick and dynamic, more so than the popular image of it. He fit into the swaying group too, blushing red as a beet. If the Banri inside the mirror were to notice, he would laugh out of control. Himself, and everybody else, was smiling, breathing to the rhythm, quite pleasantly, as they were beginning to entrust the speed of their bodies to the musical instruments.
The rhythm light, but quick, Banri too moved both hands naturally back and forth. He danced it easily. Freely through the air, jumping to the splinters of sound, his fingertips moved flutteringly as if they were swimming. Strangely having fun, his head was going blank, aah, but, his footsteps were always too restricted. His hip joints were stiff. Looking in the mirror, his own image was not 'floating' that much. He was stomping too much... a little softer... more dynamic... besides, if everybody were to move together... piling on the practice, would they not be able to get a better feel for it?
Even the senpais in suits, lined up and standing around the door, were nodding to the beat and setting the heavy-looking bag on the floor by their feet. While watching the moving forms of the underclassmen, they started to clap their hands.
And then, finally, Kouko started moving.
Gasping in surprise, Banri looked over towards Kouko without thinking. Kouko, for quite a while in the corner, beating time, seeming to be having fun, now at last, holding a fan in her white hand, she was beginning to tilt her head back and forth. Somehow or other, it felt like she was coming alive. Finally, with an open feeling, was the soul of the dancer coming out? The other members, apart from Banri, seemed to notice Kouko, their glances starting to turn her way.
Kouko, her eyes half closed, her hips lowered, soon lifted both hands high.
Crack! Flash! A flash of gold shone from her.
* * *
"Tada-kun, you're awful...!"
"...That wasn't really my intention..."
"Tada-kun laughed and left me to take the blame...!"
"...Not so. But, really, I'm sorry..."
Fully two hours of practice over with, on the way out to the street.
Done changing, the upperclassmen having returned the key to the counter, there was the sound of many footsteps and all of them saying things like "See ya!", "Are you guys going to play mahjongg again?", "I'm beat!", "Are you going to the Criminal Procedure Code lecture?" and so on while they split up, heading off to the station, the campus and other places. Linda was making as if to go with other upperclassmen to the station also, but while still standing in the middle of the road she spotted the pair of freshmen and walked back towards them. Deliberately.
"Well then, Tada Banri and Kouko-chan, until the next practice, OK?"
With an wonderfully kind, benevolent smile,
"I mean, well, after all, since somebody's always hanging around the lobby, if you two show up there now and then, try and double-check the schedule! For the time being, the table in front of the bulletin board and to the side is where the Omaken tend to gather. That is, well, you see..., er, um, that... I really am tired. But that's entirely OK!"
She clapped Kouko on the shoulder. Wordlessly, Kouko looked at the shoulder that was struck.
The other upperclassmen saw what was happening too, and of course as one the group, with kindly-to-the-max smiles, said "Really, really.", "Always, always.", "It's OK, it's OK.", as if they were chanting, while they waved for them to come over.
"That, leg, well, there's nothing that can be done about it. Yes, oh yeah! The snake, it was bad!"
With an expression rather like a combat cameraman, Linda gently encouraged Kouko, in the end grabbing the shoulder she had clapped before once more, firmly, patting her twice on the back softly as if to finish cheering her up, and then went on towards the station, heading out into the chaotic street.
"We... well then..."
He muttered, completely in a daze. Kouko looked over at his face.
A curl of her bangs flipped over to the tip of her nose, and her lip gloss had melted off, her dried lips part-way open. From mascara melting, the area around her eyes was dyed black, and in those eyes were the words, "What Was That?"
That sorrowful face was well below the standards of Kaga Kouko, the perfect Queen of Roses.
Gasping involuntarily, Banri spoke.
"Look, about the snake... I didn't say anything to Linda-senpai, nor to the other senpais..."
With a dry, crackling sound... the skin of Kouko's face was losing color even faster.
Saying that mind over matter is not enough, one who cannot dance, cannot dance, the facts were finally hitting home, and the flame of Kouko's life was guttering out.
---At first, she was giving off a rather subdued aura.
Invited by Linda into the maelstrom of dancing, Kouko came right in naturally, Banri thought. "Isn't this life?", she'd asked. Saying this and that, "Aren't I a woman of my word?", she'd said. "I am looking ahead! I am open! I can dance!" ...Since she'd gone so far as to declare magnificently, "I can dance!", then perhaps Kouko really would become able to dance. So he thought. To the extent that her sorry, untrained state had been exposed for all to see last time, the only problem (as she said) was in her head. She said that the new Kaga Kouko had overcome all of that, and had become a person able to dance.
But, unfortunately, that he'd thought so was really only the beginning.
Had Kouko done well for only about two seconds or so?
Taking the position, her long slim arm outstretched, she was certainly doing well until she held out her fan. She did extremely well in stepping out, on tiptoes, with one foot onto the tatami mat. Lightly turning her slender body, supple like a willow reed, with downcast eyes pretty like flowers, everyone gasped together, Banri too. It was like that for two seconds.
It was after that.
Falling into the beat of the instruments, raising both her arms, standing on tiptoe, swinging her partway bent-over body, changing her gait, Kouko all of a sudden had become rather 'interesting'.
The underside of her arms still raised, her chest went rigid. Her shoulders stiffened and stopped moving. Her elbows were still held out at right angles. Her spine was as if plaster had been stuffed into it. The upper half of her body swayed back and forth in a courageous effort, but the other half was resisting, continuing to shake like a roughly grade three earthquake. Her hips, joints and knees were entirely inflexible, everything setting into hard angles. It was awful.
Even before she noticed the gazes around her, it looked like even she was thinking, "Huh?" Huh? For some reason her own appearance...? Opening her eyes round and wide, Kouko was trying to look at herself, her face tilted downward. Still, it was that expression. Those angles.
There she was, 'that' again.
Snorting, Banri was forced to lower his face and hide his expression. He could not laugh--- And not just Banri, all the rest of the Omaken must have been thinking the same. If he burst into laughter here, he'd hurt Kouko after all the effort she made to come back. So, he'd pretend not to know for now, ah but... no, he couldn't. ...But... they were just too much alike...
Before long, there was a disturbance, the fourth-year senpais talking in low voices. They were saying things like "What does that remind me of...", "What was it, it's right on the tip of my tongue..." and "I know that...!" They could be each seen tilting their heads, holding their foreheads, and looking over at the twitchily moving Kouko, and then saying more: "Ah, that fellow, he's here, isn't he..." and "...Who was it...?"
Even Kouko was starting to notice it. Seeing her own ridiculous body in the mirror, fluttering uneasily, and seeing the suited senpais with their heads tilted to the side, her brows furrowed, apparently in distress. As if searching for help, she looked towards her best friend Banri.
Just what the heck was the right thing to do in that place, just what Kouko wanted him to do, Banri as yet had no idea.
But, already, he could not undo what had been done.
What do I do? His mind going blank in desperation, Banri rushed over to Kouko's side. And then, making a circle from his thumb and his other fingers, he mimed making his torso turn around. Needless to say, he was her buddy, R2-D2. Quite unintentionally, he had given the fourth-years a hint.
As a result, the fourth-years clapped their hands happily and said, "Ah! From Star Wars...!" The rest of the senpais, unable to take it anymore, stopped dancing and, here and there started breaking into laughter. But Banri somehow kept his cool. Or rather, pierced by Kouko's gaze towards him, he couldn't possibly laugh.
The fourth-years, not knowing the details of what was going on to this point, with a burst of laughter took off their suit-coats, surrounded Kouko and started to coach her, saying things like, "Ahhahha! This kid is useless!", "Look here, what's this!", "Don't you have any sense of rhythm!?", "Straighten up your back some more!", "It should be like this.", "Like this, don't you think?" and so on. Though they had definitely never done Awa Odori before, the fact was that they, who had only watched for a few minutes, looked overwhelmingly better than Kouko.
Before long Kouko stopped dancing, and suddenly holding her stomach, she groaned and sat down on the tatami floor. The other club members gathering around and asking what was happening, what was going on, she looked up sharply, with teary eyes, and said just one thing:
'I can't dance anymore, my legs are hurting already!'
Amongst the silent accusations of "It can't be your stomach!" flying about, she raised the cuff of her running pants, suddenly showing to all around the speckled pattern of her bruises. Linda screamed especially loudly, covering her mouth, taken aback. Banri reflexively took over, backing up Kouko. That's what it was! Her not being able to dance was because of her snake-bite! Look, that wound must be awful!
---And so, Kouko was able to introduce herself to all the members of the Omaken, and at the same time tell the tale of the battle against the snake.
"This is no good! No good at all! Not only am I completely embarrassed, but Tada-kun has betrayed me!"
"For that reason, I say sorry sorry, sorry... but what was I supposed to do to back you up?"
"At least, if we're friends then don't make me the punch-line! What, what's with this...!"
Kouko showed how R2-D2 moved about (that by itself was rather cute),
"Don't give me 'Wiii wiii'! Haven't we gotten to be friends!?"
Glaring at Banri, slowly but surely tears began to well up in the corners of her eyes. Her soft lips trembling, Banri panicked,
"We're friends! Really good friends! Look, look, Sex and the City!"
Taking Kouko firmly by the shoulder, he tried to walk daintily on his toes, with deep strides. He acted it out as much as he could, flapping his other arm around,
At Kouko's angry shout, the other students-like guys could be heard arguing amongst themselves, "Is it a fight?", "Something incredible's going on." and so on.
Gulping once, Kouko waited until they went away.
"...Enough, stop it...!"
She glared at Banri even more strongly. Her eyes were already bright red.
"But, ...you only wanted to try harder in going forward...!"
Before his eyes, groaning as if wrung out, her temples, head, throat . . . all the way to her chest, she flushed bright red all at once. And then,
"But I thought I was 'able to change'...! I should have been able to get good at it... and yet why, why did this happen again...!"
From beneath her tightly closed eyelashes, at last large teardrops started rolling out. At three in the afternoon, with all the proper office workers and people from the surrounding areas coming downtown, there weren't many people they might know from their same school walking around the place. All the same, even Banri was losing his composure, desperately peeking towards Kouko's face.
"That kind of thing, hold on... it's nothing to cry about, is it...?"
While crying aloud like a child, Kouko,
Her feelings had changed suddenly from rage to "sowwy". Catching hold of Banri's outstretched arm, she leaned against him. Her hands were warm and damp, like a baby's. Hiding her reddened, tear-stained face, she argued insistently in a whining voice.
"Sowwy, even though I unnerstan', and a guy's aroun'..."
Unable to hug her or do anything like that, of course, keeping his arm extended stiffly as support, Banri held Kouko up. While casually doing so, he guided her to a place amongst the bushes by the sidewalk. Like a drowning person desperately grabbing a piece of wood, Kouko stood with Banri's arm for support.
“We’ve beeng going aroud as fwends, I dow, I dow... you’re making fwends with a widdle kid...”
We go together to the school club, we eat lunch together, we dance together, you even listen to my problems. You send me e-mails. You worry about many things for me. Tada-kun has been a friend for me. I know that. But I’m acting like a spoiled brat, being a bother. Even Tada-kun must have been shocked--- Kouko said these things in a quavering voice while rubbing her face with the back of her hand like a child.
Because they were friends, he ought to be putting his arm around the slender shoulders of the trembling woman, and brushing away the hair clinging to her wet cheeks with his finger, but he did not. He could not. In an unnatural stance, his arms stiffly raised, Banri patiently waited for Kouko to raise her face.
“...There there there, look, for now, cheer up! It isn’t something to cry over. It’s something to laugh about. I mean, it was only because I did those strange things that the mood turned out the way it did. And you’ll be fine if you try hard at the next practice. Right?”
Still behaving like a spoiled little girl, Kouko was hanging her head. As it was, her face was lowered so much, it was as if she’d gone all the way to Brazil.
"Oh, oh yeah, why don't we go to Starbucks!? Don't you like Starbucks!? Let's go! If we're friends, then going to Starbucks afterwards ought to be natural!"
"...I already had some earlier..."
Some seconds passed, and she muttered softly, but Kouko finally, slowly, raised her head. Rubbing her reddened nose,
"...But, if Tada-kun wants to drink Starbucks, I'll go with him anytime! We're friends, after all."
Her dry lips lighting up with the three syllables, "Fi-nal-ly!", and giving an embarrassed smile, Kouko rubbed her sticky face with her fingertips. Laughing at the state she was in, and looking like she was trying to clean herself up, she shrugged her shoulders.
To put it mildly, she was a mess.
Her hair as messy as could be, her makeup running, and her nose was all red. If her customary good looks were 100, then earlier she was at 61, and now she had fallen to about 46.
However, more than any moment up to now, more than any time he'd seen any face of Kaga Kouko, his chest tightened. Not pretending at all, he smiled back at her with all he had.
If they were truly friends, then the pain didn't matter.
Banri insisted on treating Kouko, Kouko insisted on treating Banri, and in the end Kouko bought Banri's share, and Banri bought Kouko's share, meaning it didn't make much sense when eventually they paid.
For the time being, could he do something for Kouko's sake?
"Aren't you incredible!?"
"A latte, with a shot of espresso, vanilla syrup, whipped cream, caramel sauce and chocolate sauce. In a Grande. And you, Tada-kun?"
"For me, a normal Starbucks latte."
Each of them holding their trays carefully in both hands, they sat down, lined up at the counter seats facing outwards, looking out on the street.
While gazing at the people going to and fro, the two of them sighed reflexively. Both of them hearing this, with the same timing, mirror images of each other, they exchanged glances.
"...I'm really sorry for what happened earlier. Crying like that, I was ridiculous, wasn't I?"
It was the smiling Kouko from before.
The area around her eyes was still puffy and red. Her mascara had run, casting a shadow on her cheeks from her white eyelids and long, delicate eyelashes. And then, casting her profile suddenly downwards,
"I was a bit... over the top. Perhaps."
Kouko said that under her breath, embarrassed.
"Yeah, it rather felt like that."
Carefully sipping his hot coffee latte, Banri continued waiting on Kouko's words.
And, he realized. Seated next to her like this, he might perhaps be able to start talking with her in a normal way, easily.
Playing with her earrings with the tips of her beige fingernails, Kouko scooped only the tip of the whipped cream with her spoon, sticking her tongue out like a cat to taste it. Mixing the chocolate and caramel sauce a little to a marbled state, she took a slightly larger mouthful.
"...I was awfully, impatient."
She licked her lips and turned towards Banri. Once more, he was surprised by how big her eyes seemed from close by. Through the transparent surface of her eyes, they were brown. Now trembling and forlorn, they shone with a gentle light.
"Even I understand I am making a mess of things. Nowadays I, somehow, really, cannot help it. I think it's dangerous. ...I mean, from the beginning, I've been aware of how easy it was for me to make a mess of things. In a word, I,"
It's hard to to rescue somebody from their foolishness... from their impatience... He nodded to the words that followed, whether they were good or not.
"I wanted to settle many matters once and for all. Stubbornly, I wouldn't let go of my failures in the past. I thought to make it all new, starting right away."
"By those, 'failures in the past', you're referring, of course, to Yana-ssan?"
Kouko looked away.
"Yes. ...That's it. That, is the big one! The biggest. Of course it is! ...However I might excuse myself, I won't do that in front of you. That's right! I wanted to put my feelings about Mitsuo perfectly in order. It's not like I have any regrets."
Urk. He knew that at moments like this, his heart could come to sound like that.
"I simply have no hopes as to what might happen now. That is the truth. Still... I still don't know for sure. In some ways, it's as if I were paralyzed: Though I have clearly been rejected, somehow... it all feels like a living dream."
Speaking of somebody somewhere else, and things like that, Kouko held her huge cup in her delicate hands, quietly tasting it. However, plenty of cream had stuck to her nose and to her upper lip, and when he saw it, without thinking, Banri burst out laughing. No matter how seriously she spoke, this person was rather undecided. That was a good place to be.
"...Oh, no... Something's wrong."
Kouko, pulling her mirror out of a pouch of her bag, opened it and peered at her face.
In the silvery surface, a Swarovski rose had been drawn on the faba-bean shaped mirror. In Kouko's white hand, it looked really pretty, and suited her.
When Banri pulled out the matching mirror from his back pocket and showed her, Kouko, whipped cream still stuck to the tip of her nose, laughed sneezingly like a child.
"Tada-kun, are you using it for my sake?"
"Of course. Aren't the mirrors a friendship pair?"
"I'm glad. Very much so."
That Sunday at Veloce, Kouko said so. She'd said, 'These belong to the survivors.'
The time Banri and Kouko were rescued from the training camp of that new religion, Kouko had packed virtually all of her cosmetics into her luggage. However, this one mirror escaped in her pocket, she said. And then as far as Kouko was concerned, she felt it was a symbol of her bond with Banri.
Therefore Kouko, to become better friends with Banri, made him a present: the same, matching mirror. Hearing that and understanding that he was to receive it, Banri borrowed a magic marker from a store clerk, and Kouko wrote on it. 'Remember the anniversary of our escape', it said. It wasn't any kind of consolation prize, in remembrance of unrequited love. So it was clearly stated.
While wondering again at this mirror, Banri handled it carefully, even if it wasn't appropriate for him.
Wiping her nose and mouth with pale brown paper, Kouko conquered some of the fresh whipped cream with her spoon.
"So, I said this and that thing, but in reality, it wasn't 'this'. So anyway... mm! This chocolate is just about the best... anyway, as for me, in this life, I was just able to pretend I had adjusted to it. Or rather, I had convinced myself that I was able to. Relieved, refreshed, starting to move forward in a new life, I was such a woman. I even thought so. ...So I told myself I'd become. I believed that I could do it. But from believing it too much, I eventually understood that I could not do it quite so easily. I was still not all that successful in changing myself, finding in me the remnants of that disgraceful C-3PO, somehow awful... you could say it was a shock. It was disappointing..."
"Sure seems like it", said Banri, his hand supporting his cheek, blending his sigh with Kouko's, who was also in the same attitude, cheek in hand. His left hand supported the left side of his chin, and his legs were crossed, left foot on top.
"Because after all, idealism by itself will not suddenly make you a dancer. In the worst case, even if you are truly a woman refreshed and relieved, moving forward in life, even so you might have nothing to do with Awa Odori."
"I was given proof of that today."
Kouko suddenly stood up, her high-heels clicking. She went and came back with a plastic spoon. She handed it over to Banri, saying "Here."
"This whipped cream is about the best in the world. Let's both have it."
Let us lick up this sweet whipped cream together.
For some reason, he hesitated. But answering with unusual restraint, realizing the humor, taking her at her word, Banri scooped up a mouthful of Kouko's whipped cream. He held it in his mouth, sweetly thick, melting.
"How about it? Isn't it the best!?"
"Yes, really... super sweet. Melts in your mouth."
"Even melting it's good! Doesn't it feel like 'I live for this'!?"
"Haven't you already bought stock in Starbucks?"
"Aah! I'd even buy it all! The wonder is I haven't done it already!"
She meant, "Sharing like this is the most fun!" If you looked into Kouko's face, you realized what she was thinking at once. She continued to stare intensely, even whimsically, from beginning to end as Banri reached the spoon out to his own cup and tasted the whipped cream. She seemed completely happy, her beautiful eyes sparkling.
"...You understand just how entirely useless I am. Even that uselessness you forgive me. Thank you. Besides behaving like a brat, just now I cried. Once again, excuse me. It seems every day I am an emotional disaster by your side..."
Seeming suddenly surprised by that word, Banri looked back at Kouko. Kouko blinked as if in surprise from his expression,
"Eh? But... it's a mess, isn't it? But look, those... your memories... they aren't..."
Mumbling, he avoided the issue. He tried to lower his head as if it hurt. Geh, Banri frowned.
"No, or rather, no way. There is really no way!"
It was no joke. Just being pitied like this was meaningless. Lowering his spoon into his latte, he spoke distinctly. Although he didn't want to speak, he had to speak this once so she would know.
"Because it's not a big deal. Because I live like anyone else. Though I cannot say that there isn't anything that worries me, but normally I am not even aware of the memory loss, and it's not really a problem for me, and more than anything else, I want to be so. So, could you stop acting like you're nursing somebody pitiful and sick...!"
"But I didn't mean anything like that...! But, OK. Sure. I understand. If you say so, I won't say anything more. ...I swear by Starbucks."
As if taking an oath, Kouko placed her right hand on her cup, and lifted her left hand. OK then, watching that, Banri took a manly gulp of his slightly cooled latte. That he'd managed to not poke his face with the handle of his spoon, he didn't even realize. But,
"That reminds me, was there something between you and Linda-senpai?"
A snort escaped his nose.
"During practice, the two of you were acting a bit strange."
Stuck in such a critical place, the incredible Kaga Kouko--- the muscles of her neck beautifully stretched, waiting for his reply. He thought himself good enough a fast-talker, with a good enough poker face, to be able to steer away from this awkward topic.
But some things he simply could not say.
That it was possible that he'd gone out with Linda, his old classmate, for instance.
Though he had believed it entirely at their first meeting, in fact it wasn't so. Despite everything, she said nothing at all to him, but rather regarded him with doubt. Even if he believed that she had no reason for choosing to do things like that, he was reluctant to press her on the issue. He thought that if he wanted to preserve their current relationship as it was, he had better not allude to things like that. Far from it.
...No, wait. Nothing at all can be said, ...isn't there anything?
Looking a little towards Kouko, Banri gasped softly at his own thoughts. He wondered if it wouldn't be good idea to share this secret with Kouko.
It wasn't good to carry a mysterious secret, by himself, not sharing it. Would she not be able to understand these complicated feelings of his? Likewise the club, too. Even if something were to happen from now on, they may be able to get over it with an understanding person nearby. They'd seen each other at the point of utter desperation... in any case, he'd gone so far as to confess to her. And then he'd been rejected. At this point, what was there to hide? So now, seeing as they were friends like this, messing around side by side, licking whipped cream...
"I, I want to become like Linda-senpai. I admire her."
He was about to open his mouth, but closed it uncertainly.
OK, he let the matter drop, of course--- in only a moment, the mood had changed.
Even with their conversation lightening, their situation wasn't resolved. He wasn't going to burden her with his complicated situation; she had plenty of problems of her own.
Kouko didn't seem to be overly suspicious towards Linda. And if she held such aspirations, so much the better. Even if there was something there in his history with Linda, involving Kouko in it wasn't going to throw cold water on the relationship between the two of them.
"But look, Linda-senpai, doesn't she make you feel 'relaxed, refreshed, and having fun moving forward in life'? Don't you think so too?"
"Well... she's a good senpai. ...'Refreshing', like that, I think so too..."
"Seriously", she added.
Truly refreshing, giving the feeling that there hadn't been something in the past, 'looking forward', Banri was thinking too. Since the other day.
"She's awfully good at dancing too, she does everything really cool, and she's pretty. Wherever she is, you get the feeling she's at the center of it. I mean, look, that former president senpai, don't you think he absolutely adored Linda-senpai?"
"...Eh? Wh, what? Why? How did the conversation jump to that...?"
"It was the mood, the mood! But I get the feeling she isn't seeing anybody. ...From the very start, has she had a boyfriend around? Is that OK? Mature as she is, you would think she'd have a ton of guys after her."
Leaving the strangely silent Banri behind, "Haah", Kouko gasped, strangely sexily. While warming both her hands with her cup, she twisted on her stool.
"What if, I were to become like Linda-senpai? Her hairstyle? Her clothing, rather unisex-style? No, that's not quite what I mean. I want to have that sort of feeling in living. Not like my current, hesistant self, but truly positive, relaxed, without criticizing, seeing what the world has to offer. I want to become like that."
Thinking vaguely, "Isn't this all about image?", but for the time being staying quiet, he listened to Kouko speaking in awe of Linda-senpai.
"If I am to be like Linda-senpai, then... I will do Awa Odori perfectly. And then I will have lots of friends at school. I will rebuild the relaxed, good relationship I had long ago with Mitsuo, without dragging along any boring parts. Jumping into a new world, meeting all sorts of people, going out anew, having fun to the fullest in a new college life with new friends. For example, being invited to a drinking party just like that. Me too, carefree, going off to have fun..."
And at about the same time it dawned on him.
"Oh, that reminds me. We've been invited. By Oka-chan. So it is, to a drinking party of course..."
Geh. Rather unlike a princess, Kouko frowned. She seemed aware that something awkward had been said, but hadn't caught more than that.
Though Banri had started to forget, he remembered once more that he ought to invite Kouko. It was the perfect opportunity. Wasn't it a chance to "rebuild a relaxed relationship with Mitsuo"? And as far as Mitsuo was concerned for the time being, it might be a good idea for there to be somewhere he could see her face.
The two childhood friends had messed up in various ways, but as far as building a normal quiet relationship, they had at one time done just fine.
"Let's do that, for sure! I'll go too, let's go together. Yana-ssan will come too!"
"Eh, eh, ...ho, hold on. As for me, though, ...as you might expect, that, not much... I've got the feeling Mitsuo doesn't want me around yet..."
"Look at that hesitation coming out. That's not allowed. Don't you want to be a woman refreshed and relaxed, like Linda-senpai? If that's the case, don't fuss about the past, unable to jump quickly into a new world."
"But! ...That ultrasonic, detestable thing!"
"I know. Nobody said anything about becoming friends with Oka-chan. Why don't we just show up, normally, and mingle with our fellow first-years? Besides, what would you do if you were Linda-senpai? Invited like that by Oka-chan, it's a once in a lifetime chance to restart your relationship. If you're a person thinking you want to move forward in life, what do you think you ought to do, Kaga-san?"
Her brows furrowed, Kouko looked over at Banri as if she were worried. Acting like that, requesting help from Banri with a cute face, not meeting his eyes properly, was that something she'd only recently learned?
"No 'buts'! Since neither reliance on the spirit nor anything else is working out, of course you aren't going to make a huge change in your behavior here. Don't you want to move ahead? Don't you want to become a relaxed, refreshed woman? If so, make it reality! You're going to the gathering. Because there's nothing to complain about! There's no reason not to go out! In any case, we've got nothing going on! There's no reason why we can't spend some time having fun with our fellow freshmen! With a 'Hmph!' kinda of feeling."
"...Tada-kun, do you think I have the free time...really?"
"Eh? Is there something on your schedule? Wasn't it clear?"
...Even though it was clear. In chagrin, Kouko held the whipped cream in her mouth. Grabbing her spoon with one hand and stirring her cup as if in desperation, she let out a "phew!". And then,
"...All right. As far as you've...said, shall...we...try?"
When she glanced at him sidelong in defeat, Banri nodded vigorously. Doubting it as much as he had, it seemed to him a sudden, happy development.
Already, Yana-ssan, Oka-chan, they truly had nothing to do with matters. As it was, he himself was happy. He was truly looking forward to being able to go to the party with Kouko.
To where even though she had been invited to the get-together by the hated Oka Chinami, she would come. Such a thing--- excellent, maybe there was still hope. His thoughts had gone as far as that.
They were together in the club, together dancing, lunching together; they would even be showing up to the drinking party as a pair. Even with how stubbornly she had avoided trying or doing anything, she was coming because he had asked her. She was going out, with him only. It would become common knowledge. That felt good already, absolutely so. Even more than anything up to this point, it made him feel that things were going well.
So it is. From friendship comes affection. Isn't that the way it always is in this world? If they could be 'good friends', if he carefully built up their friendship like that, if he continued being Kouko's hoped-for perfect friend, then it would eventually work out . . . perhaps.
Even with this seemingly regretful love, he would perhaps see the day it worked out.
"What're you saying? You were only just dumped on Saturday---!" It was as if there were somebody behind him, whispering in shock; a thin, cool presence. Disregarding it as his imagination, Banri also drank from his latte. Unable to do anything else, he laughed. Things were looking up. He pulled a deep breath into his beating chest, the smell of roses next to Kouko covering his mouth.
The afternoon sunlight shining through the glass rather brightly hurt his eyes.
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