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Tada Banri was trying on blue-jeans.
And now, this old second-hand shop's cramped changing room had an overpowering smell.
There was the characteristic, detergent-like fabric-softener-like artificial floral scent. But on top of that, the fully half-tatami-sized carpeted floor reeked of the soles of unwashed male feet. As if in answer to that problem, set in the corner of the changing room was a car deodorant strong enough to kill a person, smelling of Hawaiian coconuts.
Coming from the other side of the ventilation fan there was a smell as of lunch and tobacco mixed together, and beneath it a rather unusual presence was drawing near, making itself known. Was it water in the basement? Or was it sewage? A bathroom-like smell was hidden there.
Forming a perfect blend in the confined airspace, the stagnated smells violently invaded Banri's nerves and mine by way of the mucous membranes of our noses. Feeling like the time we had that awful car sickness, our heads hurting and getting dizzy, our stomachs squeezed out from top to bottom like cleaning rags. We could've thrown up, really.
Though it was bad for a customer staying only a short time, didn't the employees think about it at all? Were their noses broken and numbed already? No, they must've thought it stank, else why the Hawaiian coconuts? But this thing's sickly-sweet, strong smell was on the edge of being dangerous, and in fact was the worst offender.
Enduring all this in bad humor, anyhow I quietly stood in the corner of the changing room, watching Banri changing, not all that impressed.
Staying like this, motionless, in the upper corner by the ceiling, I felt as if I were being sucked, as if hypnotized, into that notably gloomy, dark-looking shadow. And then clinging to it, as if I'd become stuck there.
To say that I think of myself as a ghost, in short this place, is haunted...
Pulling on the cheap, 1600 yen blue-jeans, Banri looked down for a moment at the troublesome front buttons. He started to get nauseous from the overwhelming smell, which turned into a fit of coughing, and swallowing back something acid. It seemed somehow too much.
From the other side of the closed curtains, "How do they feel?", the store clerk was asking pointedly. In a panic, Banri fastened all the buttons, opened the curtain, and slipped on the shoes he'd left outside the changing room. He still wasn't wearing the New Balance shoes that Linda had given him. Today it was the same old Jack Purcells again.
Banri and I turned and left the narrow space together, taking the deepest breaths they could. I could not, since I am a spirit that people cannot see, but the store clerk was able to tend to the material Banri. Trying to be as quiet as possible, he was breathing desperately through his mouth.
The store clerk fawned over him, making little flattering noises as she squatted and fiddled around with the pant's cuffs appreciatively. Looking at Banri in a flattering way, her hostess-like done-up hair swaying, saying things like "Heeyy? Isn't that just right!? Look, the style looks good on you!", using no more volume than necessary for her compliments to be heard.
And yet, if I say so myself, the image of Banri in the mirror was certainly more than ever recklessly stylish. Even his legs looked longer and slimmer.
"Hey, you're right!" said Banri, slightly blue in the face, laughing foolishly as he turned around, confirming that his rear end was settling in nicely. It looked better than any other blue-jeans he had right now, so he muttered, "Why not go for this one?"
Banri, for the sake of the first-year's drinking party hosted by Oka Chinami tomorrow night, was out picking up some new duds.
Embarrassed to the breaking point, he didn't notice that the changing room mirror was one of those trick ones, reflecting only a narrow image.
The store clerk, making sure to not stand in front of the mirror (because the difference from reality would be revealed to the customer), immediately began trying to adjust the height of the bottom hem, rolling it up and down. When she told him that there was no need to bring up the hem, Banri said, "Well then, I'll go with this. I'll go take them off.", and once more closed the changing room curtain.
It seemed that he was completely decided to buy it. Well, the reflection in the mirror was good, and they were simple straight pants. Besides, what surprises would there be for 1600 yen? There wasn't too much funny stitching or extra stuff.
But that was often the case. He had spotted some blue-jeans that felt right in one of the used clothing shop's carts, but when he took them out and spread them, the upper legs had cheesy chinese-style tiger striped embroidery. The side seams were completely covered, from top to bottom, with some strange Tyrolean tape.
It was only through the magic mirror that he looked so stylish, but everything considered, you could call this a success. It's OK, Banri, go ahead and buy it. Through the mirror, I flashed Banri an OK sign.
Banri, looking pleased with himself, unfastened the buttons and was about to take off the pants, but suddenly he stopped moving. His underwear showing in the half-dressed style--- if somebody were to see him they wouldn't be pleased: the frozen figure of a young man bent over. It seemed he was looking at a seam between the legs, inside the taken-off blue-jeans.
Peeking from behind, wondering what he was worried about, at that moment, a shiver ran up my spine. This, for sure...
Right there, in the middle, around the stitching. Right between the legs, in the butt-crack, right in that area. Strangely the whole area, black perhaps, or maybe brown, a stain of a questionable color had not been fully removed.
At that spot only, for some reason or other... I don't want to say, for some reason... That, of course, to put it simply, what would you call it?
"What's this here?", he asked the store clerk from earlier. I myself thought, "He ought to point out how bad the damage is." If he could talk them into keeping it at the store and, without fail, removing the stain for him, that would be lucky for him. If that didn't work, then of course he could just stop, but that's OK, I think. It didn't need to be hemmed, and the style looked good even if it was a trick mirror.
However Banri was still looking motionlessly at the seam, thinking about something in a half-dressed style, in lack of movement thinking it through. "What's wrong? If you're worried speak up, otherwise stop it!", I nagged him from behind like that, but Banri didn't notice. He didn't move. He must've been confused as to whether to buy it as it was, or what. "If you're confused, stop it! Get it over with!", I kept beating him over the back.
Of course, Banri didn't notice it at all. Hmm... he frowned, his head tilted as he thought it through. He was completely silenced by the trap of the changing room mirror. "Stop it already!" It was at that moment that he was pushed rather hard on the back.
"Ah, ah, ah...!"
...By reflex, even if I was only a ghost behind him, I covered my eyes against the disaster.
It was a coincidence. Absolutely. I wasn't responsible for the push. Really.
Banri, unsteady on his feet, his balance destroyed, hopping on one foot, his rear exposed, jumped out from the changing room curtain into the bright store--- and said it. Said it completely. Whoa. Wh, ooaaaa...
...But, he was saved by there not being any other customers around. Still on one foot, he ran rather forcefully into the store clerk from before, standing nearby. As it was, supported by her as if in her embrace, at least he didn't fall down.
Excuse me... sorry... moaning feverishly, Banri, his rear exposed, ashamed, ran in his socks back into the changing room.
As a human being, so far, getting embarrassed, blushing and so forth, were things he seemed to encounter every step of the way. Banri, his face strangely darkened, took off the jeans in the blink of an eye. He took them off as fast as if they were on fire. Too quick to see, he gathered his stuff and went to the register. And then,
"This please! Do, ...does it show...!?"
With a terrible expression, he timidly asked the store clerk. He could see several security cameras watching over the store, protecting it from shoplifters. The clerk accepted his money as if nothing had happened, and gave him a receipt. While she folded the jeans with practiced hands, with a very small voice she said, "Eh? Black." Looking at him kindly, she smiled a bit and said, "I didn't see anything. Here you go." He had thought her a flattering salesperson, but then not understanding well what she said, his heart now thought of her as an angel. I'm sorry, store. Please excuse me, seriously. But the smell and everything else spoke thoroughly bad of you.
Taking the bag Banri bowed, and ran at full speed up the stairs to the store's open door. Going out to the street like that, he dashed even harder. He was fleeing. I saw that the strange things that had just happened had already disappeared from his brain.
At that moment his cell-phone rang, and he flipped it open as he ran.
"Hello, hellooo?", a woman's voice, sounding slightly nasal due to the telephone.
'You already done with your errands? As for me, right now I'm almost done at the hairdresser!'
From a different place in the same neighborhood, it was Kaga Kouko talking to him. After the third period lecture, Banri and Kouko met up at the same entrance as always, took the train and came here together. In order to tend to their various errands, they waved and separated at the crosswalk, the two of them to meet up again afterwards. Kouko to her favorite beauty parlor, Banri to the area around the second-hand shop that Mitsuo had shown him earlier.
"I'm done too! ...Some, some things happened... but anyway I'm done! You mean, you got your hair trimmed, perhaps?"
'No, just a treatment. Did you buy anything?'
"I bought some jeans! Well, I'm at the next intersection! See you shortly!"
Gasping as he said it, Banri stood waiting at the red light of a pedestrian crossing. Combing up his bangs, which had fallen to his eyes, he took a deep breath. Understood, I'll be right there too, she'd answered, breaking the connection.
Banri's cheeks were flushed red as if overflowing with blood, his temples, sweating lightly. In that corner of the twilit town, it looked like he was glittering.
With a little cough, Banri stuck his cell-phone in his back pocket, and put the bag from the second-hand shop back under his arm.
All he knew was that his heart was beating hard, to the point where you could see it through his shirt. It must've been the memory of his super huge embarrassment, plus a bit of running, and then the promise to go have tea with Kaga Kouko. And whatever else, without a doubt they'd head off to her beloved Starbucks again.
Within this past week, how many times with the same companion to the same Starbucks, had he drunk the same latte shot (sometimes fresh ground real drip coffee)? Talking about lectures during club time, talking about things to eat, talking about jokes they'd seen online, talking about magazines piled up in stores... It was like they'd been going around for weeks all over the place, in a repeating loop, having fun, like those girls that gather together to feel more secure. But at long last, the time to go out had come, and wasn't it about time to do something else? Hadn't it been a while since they last went to Veloce? Were things like that nothing?
Well, wherever they drank tea, whatever they talked about, such things, as far as Banri was concerned they didn't really matter. Meeting up as students, going to lecture together, drinking tea, gossiping, texting, walking side by side, going out for a while--- in such a loop, more and more, Banri was finding meaning. Repeating so many times it built up, the very thing itself was becoming important. That was how I saw it.
In his daydreams, from the very bottom of his heart, Banri innocently believed that someday, this 'loop of everyday bonding between friends' would eventually become something else. Without a doubt, genuinely.
For that reason, he innocently continued going around. Repeating it to that extent, Banri believed it reinforced the connection, and that his hope was taking shape and drawing nearer to him. He was convinced, with a child-like fastidiousness, that if he forced the emotions, it would all come to nothing.
As for me, I directed my attention to the cars passing to and fro.
Even Tokyo’s spring was already ending.
The air was warmly humid.
As if spreading over the city night, the store windows twinkled like stars. Even the cell-phones of the people passing by, the candles decorating the cafe entrances, the LEDs decorating the shrubbery, and even headlights stretched out like rivers. All the lights were too bright, dizzying to the eyes.
He couldn’t see the intersection where they were to meet from here. Of course, he couldn’t see Kaga Kouko nor anything like her either. Though they may be in the same town, to me it seems the two of them are very far apart. Would they really be able to meet up ‘shortly’?
Besides, Banri still hasn’t started moving forward.
The red light is shining.
We’re standing side by side, still impatiently shuffling our feet.
* * *
They said the reservation was from 5pm.
Banri thought they were starting rather early, but Oka-chan had insisted in her anime voice, "But we have all we can drink for three hours, five to eight, for only 1000 yen!" But the round of food added another 1000 yen. Since it was a chain tavern with a huge billboard hung near the college, and it was right along the main street, everybody should have known how to get there.
As four-thirty came and went, Banri watched the noisy students going back and forth expectantly. His hands stuffed into the back pockets of his new blue-jeans, the time slowly coming, looking around restlessly,
"Look here, Tada Banri!"
Slapped on the shoulder firmly from behind, he turned around.
"Oh!", he laughed, grabbing each other's elbows playfully. It was Mr. Two Dimensions. They were meeting up here after the end of classes. Banri and Mitsuo had invited him too, having arranged to go together from here to the drinking party.
Like Banri, Mr. Two Dimensions had not been to any drinking parties apart from those for club recruiting when they'd first started, and was going to enjoy himself today. If he were, even a little, one of those guys who believed the currently popular saying that goes like 'guys who can skillfully build multifaceted relationships in their lives gain the victory', then he could not let an opportunity like this slip away.
Immediately after Banri had reported breathlessly "I bought jeans specially for the drinking party!", he too sallied forth to the fashionable streets of Shimokitazawa~ Daikanyama area. Now dressed like a preppy, he wore a slim collared shirt, the spoils of his battle.
"Hey Mr. Two Dimensions, that's a nice shirt you're wearing!"
"Heh heh heh! And your jeans, they're what you bought. They look good."
"Though they looked better when I looked at them in the changing room. I mean, does it look in good shape? Tonight the drinks're gonna be dirt cheap; it might even be methyl alcohol. Will it give us hangovers?"
"I have everything perfectly arranged, of course, though it'd be good to use the hand sanitizer now. You can even use formalin. Ah, for the time being, shouldn't we stop by a convenience store before we get there? You might want to have a energy drink."
"It's OK, I'm coating my stomach lining with milk. I mean... eh? Though I only just noticed, is there something about you today that's cooler than usual?
"Oh, this? You've noticed?"
Mr. Two Dimensions, recently graduated from two to three dimensions, but still validating this three-dimensional world, stood out rather conspicuously, combing his silky hair with his fingers as if he were showing it off.
"Actually, it's been dyed a bit. Was it ash pink beige? Or was it golden brown? Or was it some sort of mixture? Anyway it was applied to me. For a three dimensional effect? So I was told, somehow or other."
"Really!? Eh, for today's drinking party!? You went that far!? Whoa, what? Are you really trying to make it in three dimensions!?"
"You got it wrong! This was by chance! Are you trying to mess with my head!? What do you mean by 'making it in three dimensions'!?"
"Eh, ah, sorry..."
"If you understand, then watch your mouth! In words, Lady Word-Power (Spirit Clan, Servant Class, Long Black Hair, Blue Eyes, Little Girl, Genius, Shelters from the rain under Eddoe leaves, Quiet except when Exercised – Super Bookworm) is a living being! Besides, I've received my bride from the best of the two dimensional world! It's a matter of believing!"
"Really, I'm sorry..."
"OK then! Don't worry about it, things like that really do happen. I, my sister had, an acquaintence now working as a hairdresser. I was told she would 'be practicing hair-coloring'. ...Honestly, how is it? Though it seemed she hardly knew what she was doing."
"Don't worry about it. I understand, I understand, coloring it like that looks cool. Hey, how about this coloring..."
"Have you ever done it?"
"No, no. I don't think so. We didn't do things like that in Shizuoka."
"Hmm, I heard the gundam was out there, but the big white fellow doesn't help out with the tea leaves."
"They used the general appearance from Turn A. So I heard. Myself."
Mr. Two Dimensions, laughing in amusement, pulled out an iPhone from a stylish, diagonally hanging leather bag. His touch on it was quite practiced. The cover, though made to resemble Ayanami's plug suit, if one were to close their eyes, in it's long and slender style it became Kanaka-sama.
He called himself Mr. Two Dimensions, and boasted of having no interest in three dimensional things, but even he brought more or less good sense with him. His real name, Satou Takaya. Tall and slim, always wearing glasses, apart from the pink and purple, his clothing was stylish; even his hair was neatly combed back. Easy to get along with, he really was a good fellow.
"It's a message from Yana-ssan. He got summoned by the student affairs office and says to go on ahead. Let's do like he said. Move it!"
"Ah, wait a bit more. Actually, there's another person I'm waiting for here. Kaga-san's coming."
"Eh!? Kaga-san!? ...That one!?"
While fluttering both hands in the air, miming the volume of her hair, "Oof!", he smiled, his eyes open like saucers. Well, he understood what he meant to say.
"Yes. That Kaga-san."
"...But, here!? I mean... that, that 'lady', coming out to a common drinking party!?"
"She's coming, she's coming. It looks like she likes to drink sake. Didn't she drink with you and me that time, up in the mountains... when we all went out, to that seminar of the Crystal God."
"But we didn't drink even a drop that time! I mean, eh, aren't you getting along rather nice!? Thinking about it, didn't you tell me you'd gone together to Sendagaya for dinner just like that!? What's more, you even joined a club together! Hey, what gives!? What's going on!? What is it!? Are you trying to explode!?"
"But we're still friends. As for our relationship, Kaga-san and I, it's like 'Sex'!"
And the city!
Catching the thought, Banri flashed a smile from ear to ear, put his hand on his hip in a girlish pose and called out. Mr. Two Dimensions gave him a rough to the side, telling him to cut it out.
"I mean, no way... but Kaga-san... look here. Before, all that about Yana-ssan, didn't we talk about it? How'd that turn out? Wasn't there something even Banri said before, that Kaga-san wanted to get married, kinda sneaking off, but Yana-ssan clearly rejected her, and dumped her, there was this and that gossip about it..."
"What kinds of gossip?"
From behind them, there arose the light, sweet smell of roses.
"Waah!", Mr. Two Dimensions jumped back, and Banri turned around awkwardly.
"Sorry to keep you waiting, Tada-kun. Long time, no see, Mr. Two Dimensions."
---Well then. The fact that Banri had been talking with Mr. Two Dimensions about Kouko and Mitsuo had been easily discovered.
He didn't know what Kouko was thinking inside, but for now with her ever-perfect smile,
"I don't care if it was about Mitsuo and I. We were simply childhood friends. And now not even outsiders; we don't know each other. That's all there is to it."
Still, such things were being said.
And then, smiling, she became the magnificent queen of roses.
In the overwhelming glare of Kouko's entrance, whether Mr. Two Dimensions was listening to what she said or not, he seemed to be at a loss for words, standing at attention, watching her in fascination. He wasn't the only one: the other students gathered there in the hall had suddenly fallen silent too, turning towards them in ones and twos, their gazes riveted, as it were, on the glittering Kouko.
Fuller than ever, her extravagantly curled, dark brown, long hair shone beautifully, the result of the treatment the other day. Her smooth satin Katyusha was a noble jet black.
Her pearly white skin perfectly made up, she wore a crimson lipstick, deeper even than blood.
By her sparkling eyes, light grey eye shadow gleamed, tinged with sorrow. In the shadow of her delicate collarbones, there was a tight diamond necklace in the form of a key, swaying and throwing flashes of light all over.
While casually covering for Mr. Two Dimensions, nervous from how gorgeous she was, Banri also,
"...Wh, why did you dress up so incredibly stylish today, Kaga-san?"
Aren't you so incredibly, awfully pretty! ---So much so, it took him straight to sighing. She wasn't a foreigner, though that was not something he could come out and say.
"Eh? It's just ordinary stuff, the usual."
Kouko said that, but she was wearing earrings, and a ring on her middle finger too, with large diamonds sparkling in the shape of a flower. Her black high-heels were plainly works of art. The backs of her calves drawing elegant curves, distinctly beautiful all the way to the line of her ankles. Her heels were close to four inches high. Unfortunately, she wasn't bare-legged. She was wearing the black tights again today. He wondered if the snake-bite wasn't fully healed.
Her ahead-of-the-season short-sleeve mini-dress had the chest open deeply, and a bold white to gray gradation. With a layered feminine design of shiny crumpled silk, it had a high waist, just under her chest, looking as if she were being squeezed by a large ribbon. The sudden contrast from chest to waist gave emphasis at just the right point.
Kouko was so perfect, it took his breath away.
It didn't fit for such as her to be hanging around in a college student hall like this. It was a waste. It would have suited her better to be in the gorgeous lounge of a high class hotel, with a cocktail. Without question.
"So it is with you, too: you didn't wear your new blue-jeans. And the shoes from Linda-senpai? I was wondering if you'd worn them yet."
"I thought about wearing them, but then considered the risk and changed my mind. That even though the blue-jeans were used, and their being dirty would be OK. Rather, Kaga-san, are you okay with drinking sake today?"
"What are you saying, isn't it a drinking party? Haven't we decided to go drinking!?"
"No, look, your legs. Since you're still wearing tights, it might be a good idea if you restrained yourself. Hey, Mr. Two Dimensions, this person was bitten by a snake in her own garden! Isn't that awful?"
"Come back to reality!", Banri elbowed Mr. Two Dimensions, his eyes were half closed in abstraction. "Huh?", Mr. Two Dimensions eyes opened,
"Eh...? Sn, snake? Really? Kaga-san, where do you live?"
"In Tokyo. Resident of Minato Ward."
"A snake in Minato!? Wow! Come now, in the city center, apart from a lot of green, so to speak... was it a Green General? Or perhaps a Tiger Keelback? Thought it might be a recently escaped former pet, like something they import from foreign countries now and then."
Kouko, her eyes full of sadness, shook her head 'no' at Mr. Two Dimensions.
"That I don't know. Long, dark, rather macho... because it attacked our cat, anyway, in a haze, I already separated them. I've gotten used to the feeling of the leg injury now."
With the superior air of a magician, she opened her bag and pulled out a handkerchief. Spreading it wide, she showed the pattern on one side to the two guys.
On that blue and yellow curved surface there was depicted a bold, vivid design, certainly what he had seen the other day on Kouko's calf, and which perhaps represented the current condition of it. ...Which Banri understood, but Mr. Two Dimensions probably had no clue as to what it was. "Huh?", he said, looking at the handkerchief while tilting his head to one side in confusion.
"Tada-kun, this is Emilio Pucci. It looks rather like pretty bad internal bleeding. But it looks like it isn't festering, and if properly disinfected it will clear up soon enough."
"Really? If so that's good, but did you go to the hospital after all?"
"At home, since our house functions as a clinic. Even my mother, as a doctor, took a look at it for me."
"Hey, so that's how it is. I see, a hospital. Some sort of arrangement, as you would expect: rather like a princess. Your mother, for sure, wasn't she worried?"
"It was like, 'Soo lame, you're an idiot, aren't youu?'"
At that crude way of speaking, Mr. Two Dimensions and Banri both broke out laughing. Kouko, however, looking around restlessly,
"By the way, hey, umm, ...what about Mitsuo? Didn't he say he was coming?"
"Ah, he may be a little delayed. And so, I want to stop by a convenience store beforehand."
Hearing Banri's reply, her lightly sparkling eyelids lowered a bit.
"That so", she nodded, that voice. So light he couldn't hear her, Banri put his ear near to Kouko's mouth. That way what he heard was,
"...But afterwards he's coming straight over."
The way she said it confirmed it for him.
Suddenly Banri was at a loss for words. Looking down at Kouko's white face, time stopped.
Or something like that.
He had stopped thinking. He felt as if cold water had suddenly been poured down his neck.
He thought she was participating because she had been invited by him. Did that mean... that perhaps, it wasn't so? Because Yanagisawa Mitsuo was coming, she thought to come too...? Was it something like that?
A cloud of suspicion descended suddenly over his heart. Caught up in the moment, understanding things to his own convenience, in reality, was there even one thing he should have expected...? Looking forward to enjoying himself to the point where he had gotten himself new jeans, was he, perhaps, a clown?
No, no no no. Forget it. Banri, confused, shook his head. He cleared from his mind the awful thoughts that were strangely, distinctly coming to the fore. Because from this point, the long awaited, fun drinking party was starting. He wasn't supposed to darken it by dragging in his own imaginary problems.
Besides, such things didn't matter, did they? Yana-ssan was coming too, that was what he'd said for sure. He even hoped that Kouko and Mitsuo might be able to make up. In general, unless there weren't enough showing up, people normally wouldn't even worry.
Above all, that was so. He had no room for 'normally'. For now, Kouko was certainly fixed on the idea that she would have a relaxed chat with Mitsuo, the first in a long time. Now that he thought about it, it was only natural, and she was probably preparing her heart for it. If he saw himself as her friend, then understanding such things he had to help her.
In his mind, Banri was able to understand it all perfectly.
But in heart, it didn't work too well. His voice too was stopped, and suddenly instead of speaking for him, Mr. Two Dimensions spoke to Kouko.
"If Yana-ssan knows where the place is, won't he come right away? It's OK! He'll be out soon, amongst other things, he went to get something from the convenience store for while we're drinking sake. It'll be something I want to drink, for sure. Banri's going to coat his stomach with milk. How about you, Kaga-san?"
Kouko looked up at the amiable Mr. Two Dimensions, cutely touching her finger to her chin and tilting her head to the side. "Well then, I suppose I might have some milk too."
Saying that beside Banri, she smiled wonderfully, like a rose blossom.
* * *
"Wow! Is this what your drinking parties always look like!?"
Putting his shoes into the rack and coming up to the tatami floor, Mr. Two Dimensions raised his voice. Following right after him, Banri was equally surprised.
The room was rather large and formal, partitioned off by a sliding screen, and was being occupied by so many noisy first-year students he imagined he was going to go deaf.
"Whoa... so many people came! Man, more than I ever thought would come..."
"Eh, what's going on?"
Suddenly from behind Banri, Kouko appeared, and at the same time a great burst of laughter arose from the group. At the noise, the three of them together covered their ears.
"By chance, the whole department wouldn't have shown up...?"
It was still a bit earlier than when the gathering should have been. But already, it looked like there were easily forty or fifty people gathered already. "And there will probably be more guys coming", muttered Kouko in what was probably not quite a joke.
Chinami, if he remembered correctly, had said 'I'm going to try and call and invite a few girls I know.' 'So if there's anybody else you want to invite, call them!' 'Everybody, If you want to make friends, it'll be fun!', and so on.
What Banri had imagined from the way she talked: ten people at most, perhaps a few more, a friendly get-together of acquaintances only.
"A... anyways, let's reserve our spot! Mr. Two Dimensions, the place over in the corner by the door is still open! We should take it! Look! Let's go, Kaga-san too!"
As soon as she saw the room crowded with people, Kouko seemed to get nervous, but pushing on her back steadily, the three of them in a line somehow slipped in, their backs to the sliding door, to a spot with four cushions placed near the end of the table. At that moment, from a bunch of guys seated nearby, "It, it's that beautiful girl...!" "What do I say if she comes here!?" "Talk to her, talk to her!" "No way no way no way no way no way!" ---He heard them say, talking amongst themselves while glancing towards Kouko. Kouko uncomfortably pretended not to hear, and kept herself close to Banri, trying to shrink into his shadow.
Banri would try to say something to Kouko, but at such times the guys close by would break out laughing loudly, and Banri's voice like dust was drowned out entirely. And then, from here and there a voice calling somebody, or already rising voices in conversation, again loud laughter, a voice flying high, speaking at full volume into a cell-phone, "Eh!? I can't hear well!", overwhelmed by the sheer noise, his mouth would not even open.
Somehow or other, it appeared they were already late getting started. The three of them still silent, looking at each other without thinking,
"Ah, Banri came! Even though it's sudden, excuse me, but why don't you come over to this table!?"
Particularly piercing, a high voice like something coming from a young girl in an anime reached his ears.
The tiny Oka Chinami carried some huge pitchers of beer she'd gotten from one of the employees, coming towards them, dangerously unsteady on her feet.
"Ooooka-chan! Watch out, watch out! You're overdoing it, just one at a time!"
In a hurry, Banri reached out, putting the pitchers on the table for a moment. Turning to Mr. Two Dimensions, he had him pass some to the guys at the next table. Chinami, waving both her small hands in the air,
"Wow they were heavy! And super cold! I mean, this time while I was talking they even gave me a uulong! Could you line them up in the same place!? Yes, yes, like that, thank you!"
Once more, she took a big breath.
She was dressed in the style of a busy organizer, in slender blue-jeans and a simple T-shirt, with a small nylon bag hung at a slant, somewhat randomly. Chinami, facing Banri on the edge of her cushion, gathered herself quietly and sat. Like that, her eyes sparkled as if they were stars singing. When she roughly removed the rubber-band that tied her hair up closely, her black hair fell softly to well beneath her delicate shoulders. With great care combing that lovely hair to fall over one shoulder,
"I give up already! Look at this, all these people! I talked to a few friends, then more people showed up than I thought. In the end, we turned out to be such a big family!"
"I'm in a panic", she said, laughing like a little kid.
Banri was practically in shock, seeing how cute she was even in all the disorder of this evening.
"Three cheers for the organizer! Was it hard by yourself?"
"With help here and there from everybody, we got to this point. I'm doing fine! But I might need a hand again, even from Banri."
"Whatever you say! Coming here just now, we were just surprised that more came than we thought. Mr. Two Dimensions came here today with me. Mr. Two Dimensions, this is Oka-chan. She and Yana-ssan do film studies together."
He introduced Mr. Two Dimensions, next to him, to Chinami. Chinami yelped "Yay!", raising one hand high.
"G-day, Mr. Two Dimensions! Let's drink too much today! Here, gimme five, gimme five!"
"A, gu, g-day...! Ca, call me if you need any help from me! He he, gimme five!"
Mr. Two Dimensions started talking, and gave her a high five. He did it with such feeling it made a good sound. With her masterful friendliness, Chinami giving back even one touch was 'wonderful'.
Right away, Mr. Two Dimensions, gazing happily at the hand touched by Chinami, broke into a foolish grin, going into meltdown mode, as if before him stretched the tracks of the Galaxy Railway, rising up through the dimensions. Hey, Mr. Two Dimensions! This is three dimensions! Steady yourself! 'He's died!', Banri poking him still with his elbow.
Chinami, once more favoring even Kouko with a smile,
"Kaga-san, thanks for coming out! I'm really happy you did! Let's enjoy drinking!"
Her bravery was All-American in its passion. She lifted her hand the same way she'd saluted Mr. Two Dimensions with a high five, but,
Of course, Kaga Kouko was as motionless as a mountain. Her expression turning towards annoyance, she pointed her chin the other way. This time poking Kouko's elbow, Banri,
"...Weren't you going to have fun in a new world, moving forward, everything a-gogo? What would you do if you were Linda-senpai?"
The smell of roses sickly-sweet, he tried to whisper it softly close to her ear. Saying "if you were Linda-senpai" had recently become the #1 most effective hot button for her.
Kouko, seething, tightened her lips into a straight line, but still, something,
She decided to strike--- no, to give her a high-five. Crack! The sound of the harsh impact echoed. Chinami, still kneeling formally, closed her eyes. The impact reached all the way from the palm of her hand to her shoulder.
Now now now, Banri inserted himself between them, following after Kouko in giving Chinami's small hand a high-five. A relatively nice sound came forth.
"I mean, Oka-chan, you going to put your stuff down? Over on that seat?"
"N no no... I'm on the floor because I can't reserve a spot. Because until the drinking starts, it's not appropriate for me to sit down. Besides, because this bag is super important I cannot let it out of my hands."
"A treasure? A cell-phone or something?"
Chinami grinned impishly, showing her little front teeth. Just then from a little ways away, somebody called out, "Chinamii! Your cell-phone is ringing!", and they understood from that that her cell-phone wasn't in the bag.
"Afterwards I plan on seeing even you. Have fun! See ya!"
Just like that, she got up lightly and flew off towards where the call came from. Thereupon all at once here and there hands waved, names were called, telling her somebody had arrived or somebody was arriving, and Chinami never did quite reach her cell-phone. With her tiny form moving around, chatting with everyone, laughing at everything, she really did look busy.
While for some reason watching the situation, Mr. Two Dimensions muttered.
"...I mean, Oka Chinami-chan's face is awfully cute... or not. Her face, isn't it wide? Might she be from the north?"
According to Mitsuo's sources, she was certainly from one of the metropolitan high schools. Mr. Two Dimensions, when told so by Banri, gave a strange sigh.
"Then of course she's incredible. Just by her communications skills. Me, I'm just a stupid guy who doesn't talk. Are these friends of yours, Banri?"
Banri looked around the area for a bit too,
"I don't really know them either. A few I know... ah, those girls might have said something about tennis club while they were drinking... or something like that. You guys have nearly always 'hung around' with Yana-ssan from the start. Kaga-san, how about you?"
Though maybe he shouldn't have asked.
Not answering Banri's question, Kouko sat formally in that too-noisy place, looking uncomfortable.
"...What's this 'Welcome to my drinking party! Come join my group!' feeling?"
With great difficulty, her beautifully made up face was being forced into a sullen pout. Mr. Two Dimensions, briefly seeing Kouko that way, didn't scold her,
"So it would seem, more and more."
Without hesitating, he elaborated.
"In short, Oka Chinami-chan is the connection between everybody. If I were suddenly told I would be managing a party, I absolutely would never be able to gather people like that. Our current 'situation', is that we've been 'granted' the chance to be part of a huge group, with Oka Chinami-chan at the center, it seems."
What Mr. Two Dimensions said certainly seemed likely, and Banri had no choice but to nod deeply also.
"Sure seems like it. I mean, I simply don't have the self-confidence to go around asking people, 'Let's have a party!' Looking lonely, seeming alone, sitting by myself, saying 'Ah, somebody else is coming now!' and so forth to the waiters in apology while talking like crazy on the cell-phone, but not finding anybody else... it seems. ...I wonder how it is that Oka-chan made so many acquaintances in only one month?"
"...Though we're all human beings of the same year, going through the same clubs with the same students, what the heck is the difference...?"
Kouko's muttering trailing off into silence, though not in the mood, the three of them nonetheless surveyed the wide room.
Though there had been no toasts yet, the noisy merry-making students' faces, faces and more faces.
Every one of them, complete strangers, even their names unknown. Something that in one breath could easily be spread around, even if they never met again.
Nothing but such people, this world...
"Shall we not bind ourselves in an alliance?"
The one who had opened his mouth just now was Mr. Two Dimensions. Looking at Banri's and Kouko's faces while lowering his voice as if to escape from the tumult,
"If by any chance it happens that one of us has to organize a party or something like that, always, no matter what, we all need to attend. That way, there will absolutely be at least three people able to get together. The organizer will never get lonely. ...How about it? I will swear. The day before yesterday I completed writing, from first to last, an original near-future novel about beautiful female armored cavalry, 'Blood and Iron Girls! ~We are the ones~'. By those 347 kilobytes I swear."
He reached his hand out under the table.
Immediately Banri put his own hand over that hand.
"I'm on board. Then as for me, 'BBQ_LOVE'... by this password that I have used for nearly all situations I swear. E-mail, internet, browsing sites, and all such things, from the time of eight-letter names always that. If I betray you, then do likewise to me."
Kouko, also, put her white hand on top of the others,
"As for me, well, because I just swore by Starbucks, this time I will swear by Tiffany's. My life up til now, my life from now on, everything related to me should be glittering in the sunshine, but alone in the world I am blue."
While she swore, she touched the key-shaped diamond necklace with one hand.
"Well then, all together!", together on Mr. Two Dimensions word, their combined hands bounced up once and then separated vigorously.
And then, the three of them laughed secretly.
It somehow felt like a secret society, a bit fun, very much like being henchmen. Nonetheless, as far as Banri was concerned, he wanted Mitsuo to be a part of the company. If it were only Mr. Two Dimensions, then clearly they would approve of it, but he wondered, how would Kouko be with it?
He was about ready to propose it when at that moment,
"Banri! Mr. Two Dimensions! My bad, I'm late!"
At the entrance to the room a tall figure appeared. Mitsuo was tearing off his knit cap while waving towards them.
He saw Banri waving back at him, but suddenly Mitsuo's hand stopped moving. He wondered if he had noticed Kouko sitting next to him. That Kouko was supposed to be coming to the party also, in truth he hadn't yet told Mitsuo.
When everybody was making arrangements back in the student hall, at that time, "Today they'll surely be on good terms", was the extent of his plans. He thought so even before Chinami or anybody could put anything in his ears. But it seemed that was not to be. ...By e-mail or any other way, it would have been better to say something, of course. Advising him beforehand, even telling him strangely, "Well, I can't say!", he thought. Just then.
Kouko too looked over towards Mitsuo, but presently, for some reason, she looked over towards Banri. Being looked at too was embarrassing. Mitsuo, continuing further in, said "since I've come this far, I'm coming in" to those around, and advanced into the room. Saying "Sorry, coming through", as he passed behind some people, he came closer.
"Yana-ssan, well, eh, why don't you sit down there for now."
Banri quietly indicated a cushion he'd reserved for Mitsuo. He was wondering about what he'd do if he said something childish like "If she's here, I'm going back!"
Surprisingly obediently, Mitsuo came and sat next to Mr. Two Dimensions. Mr. Two Dimensions and Mitsuo exchanged tentative "Hey dude!" and so on, smiling, trying to hide the strange mood. Before long, the slightly uncomfortable Mr. Two Dimensions looked down, hiding what was left of his smile.
Kouko also looked tense, her body gone stiff, still silent and pretending not to notice.
"...You invited her?"
With a voice as if giving a small sigh, Mitsuo asked him. Only barely able to act as if it were nothing, Banri answered brightly.
"No, Oka-chan got her first. Then, well, I asked her if she'd come with me."
"...That so? For sure you guys were friends from a previous existence."
Saying, "Well, it seems like that. Hey, today's fun!" and nodding, while in fact Banri couldn't look over towards Kouko. What sort of face is Kouko making right now, he wondered. What could he do about this awkwardness? The way things were arranged was too bad. That the atmosphere had become like this was perhaps his own fault.
For the time being, he felt it better that the sake came quickly. Even if they only had a toast, then afterwards by it's influence, things would work out. Maybe.
"Ah, Yana! Already, you finally came! You said you'd help me prepare, but you're late!"
Chinami grinned at Mitsuo over the people heads as she worked restlessly. Mitsuo's eyes suddenly lit up and he stood halfway, putting both his hands to his face in a cute way not at all like him. He never showed a face like that for me... thought Banri, unconsciously looking up to that face smiling so brightly.
"Chinami! Sorry, forgive me!"
"Really now, I've been waiting for the toasts! Well before long, because time is passing, the toasts... or rather aren't there enough mugs of beer to go around!? Hey already, pass them around! Whether you pour your own drink or whatever, for now move it move it move iiittt!"
Chinami, like a little mouse, was all in a panic setting order to everybody's confusion. From trays lined up under the tables, mugs of beer were being passed around from hand to hand, from guys near at the hand to the pitchers of beer and oolong tea, things were moving along at a proper speed.
Reaching out his hand, Banri accepted mugs of beer, one after another, from the stranger next to him and passed them on. Put in place, for the time being within reach of Kouko, Mr. Two Dimensions, Mitsuo and himself, and yet one more, passed along "Last!"
"Ah, that's too many! We've all got ours here!"
"Eh? I thought there was one more. I must've miscalculated."
Towards some voices calling from afar, "It hasn't gotten here", yet more mugs were passed down.
In that way, everybody was quickly handed things to drink, with "For me an uulong would be fine", "Please pass that beer back here!" and so forth as the final adjustments were made.
"Everything handed out!? Everybody's here, right!? Everything's ready, organizer! Oka Chinami! Let the party begin!"
Even standing Chinami wasn't that tall, and her beer mug was bigger than her face. Saying "Way to go, Chinami!", "Not bad, Organizer!", "Super-chibi!", "I can't see you!", and so forth from here and there with supportive voices, people laughed and applauded. Mr. Two Dimensions and Mitsuo were also taking part, whistling heartily through their fingers, Banri raising his voice as well, saying "Way to go, Oka-chaan!", slapping the table with the hand that didn't have a mug in it. Only Kouko, of course, looked uncomfortable, cradling her mug in both hands, though she looked over towards Chinami one time.
"I'm really glad to see all of you came here today, let's have a really good party! In firm solidarity with our fellow new students of the current year, we have an eye towards enriching our campus life! Needing to commemorate our association as classmates, let's celebrate our first meeting! Ah, one word of warning: no forcing anybody to drink! ...Good!? Isn't that right!? Well then, all together now!"
Everybody lifting their mugs together,
Going along with Chinami's voice, every seat in the house burst with energy. A terrific shout was raised.
"Noo! Cheers, cheers, Hey Yana-ssan! Mr. Two Dimensions too, Kaga-san too! Cheeerrss!"
Banri, reaching out without concern for spilling the contents, knocked his mug against those of his friend and gulped his beer down with gusto too. The beer, already warming a bit, gurgled in his throat as he drank it down. And then, halfway through wiping his mouth, visibly excited, he looked towards the organizer. Emptying what remained in her mug at once, she shouted "Whee!" with all the composure of a Texas Long Horn. Receiving such a loud ovation from everybody surprised Chinami. Even Mr. Two Dimensions shouted "Terrific!", his eyes going big and round.
If he looked towards Kouko, her handkerchief draped neatly over her lap, she was holding the mug in both hands, trying to taste it, but over by her Mitsuo was reaching out his arm with all his might. She tapped her mug to his, "klink". Banri was watching. Or rather, he saw because it was happening right in front of him.
"Just now, I believe we were the only ones who didn't tap our mugs together. Things like that bother me. Cheers."
Their eyes meeting for a moment, the two childhood friends spoke quietly together.
Since all you could drink didn't cost much, the orders were always by the pitcher-full, even the ice pails came heaping full, so everybody simply used the pour-it-yourself drinking method.
In the beginning, on each table there had been placed two pitchers of beer, all of them filled, nonetheless in a little while they started hearing things like, "Over there, since XX-kun is requesting a currant soda, so the table in front of you.", "This, since XX-chan is asking for a green-apple sour, to this table.", "What shall we ask for next?" and so forth. But for the time being, the system was holding up.
But as time rolled on, the alcohol started affecting the young people's heads. Nobody quite knew what they were ordering, even the waiters, if they thought they hadn't brought anything would suddenly bring five or six full multicolored pitchers in replenishment, in turn some sort of sour, or some kind of highball. Even tasting the drinks, they didn't know very well what they were. Lined up sloppily on the tables it might have been only "alcohol-flavored" soda water.
Here and there drunken gibberish,
"Whaddya think dis is? Grapefruit sour? Moscow? Whaddisit?"
"Somethin's makin' it cloudy... Calpis, mebbe~...?"
"Whaddever 'twas, I drunk it~!"
"Shudd've mixed it first~! Idjit~!"
Like that, they laughed. Clapping and leaning against each other, they roared with laughter.
There were guys drinking directly from the pitchers, guys trying the cocktails as they pleased, guys going around the tables greedily eating the food, guys continuing to be disliked for offering indecent proposals to the girls, guys with red faces lying down on the floor, guys with vegetables stuck on their eyebrows, and besides that, many other things happening, from the toast to about one o'clock, when the group's excitement reached it's climax.
And then at that time, speaking of Mr. Two Dimensions,
"Yech! How many times this... who put this stuff in here! Disgusting! It makes no sense!"
Picking parsley out of his beer mug, he grimaced as if it were first time.
Somebody, drunk, had tried to toss food into the pitcher that shouldn't have been. Banri, reflexively, peeked into his own mug too. For once, there was no evidence of foreign substances mixed in. But it bothered him to see an iridescently spreading oil film on the surface.
"Mine's fairly decent, drink from mine."
His elbows on the table, Banri was on his fourth uulong tea highball...? He'd downed something like that to the last drop. When the mug turned upside down, ice fell on his face. Pushing aside the pitcher the parsley had fallen into, Mr. Two Dimensions said "Don't wannit!", looking for the next mug of uulong tea highball...? He reached out for a similar pitcher.
The feeling that they had gotten off to a late start, which somehow lingered even after the party started, left Banri and Mr. Two Dimensions feeling a little bit out of it.
The other people in the room had already changed into a completely drunken mass; even the seats were wearily involved. There was a group making noise in hoarse voices, both guys and girls stretched out on the cushions. With the girls still seriously asking things like, "XX-chan, are you OK~?", the guys were left alone entirely, rolling around here and there in a sight too painful to watch.
The difference between "Light" and "Dark" was quite clear.
Those silent, muddled, foundering guys were "Dark". Sitting idly separate, they were in a "why'd I come" state, playing with their cell-phones and games. In the "Light", stupid noisemakers formed into mixed groups, one guy, one girl, in pairs closely cuddling, exchanging contact information. They too were "Light".
Of course, Banri and Mr. Two Dimensions in their little corner were, clearly, dark. In their quiet area, like a lonely island left behind by the commotion,
"...Somehow all the three-dimensioners are really excited... looks fun..."
While holding the uulong tea highball (?) in his mouth, Mr. Two Dimensions murmured with a voice unable to cut through the tumult.
Banri looked around the area a bit with slightly blurry eyes too,
"Though I was once a three-dimensional person... hey... did you try and talk to somebody? To get casually closer to that fun looking group over there and try to mix in? At the least, there was somebody over there chatting a bit about Chinese."
He tried to point at the guys and girls mixing and chatting, looking like they were having fun, but,
"...Noo... nothing like that. Nothing else either. Rather, this way, those kinds of people have seemed like a wall for me... whatever, enough of that. Today has tired me out. No no, you and I are in a deliberate drinking mode."
In the end, Mr. Two Dimensions gave up the battle.
Stretching out their bodies lazily, piling up two half-broken cushions to support their backs, they laughed like crazy about how they looked like old men moving carefully. Enough of that for me too, said Banri, turning defiant also. Throwing himself down on the floor-mats, his elbow on the cushions,
"Anyway, aren't we a pair of guys talking carefully over our drinks? For the moment, I've never heard about this ‘Blood and Iron Girls!'...?"
The mug he'd been about to grab suddenly wasn't there, and he missed. Pulling Banri's mug out from under his arm and gulping it down all at once,
"...Hmph! Come on now, look around you! I'm the pitiful one here, without a single friend!"
Bam! The one who struck the table with such force was Kouko. Without anything to drink, Banri looked over at Mr. Two Dimensions, looking sad. "What the?" said Mr. Two Dimensions.
Facing Kouko was Mitsuo, seated Indian style,
"This ain't fun! Why, if I cannot look around, then I can't do anything!"
He was like a large dog, barking like crazy from the excitement. Gulping down his mysterious, ashen cocktail of too many things mixed together, he said "...You first!", and once more glared at Kouko.
---You guys too are "Light", aren't you? This didn't make sense. To Banri's eye, this appeared to be so. They lived in the delight-looking world of the two of them, man and woman.
Those guys, doing like this, will continue forever with their useless yapping and fighting. Mr. Two Dimensions, long ago already tired of intervening, was amazed.
It had to do with their earlier "agreement" that Banri had told Mitsuo about. That is, that Kouko from the very start wasn't the one who organized the party, nor, it seemed, did she even ask to come. It appeared that Mitsuo started spouting foolishness, which would have been OK if he could have passed it off as a joke, but he simply couldn't do anything so clever for Kouko, and with a "What the!?", she struck back at him, and it turned into a fight. "If Mitsuo in particular has never had the chance to party in all his life, then this agreement has no meaning, does it? As for me, because we do have a pact, then three people can always get together, though for Mitsuo even that is nothing, isn't it? Even being able to do so, it's a matter of 'I have no friends.', right? Such a pitiful looking thing, left entirely alone, I might have pitied him, but by our agreement, because we cannot take you in even if you are at death's door, don't go waiting miserably in line! If that be the case---", and from there one and one, for at least an hour. As for Banri and Mr. Two Dimensions, they disagreed constantly as to which of them they were on better terms with, and as to which was really their friend.
Can we even be friends, with things like this?
Banri and Mr. Two Dimensions, agreeing with only a glance, turned their backs and separated a little, but still their voices came to their ears.
"The main point, though, is that if Banri and Mr. Two Dimensions weren't my friends, then you would not have spoken of them as your friends!"
"Huh!? Might the Great Lord of Misfortune, 'Have-Nothing-Mitsuo', be coming to the conclusion that I am fated to have some friends!? By that in particular, and since you've been removed from the agreement now, why don't you realize that little by little you're becoming one lonely cur!?"
"I-diot i-diot! Banri and Two-Dimensions are friends without there being any agreement! Besides, I've got friends in the film-studies club! Aren't there any other first-years in the Omaken!?"
"Hah! Fi-lm Stu-dies! Don't make me laugh even more! Since when have you ever had any interest in film-making? Are you switching to studying such characters? If you would, please explain to me this sudden mania, as a new student, for movie characters, those flimsy things, exposing their winding tails shamelessly in front of you while getting ready to run away from you!?"
"Wh, why does this suddenly have anything to do with you!?"
"Oh my, it looks like I've just hurt you! Have I hurt you!? But you haven't seen anything yet, you're really going to hurt!"
"Blast you! I have to deal with my future! In that respect, you being something entirely unrelated to me, I hope we never cross paths in my bright future! As for me, I will try hard in the Film Studies Club at making movies, studying a ton of movies with Chinami,"
"Oka Chinami!? That Ultrasonic!? Are you going to make me laugh again!? Look at reality! You've never been without friends! Just what are you dreaming!?"
"I have not!"
"You don't have!"
"I do have! And it's a good relationship, you just haven't seen it with your own eyes!"
"Well then, try and show me, that, the rumored 'about to be made friends of'! Where has Ultrasonic been from the start? She hasn't been here! She hasn't come near you at all! In short, it's a matter of 'not saying anything to Mitsuo'! Wouldn't it be better if you understood that!? Or are you planning on being the Ultrasonic's stalker!?"
"Huuhh!? What are you saying!? Talking like that!?"
...Looking at the frowning Banri, fed up with their voices, Mr. Two Dimensions had an "ignore them" coolness to him as well.
And then pouring Banri sake from the pitcher again, giving a toast once more, just the two guys. Mr. Two Dimensions was trying to lean his back against the cushion, stuck against the sliding door,
He jumped up suddenly, as if surprised.
"What, something happen?"
"So, something hit me pretty hard from the other side of the door..."
Automatically, Banri listened attentively, and there it was: a definite banging sound, continuing strangely. The wall separating the rooms would certainly fall down soon.
"It's true... is there a party next door? What might they be having, a party for sumo wrestlers? And then drinking practice? Something like that?"
At any rate, they probably didn't have chanko on the menu... Banri tried to open the partition carefully, Mr. Two Dimensions sticking with him too, the two of them peeking. And then, from an opening a few centimeters wide,
"Eh!? Aren't you Tada Banri and Two Dimensions!?"
"No way~ how unexpected~, good evening~"
---They had a glimpse of Hell.
Yikes! Banri was taken aback, Mr. Two Dimensions shuddered.
"It's the Tea Ceremony Club...!"
Crying 'It's a dragon's nest...!' with the same intonation, he closed the partition at once. 'Hey~that hu-rt~' and the sign of something caught, the tip of a tentacle probably. Not looking out of fear, for the moment Banri was pushing something away with the palms of his hands,
"...Aren't they Sao-chan and Shii-chan!?"
"Wasn't their territory just Amataro...!?"
This time, by main force, they closed the partition tightly. Wasn't there an amulet? Wasn't there any holy water? If they only had packing tape, or nails, though dynamite would be better.
When they'd turned and looked through the crevice, they'd seen two all too well remembered faces. They only saw a bit, but what they saw was enough. Over there, for sure, it was Sao-chan and Shii-chan. ...If we assume from that last shock, with "Nee-saan! You smell nice!", that it was the regular Tea Ceremony Club Bowling, with the Tea Club girls as sumo wrestlers or something...
"...Banri. We, didn't see anything at all."
"Ah. We didn't see anything. ...Ch, cheers!"
With Mr. Two Dimensions, even stronger than before, in complete desperation, they chugged down the contents of their beer mugs. They borrowed strength from the sake, but what they wanted was to completely forget the spectacle they had witnessed.
As you might expect, their heads were spinning by the time they lowered their mugs, Banri propping up his exhausted face with his elbow on the table.
"Ah... it's already, it doesn’t make sense..."
Two Dimensions looked he felt the same, in the same pose, eyes half shut. In Banri's ears, he could still hear the voices of Mitsuo and Kouko arguing.
"Have you, perhaps, been only pretending from the start, trying to make me believe that Ultrasonic liked you?"
"Don’t even think that!"
"It is absolutely the case! When you did so, you were only thinking about how much I'd be hurt. Those are not realistic thoughts! It's just not getting through to you!"
"You have nothing to do with me! Or rather, just how presumptuous can you be!?"
"Well then, I will make a prediction: Mitsuo will absolutely not be able to confess his feelings (or anything like it) to Supersonic! Because he's not prepared to do such things! If I were to fall to pieces, Mitsuo would be as pleased as can be, it would be the one thing of most delight in his life, he's such a little man! So, he will absolutely not confess to her! He doesn't have the wherewithal for reality!"
"Huh!? Aren't you being one-sided!? In general, in general you, ...aah! Enough! Just you wait and see...!"
Gulping down sake from a handy mug close by, Mitsuo's eyes held completely steady. Drinking roughly the same way, Kouko though seated still, was swaying as if in circles.
Thinking, "Are these two all right!?", but not feeling like butting in, Banri was simply watching how things unfolded. Mitsuo, lifting from his seat a little, called Chinami.
"Hey Yanaa, Kaga-saan, how's it going! You drinking!?"
Chinami, her face a little reddened, a mug in one hand, half full of something transparent, came over obediently. Plopping down on the cushion next to Mitsuo, perhaps due to being drunk having it more than ever, her prettily blurred eyes shone.
Sidling up to Chinami, Mitsuo crawled over on his elbows, and suddenly,
"Thanks for the gum the other day! Your feelings and mine will become the same, I'm pretty sure!"
Kouko looked back, said twice, "Got some gum, I got some gum the other day", and once more turning to face Chinami,
"Chinami! I love you! I want to go out with you!"
Kouko spit out the sake that was in her mouth. Banri sprang up. So did Mr. Two Dimensions. Staring in amazement, they looked at Mitsuo. Banri and Mr. Two Dimensions exchanged glances, having a conversation with only their eyes.
...This guy... He... he's gone and done it...
But Chinami's answer,
"Eh? Are you an idiot?"
Smiling, she was.
She continued, "Just how drunk are you?", the smile in her eyes cool.
Focusing directly on Mitsuo's eyes, Chinami's cute-looking face didn't waver at all.
"...O, o, o...!"
Covering his face, Mitsuo fell backwards then and there. Rolling, he ran into the pillar in the corner of the room. "Ooh...!", he groaned, voice low like a departed soul, his body twisting, one of his socks coming off, his draped-on sweater half off, somehow the zipper of his jeans coming half down too, his honor as a cool guy no longer preserved. "Good Heavens...!", playing dead, praying one-handedly, Mr. Two Dimensions watched the situation.
On the one hand, Kouko,
"Uwa... awawa... hawawawawawa..."
She'd become like a villager who'd seen a monster.
With her back bent, she trembled while looking over her shoulder and grabbing Banri's arm, "Auwawawa, hawawawa", pointing alternately at Chinami and Mitsuo, as yet still a chaotic scene. What's more, she was suddenly crying. Her eyes full, she was shedding tears.
"Hold on... th, there there... Kaga-san, calm down..."
"Pyaaaaa... haauwawawawawa... awawawawa..."
Wanting to say things like "who are you...", her personality indeed falling apart, Kouko, still grabbing Banri's arm, remaining still firmly seated, she crumbled over the table, laying her face down. Kouko died.
Kouko's nails were biting into Banri.
---In some calm place, Banri thought that already things didn't seem right.
Owing to the sake, his vision was spinning. He couldn't stop thinking. His chilled brain rested in just one place: it was already impossible. It returned to only that. It's already impossible. Seriously. Hey stop. Impossible.
But you, are you still at the same place? It looks like it.
It asked, "In the end, isn't it like that?"
It asked, "How many hours has it been til now?"
What am "I"? He was even getting to where he wanted to ask such. As far as you're concerned, what is "Tada Banri"? Is this being friends?
What are ‘friends', in Kaga Kouko's world, but a convenient dumping ground for feelings when the destination has been lost?
Is she treating me that way?
...He was already dumbfounded. He'd even run out of rationalizations. I am already impossible. This is far enough. So Banri thought.
With the Kouko who was still watching the Mitsuo who had gotten to this point, had gotten to such a place as this, who had confessed to Chinami, dating was no longer possible.
Going out with her was truly no longer possible.
Banri's clothing was being bitten into by her slender fingers, one finger at a time, one pinch after another. A little apart from them, Two Dimensions was struggling to tackle Mitsuo by the hips. Out of my sight, you two. Banri made eye-contact with Two Dimensions.
"Mr. Two Dimensions... ready?"
"Ho hoo... you're a demon, Banri."
Even Two Dimensions caught the meaning, dragging Mitsuo along by his hips. With grim determination, he opened the partition a few tens of centimeters. And then,
"Oh Great Sisters~! We wish to offer up these two in tribute to you~!"
No sooner did he cry that, then Mitsuo was thrown out, over the partition line.
"Whee~! It's a handsome one~!"
"Or rather, this girl has come as a new member~!"
"Thanks for the meal!" He was suddenly drawn inside and his shape vanished. The highlight, Kouko was next. "Here's another~", trying to push her through, "Mmm~, a girl!", "Doesn't she have such smooth, pretty skin~!", "She's going to get teased, poor thing~", "De, li, ci, ous~" ...dragged by her feet, formerly the figure of Banri's dreams, as it was, she was slowly swallowed up by the Tea Ceremony Club. Her tear-stained face looking back up at Banri, she cried "Why~, How~", but,
To the very end, scratching the mats with her hands, they pushed her away, resolutely, and closed the partition.
They heaved a sigh.
"That was exhausting. Really and truly."
They turned towards Chinami and tried to smile. Chinami kept herself apart from them for just a moment, and returned their smiles. Her flushed cheeks shone roundly. And then, pointing to herself,
Was all she said. Banri slowly shook his head back and forth. Two Dimensions did likewise. Or rather, even as a demon she was OK. He thought that was just fine. It wasn't any mistake of hers. Even though they were drunk, it was nothing. Even Mitsuo couldn't lawyer his way out of it. ...It wasn't a lie! At most, he could talk about it, that's all.
Chinami suddenly lowered her little face, and seemed strangely lonely. Banri was caught by surprise, but,
"...Nooo. Oka Chinami is . The left-out outsider."
Chinami shortly raised her head. From the little bag that was so important to her earlier, she pulled out the very latest Handycam and showed it to them.
"I wanted to show you this! Earlier, I took shots of everybody's faces with this."
"Whaa! That was your super precious treasure?"
"Yep. I've always wanted this camera, now that I've finally bought it, I'm happy! This way, various people's faces--- this time, the faces of kids I've met in college, I was receiving them in commemoration. Would you mind?"
Banri and Two Dimensions nodded, and seeming truly delighted, Chinami turned the lens towards them.
"Though it's rather like a practice run still, anyway I'm making a sort of collage this way, trying to constrain it to a single theme, you see. As if it were a single movie. Though such things are rather common, perhaps, but in our lives, we'll only be freshman college students now, right? I think it's precious, I do. A private thing; as far as I'm concerned a precious work it will become, won't it~ So, um, let's get on with it. Today Mr. Two Dimensions has become a friend, ah, let's hear a word or two from him!"
"U, um, err!? Um, no! I'm drinking! I'm near-sighted!"
Two Dimensions suddenly pulled off his glasses. Surprisingly, his face didn't look different without them. Continuing, the lens turned towards Banri.
"Over here is Tada Banri. Say something too, Banri, give us something really funny!"
"Hmm!? Ah, ...I, I'm Tada Banri! I, err... well,"
His mind went entirely blank. Nothing super interesting coming suddenly to mind, he muttered "Why such a high hurdle for me?" while shuddering,
"...Ah, no way! Nothing's coming to me at all! For now... I exist! Somehow I manage to keep my spirits up! ...And more! Forgive me, but nothing more! Excuse me already, Oka-chan, but I'm not all that interesting!"
He waved his hand towards the camera to hide from it. Chinami laughed and turned off the camera.
* * *
"Kaga-san! Wait, wait, wait, be careful!"
"Where are you going!? Hold on!"
In the end, it was like this.
Kouko's bag hanging from his shoulder, Banri chased frantically after Kouko. Kouko, laughing loudly, somewhat funnily, or perhaps crazily, was running down the street at night, her skirt flying.
She was very drunk, of course, running swiftly while staggering here, staggering there, recklessly causing trouble for a while now for all the somber-faced office workers, their suited forms heading for the train stations.
"Ahaha, ahaha, kya~ ahahahahaha! Chase me, plea~~~se!"
She cut straight through a crowd of people behaving like office ladies, "Hey!" "What's this!?", running into them recklessly and breaking them up. Banri, saying "Excuse us! Sorry about that! Please forgive us!", apologizing like crazy, on the verge of tears, chased after Kouko.
It was horrible. Truly.
"You're really being irresponsible!"
"I don't care~~! It has nothing to do with mee~~~! This is fun~~~! ...Urp"
While spinning on tiptoes like a ballerina, Kouko was rushing towards some bushes. And just like that, she plunged clumsily, bottom-first into a thicket of azaleas. No sooner was she planted in the shrubbery, a car went past on the road. Banri, in a panic, about to lift her up,
Truly, it was the worst. Being forced to sprint as hard as he could right after drinking an uulong highball, there was no way he wasn't going to get dizzy, was there? Feeling faint, he'd given into Kouko's weight and had fallen entirely into the azalea bushes.
As he frantically tried to support the weight of the two of them and stay balanced too, Kouko's breath, smelling of sake, came quietly and warmly to his ears. And then she murmured something.
"...Tha, thad feld bad... again, someding, I feld... urp..."
Still stuck deep in the shrubbery, moving his back up and down with Kouko, as yet unable to get themselves up, Banri was pierced by the chilly gazes of the people passing by. "Are they students?" "I think they're a menace to society." ...Being clucked at, having scorn blatantly heaped upon him, Banri, tired of apologizing, snapped.
"Enough already! If you've got to throw up, do you have to do it here!?"
Opening fully her indeed expensive looking brand-name purse, Kouko held it reverently beneath her face. Swinging her mussed-up hair frantically from side to side, Kouko hid her mouth with her hand and with a suspicious-looking movement gulped something down, and then from inside the bag she quickly pulled something out. She thrust it in front of Banri's face.
---Using the yes/no fan from Omaken.
"Why do you have such a thing right now... hey, wait!"
Kouko, kicking her feet like she was impatient, escaped from the hedge before Banri, and holding only the fan in one hand took off once more with incredible energy. "Tha tha that... golden piece of junk!" He pulled at his hair in frustration, but still, Banri had no choice but to chase her. You know already? He was to where he wanted to drop her bag and her too, and be left behind himself. But he knew that if he abandoned her, rushing down the road the way she was, she was quite capable of being turned into a miserable heap of scrap.
For now, he felt responsible for her.
He (and 2-D) had thrown Kouko (and Mitsuo) into a hell on earth.
And it really was hell... it had to be.
At first they stayed strictly in the first party, while practically everybody, including Chinami, was flowing out to the afterparty, Banri and Two Dimensions remained together in the tavern. Then, in order to collect the bones of the two made into sacrifices, they peeked fearfully into the next room.
When Banri said, "All of you monster girls", Two Dimensions said, 'Eh? Those guys are seafood!?' ...it seems he heard it as ''--- but they'd already struck camp; Sao-chan & Shii-chan were no longer there, and the room where the Tea Ceremony Club had been was as still as death.
For some reason, the tables were all moved a little bit closer together. Left behind were as many as three times the empty pitchers as the freshman students had drunk, and the cushions had been strewn all over the tatami mats. And then, in the middle of that empty space. Mitsuo and Kouko had been left behind there, in an exceedingly cruel way. It was too much. Two Dimensions screamed, covering his eyes with his hands. Banri recoiled. Straight before them were the forms of a handsome man and a beautiful girl who could not endure.
Cripes, that such a horrible thing could happen in this world...
Though it was on top of their clothing, they had towels tied about them as mawashi. They, mostly probably, had been forced. ...To a bout!
They helped the two of them up, made to drink, they were so drunken they couldn't untie their mawashis by themselves. Two Dimensions took charge of Mitsuo, and then Banri of Kouko. Kouko drank some water, and for quite a while secluded herself in the bathroom, throwing up over and over. Her spirits restored a bit, she stood up, wobbly. Eventually they walked outside, and then her mind suddenly went wild,
"Kya~~~~! Ahahahahaha! Ahaha, ahaha, a~hahahahahaha!"
It had come to this.
Running around in the night streets, flying along with the fan fluttering.
Kouko kept running stubbornly away, her high-heels ringing.
For his part, already running after her, Banri was quite groggy. Feeling lousy, his eyes spinning, if he were to throw up now, he was pretty sure he'd've throw up many times more.
Nowadays in the heart of metropolitan Tokyo, everywhere you go there are nothing but no-smoking areas, and this area wasn't an exception. Sometimes in the alleys between the office buildings, in lonely parks too (I cannot say), nearly every space hidden from sight by gloomy, shabby bushes, has, in general, become a place to hide and smoke. He didn't know who managed to do it, but a pile of big, fat cigarette butts had been stuffed into the bushes, and from where Kouko had gone flying out just now, they'd built up even into a bench.
He sighed. "...Al, already I've... had enough!"
Kouko was standing on a bench she'd jumped onto, like a leading lady upon a stage. Banri was finally exhausted. He fell to the ground as if he were kneeling, not even his pride there anymore. Like the islanders who worshippedMothra, both his hands were raised in simple supplication.
"Shall we go home already!? Hmm!? Please, Kaga-san! I ask of you! Ride with me! In a taxi!"
But Kouko's answer,
Snap! Putting forward the NO side of the fan, she basked in the light and struck a pose. She barely stood on her unsteady feet, but she was imposing, planted on top of the bench.
"How can that be!? What do you mean by doing such things!? Am I that awful!? If Yana-ssan were to say 'come back', would you prefer that!?"
Drunken eyes, smiling mouth.
This was no laughing matter. If Kouko didn't return home, he wouldn't either, it would be dangerous if he lost sight of her, and he wouldn't be able to call for help in his cell-phone. If they got into trouble like this, they wouldn't be able to get out of it. They'd be a problem for all the other freshmen they'd gone drinking with, and even for the persistent Chinami.
"Well then... enough! Just what am I to do!? What should I do!? Can this be something more for me? What about me!? Me, this... this, doing like this, being embarassed, is it 'being friends'!? Did you want this!?"
Wobbling, Kouko suddenly flipped her fan around. The answer: Yes.
---Why, he wondered if it was now.
It was entirely as if he'd been pierced by an arrow. The arrow fired by Kouko that Saturday drew a wide arc in the sky and was slowly turning towards the fan. And now, it descended on Banri. Now it came to stab his body, over and over again. I do not love you. Banri was assailed by such a arrowhead. Blood spurting out, Banri was wounded.
To the degree his pain wasn't given substance, he wondered how, at such a time, his body could be tormented. Not wanting to cry, Banri was at a loss. Unable to stop himself, he sank down to the ground, his hands shaking clumsily.
What are such women!?
To myself, to Tada Banri, you are doing such a horrible thing, Kaga Kouko.
Even though I love you, you don't love me. Though it was not love, the relationship felt good, you said. So I want to be friends, you said. I've been chasing after the you that's been crying over the other guy. You've been running away from me. And yet, I've been unable to not want to chase you. Even understanding that I could never catch you, I still could not stop chasing you. And because of that, even if I could save you, it would not be enough for me.
Because she's my friend.
And that was fine, he'd once thought. For her sake, he had wished from the bottom of his heart to support her. Those feelings were the real thing.
"...Would it be all right if we stopped already?"
There are limits.
The kind, true feelings, the ulterior motives he had wanted to hide, the regrets, whatever other thoughts as well, these had already come to an end. Exhausted, there was already nothing more to come out of Banri.
If there's no love, then so be it. There was no use complaining about it. He had just enough wisdom to think so. But, still, still and yet, and yet--- he didn't want to make use of it.
He could not stand being treated this way, being tossed into a convenient garbage can labeled 'friends'. He would not allow himself the fate of being treated all the time like that.
"I want to stop. Being friends. OK?"
Still sitting on the ground, Banri looked up at Kouko's face. Kouko, her eyes looking off somewhere vacantly, was standing on top of the bench, doing nothing. While her body swung from side to side, she looked down upon Banri.
Banri pulled the hand-mirror out of his back pocket. It sparkled dazzlingly under the light, a flare of light in his vision as he extended it out to her.
Examining the pretty thing a little bit,
"Answer 'yes'! I don't want to be friends with Kaga-san anymore. After all, you said this and that, but always about Yana-ssan. Only about Yana-ssan. Yana-ssan said he loved Oka-chan, and you cried and made a fuss about it... Did you happen to consider my feelings, as I was made to watch that happen next to me? You didn't, right? If we were friends, just what did you think I was supposed to do? Those who don't care for me, I cannot care for either. It's about time we split, seriously. Like that. Now, shouldn't we?"
Extending his arm, he presented it to Kouko.
Kouko, a strange expression still on her face, looked at the friendship mirror Banri extended to her.
The fan didn't move. Neither did Kouko. Banri, impatient, "Enough already", dropped the hand-mirror into Kouko's bag.
"So, 'yes' was your answer. With that, from this moment, I am no longer Kaga-san's friend. OK?"
Finally, as if taking a breath Kouko's mouth opened a little. Her soft lips, the long eyelashes that even from here could be seen to be trembling slightly, as if scared. Awkwardly, the fan was turned towards Banri.
She doesn't understand. She's like that.
"...You don't want to stop being my friend?"
"Because being with me feels good? Because I seem to understand the clumsy Kaga-san well? Loving you even when you're useless? And therefore you're able to be your true, honest self? Breaking down my stubbornness, being able to spoil me?"
Moving the fan many more times, Kouko insisted over and over again: Yes, Tada-kun!
"Give up. I won't be spoiled! When you dumped me, you lost even the right to wish for what you had been saying from the start. I saw the extension as convenient for me. I've now realized that I was making a mistake. I thought that I wanted to understand you, because I loved you. I tried to be boyfriend and girlfriend, because I wanted to go out with you. That feeling was by no means, 'After being dumped, this time I will try to support Kaga-san, helping her with her love'. That wasn't happening. It absolutely will not happen. Eternally never. I can't do that kind of thing. ...But for me, at last I understood. If you were to become close with any other guy, I would get uncomfortable. Therefore, from now on I cannot be concerned with you. Though I'm saying it rather bluntly, I don't want to have anything to do with you anymore."
No! No! No! As if slapping something, Kouko was waving her fan. Her voice wasn't coming out. Simply opening her eyes wide, staring directly at Banri's face, she was bracing her legs so as to not fall down. Her white chin was quaking, as if she were struggling to breathe.
"...If you hate me like that, well, well then,"
She seemed to be entirely done with laughing.
She almost made him laugh. He was about ready to burst. His own foolishness, playing the clown after a long time. Oka-chan, you can take a shot of me! Because my present self, perhaps, has reached an all-time record for funny. Because you should have quite a laugh.
"Of course, you want to go out with me!? It's OK! Now, if possible! Now is not too late! ...How's about it!? If now, then because Yana-ssan was no good, then let's campaign for Tada Banri! If now, then I'm allowed! How about it!? Be courageous, for now it looks like we're doing that!?"
---Kouko, she didn't laugh at me.
Her high-heeled feet making her wobbly,
She spoke as if out of breath.
"No way. I'm not waiting. As for me, I don't wait for anybody anymore."
The fan wasn't moving. If the answer is not 'yes', then the campaign is over.
Banri stood up despite how light-headed he had gotten and extended her bag to Kouko. With an uncertain gait, she finally descended from the bench for him. As if clinging to the hand which held the bag, Banri jerked his chin 'Let's go'.
"Even if you don't come, I'm not waiting. Wherever you escape to, I won't be chasing after you anymore."
"...Tada-kun...! I, I..."
Turning down the street, he walked off. The sound of her footsteps was slow, but she followed just behind him.
"Hey, please... hey... listen to me... please... you're wrong, it's wrong, I, I..."
Stopping alongside a taxi with it's 'available' sign lit up, Banri turned around. To the taxi-driver by the open door, he pointed at the petrified Kouko, saying "This person needs a ride." After that, only two words.
As cleanly as possible, with no loose ends left behind. He wished for her to forget everything. You don't love me.
If this is good-bye--- then farewell it is.
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