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Tada Banri was checking his timing.
College first period, in the corner of the lobby.
While hiding himself stealthily by a column, he watched the students coming and going, mixing together, looking for the moment to jump out.
If you looked at him closely, he’d seem an ordinary guy, not very strange. And yet, with a ghost right next to him (mine!), sticking with him in the very same pose; if people had the least ability to see spirits, they'd see me, but it seems that such situations only exist in stories.
Banri, his back still stuck to the column, slowly stuck out his face, drawing it back at once. Concealing the pounding in his chest, he wondered if he could make his face more like Tom's in Mission Impossible, but unfortunately he could not. He was Japanese.
Some meters in front of the table, a few of the Omaken upperclassmen were seated. Linda was there too. There, in the club's territory, they were chattering away as always.
At first, Linda wasn't there. So Banri tried to get closer to the table, but noticing that Linda was coming from another direction saying "Good Morning!" and such, he had hidden here in a panic. And that's how it came to be like this.
He couldn't get any closer for now, but to make his retreat from here, getting close to that table was something he had to do, and Banri had become unable to move.
Still unaware of Banri being present in that way, Linda sat on the shallow bench, having fun chatting with the other guys about this and that.
Banri has been acting like this ever since the morning he ran away as soon as he saw Linda's face. He won't go near the places where the second-years are. If he happens to notice anybody that looks like Linda, he runs away instantly. Linda, nevertheless, sends him a text once every day. Did you come to school today? That kind of thing. But without answering, Banri continued to sneak away and hide.
Since the drinking party, he hadn't even shown his face to the Omaken upperclassmen. There were scheduled practices he hadn't gone to, and at present because of that something was going to happen, so of course it could not stay like this indefinitely.
"...Ahh... What to do..."
That was the truth! Looking up at Banri's face talking to himself, I told him. What will you do, Tada Banri?
Making a face like that, so miserably running from place to place. How long do you plan on going on like this!? Be firm! Be earnest!
Live life boldly!
---Of course, my voice doesn't even reach you.
Banri took a long breath and came out from behind the column. To look at him, he seemed a young soldier lost alone in enemy territory, seen dimly amongst the other students coming and going in the early afternoon.
I took a breath in the same way. Already tired of following along, even in Banri's hide and seek, I craned my neck to look over towards the table. At the table, or rather, at Linda.
Seated lightly with her hand stuffed in her pants pocket still, Linda was raising her voice in laughter at the joke of some guy he didn't know. From the pocket where her hand was still, a cell-phone strap protruded. Holding tightly to the cell-phone in her pocket, she was probably keeping on her wait for a reply from Banri. Linda was that kind of person.
That, Banri did not know.
He didn't know how pretty Linda's long hair was, nor how fast a runner she was, nor her sweet singing voice, nor how she was always wondering whether to get a piercing, nor even her pride at how her abs were about to break into a six-pack. And however gentle or cute she was, she was a splendidly willful person too... Banri knew nothing about Linda.
And so, not knowing how much Linda was worried about Banri, or how much she was restraining her emotions and not saying much in her text messages, even not knowing such things, she probably needed him.
It was intolerable.
To this body that understood Linda, Banri's attitude was unbearable.
If only I could step out, separate myself from Banri and snuggle up to Linda's side. Many a time, it was as if such thoughts were stirred up in me. If only I could hold wrap these hands around Linda's shoulders. If only I could caress her head, say "All's well!" and stick my nose into her hair like a puppy of the same litter. ...And yet, even just being able to sit next to her would be good enough. I want to be by her side.
Banri still hadn't moved. Hiding behind the column, hanging his head, he was troubled, looking as if he were about to cry. And so in the end, I continued in my presence at Banri's side.
Not moving from my, from Banri's side, was simply because of fear. If I were to separate myself from Banri's side, I have a feeling that really would be "the end." That Tada Banri's existence would be completely forgotten was scary. I'm scared that who I am, who I lived with, that all would be lost completely. And I'm scared of disappearing altogether.
For that reason, if I were to stop keeping an eye over Banri, a point of view would disappear from this world. Either way, I disappear. ...Perhaps.
Of course, I'm dead. I've known that. That's long over. I certainly understand that. Though I comprehended that, though I had already given up, yet still, to choose to step in out another direction from his own body was terrifying. There was an instinctive, primordial fear there, one he could not understand himself.
Unable to overcome that fear, the cowardly dead me had no choice but to continue hiding with Banri. ...For such as I, perhaps, may not have the right to say that I "cling tightly" to Banri.
At the Omaken table, just then, Kaga Kouko came into sight. Banri noticed, and his body went stiff.
Linda waved to her, calling "Ko-ko-chan," and made her sit next to her.
"Eh? Err, Tada-kun didn't come? But he said a little bit ago, 'I'll see you at the upperclassman's place.'"
"No, he hasn't come."
"Is that so? That's odd. I'll try calling him."
Kaga Kouko pulled out her cell-phone, with an elegant movement pulling back her hair to expose her ear.
Ma ma ma ma --- From Banri's back pocket started vibrating and jauntily playing a forgotten ringtone, at quite a volume.
Kaga Kouko lifted her surprised face, and looked over to the column where Banri and I were hiding.
Panicked, Banri tried to stop the melody, dropping the cell-phone in his impatience. Failing to pick it up, a private ring tone that, after saying only a few days ago "Gaga's good," Kouko had set in Banri's cell-phone, continued to play.
Po po po.
Pressing the button with his thumb, the melody finally stopped.
Holding his breath, Banri, his body ramrod straight, tried to become one with the pillar.
Kaga Kouko's white face. Her wide eyes. Forlornly looking into space, she closed her cell-phone as it was and put it in her bag.
"It didn't connect?"
At Linda's query, she answered "no" with a pretty smile.
"Sort of. It went to the answering machine."
Everybody, each and every one--- had a poker face.
* * *
The moment he opened the door,
"It isn't very tidy, though."
Telling himself that he musn't show his bit of nervousness, Banri, casual to the max, in an ordinary way, entered into the next room. Kouko followed behind him.
"Pardon the intrusion. Are you locking the door?"
"Ah, as it was... ah, sorry, of course it's locked."
Ye-s. Click. The dull sound of a lock setting. The sudden feeling of being behind closed doors. Banri, awkwardly stepped forward, both right hand and right foot together.
"It's been since that day, hasn't it? I've come to Tada-kun's place."
Kouko took off her high-heeled sandals with a smile, "err", looking around the narrow entryway.
"Wh, what's up...?"
"Do you happen to have slippers? Because I'm wearing sandals, I didn't wear stockings, so I'm barefoot."
Drat. That's right. Slippers.
Slapping himself once on the forehead, Banri thought regretfully. He'd thought his preparations were perfect, but he'd had a blind spot.
It would have been a good thing if back when he'd just arrived in the capital, in the short while his mother was there for him, he'd accepted slippers from her. He'd said, "I don't wear them, and even if I had space they're a bother" and gave them back to her. Though his mother Mieko had told him, "If friends come over, what will they wear?" Banri had replied flatly, "Friends refined enough to wear slippers don't come over. Humans like those who come up to my room, all of them are guys that would probably pad around casually in their bare, sweaty feet." There's no use crying over spilt milk. Such were his thoughts.
"I have no excuse... Now, in this room, there is nothing like unto slippers..."
Somehow, he'd even done it a little literary in style.
"Oh. What can I do? Still, they're not done up, and going barefoot might be a little embarrassing..."
"I, I would never mind, though... oh yeah, instead..."
Banri dashed into his room, selected the nearest new socks from an unlabeled, semi-transparent box there, grabbed a pair,
"If it's okay with you, here's this..."
Like something offered to the gods, he handed them over to Kouko. Even with such a problem, Kouko received them, looking happy, her lovely face smiling broadly.
"Thank you. This is my second time borrowing your socks, you know."
"Is... that so?"
"Yes it is! Have you forgotten?"
Was she saying he'd forgotten the past? Was she saying he already had his hands full with the present?
There there, for now for now, come in come in, Banri invited Kouko to enter. He pleaded that his room wouldn't smell, nor his feet. That he wouldn't have a stomach-ache. While praying to the heavens for this and that, on his face was a smile. With all his might, right now, Banri wanted to bring about the most casual atmosphere possible.
Because, she suddenly said it. "Today, would it be all right if we go to your place?" or something like that. "Why not just take it easy, the two of us?"
Told something like that, suddenly, at the end of first period, Banri frankly returned immediately to his place.
Not saying anything to anybody, not giving a clue to Mitsuo nor even to Two Dimensions, ditching class, he dashed home temporarily, and desperately cleaned his room of the smells that go with unkempt males.
He took all the accumulated garbage bags down to the first floor garbage station (a most wonderful thing in this world, those 24-hour garbage stations), cleaned things, stuffed the dirty laundry for now all out of sight in the clothes washer, and stored all the not quite dry clothing and underwear into boxes in the closet and under the bed. The things he didn't want Kouko looking at, but were too valuable or precious to throw away, he stuffed into a box that had held stuff sent from home. A few "sexy things," which if they were noticed wouldn't be too worrisome, he dared to place in places easy to understand. This way, saying "I don't have anything hidden, do I? Men are all like this. I am entirely open." he would bring about the mood.
And then, the demon spray of Fabreze. The fury of Toilet Quickle. The thunder of Quickle Wiper.
And then--- good. To the bed.
He didn't have such plans, but just in case, the bed.
To make it, or not to make it.
A dirty towel spread out on the pillow, he'd picked it off and tossed it out. The sheets, safe. Miraculously safe. Since he'd moved into this room, he frankly hadn't cleaned it even once, and yet by chance the day before yesterday, he'd felt like taking care of his laundry... no, just kidding. Promising himself to do it, he did his laundry. Having the towel-blanket to be washed also, he did his laundry.
Kouko was probably going to come into his room at some point, and he was worried that if for some reason or other she were to ask if she could use the bed. So she wouldn't think at that moment "Wow, this guy's bed's filthy! There's no way I'd sleep here!" he straightened it up ahead of time.
And then, if he wrapped each pillow up in towel-blankets, then look here, this isn't a bed, is it? It's a sofa, right? So let's sit down! Here, side by side. Right? Right!?
...Saying such things, looking forward to things going well, what shopping was needed, he did.
At the convenience store, one of the Muji stores. For the first time in his life, he was buying things in silver packages. Because he was an idiot, he was seriously worrying where to put all fifteen of them, because he was an idiot, he tried to arrange them here and there. And then, because he was an idiot, in the end, not knowing what he should do, he hid four apiece in his three closets, and against his will, he stuffed one in his wallet. He believed that like this, casually, would be just right... eh... no, wait...!?
Was it strange...?
Was he going to say in that moment, "Hold on!" and walk cheerfully, his seedy butt exposed, to the closet, to his wallet or wherever? Was he going to go to get it, like an idiot, even in such places as those? Eh...? What sort of face was he making? Did he say, "Wait a moment~"? ...No way, no way! No way something like that! More like this... that's right, if he put the wallet closer to the bed, within casual reach...
Without realizing it, with a look akin to horrible domestic violence, he'd whirled on her.
In the kitchen, Kouko had stopped moving as if in shock. Her standing figure somehow seemed like Mickey Mouse, owing to the white socks on her feet.
"Wow, sorry... what, what? What, what happened?"
"Th, though I thought I heard you ask if I could make some coffee..."
"Oh, yes yes! Or rather, because I do things like that, you just sit down! Take it easy, OK?"
By the sink, already set out, he had a pair of clean cups and some instant coffee sent from home. When he'd last gone back home, he'd arranged little things like this.
In order to finish up with them, Banri had, pretending innocence, returned a second time during the middle of third period. Eh? Me? Wasn't I there the whole time? You left the lecture. I wasn't there? I must've been in the bathroom! Acting like that.
The reason for him sneaking around like that was a matter of male sensitivities.
Anyway, saying "I desperately need to clean my room," he didn't want the truth to be known. Not by Kouko, not by anybody. He didn't want to be misunderstood. Whether he was full of anticipation of something erotic, or was simply desperate, if he seemed like that, forgive him. ...Of course, he wasn't going to speak of what wasn't happening. What wasn't happening, was of course nothing. He wished that someday such things would happen. Even if nothing happened, so that he wouldn't worry, he prepared. But, that that case was even thought of was wholly unexpected.
The cleaning of the apartment, for the first time, thoroughly, was so Kouko would get a good impression of it. Because he didn't want her to think it dirty. Because even if it was snug, he wanted her to enjoy her time there.
He didn't want to be captured by such pure devotion, by her saying such things as "I want to do it now! Desperately! Tada Banri!"
...He didn't, really.
And so, leaving casually after fourth period, he'd met up with Kouko. Shaken together by the train, they returned once more to this room.
Already, the orange light from the setting sun shone through the two windows to the northwest, lighting the floor. Pouring mineral water into the T-Fal electric kettle, he flipped the switch. He would normally use tap water, of course.
"Well then, it seems I've casually accepted your offer."
"Just like that!"
Kouko grinning with socks on and facing towards the bed disguised as a sofa--- made him think, and suddenly change direction. To the corner of the kitchen.
Looking at it, Banri jumped up, startled. He swallowed a yelp from having overlooked something dangerous.
Calm down. He calmed himself down. Grabbing the kitchen counter with his trembling hand, he propped up his body.
He'd realized, now, that he'd made a terrible mistake.
On top of a stool in the corner of the kitchen, there were some hazardous materials left sitting in a cardboard box.
He should have tried to hide it on top of the cupboard, ...oh yeah. At the time he was trying to hide it, he'd gotten a text, distracting him and making him forget completely.
Kouko, without noticing the intense aura Banri was emitting, grabbed hold of the box, set it at her feet with a grunt, and sat quietly on the stool. ...It's okay. There's nothing to be worried about. Nothing's happened. He hadn't been exposed.
"Oh, pardon me for acting out of turn. The box, is it OK if I put it here?"
"What's in there? It seemed rather heavy though..."
"...Veg... vegetables... and things..."
"From Shizuoka? Oh, maybe, something made back at your home?"
Without being aware of Banri's heart begging her "Stop it... to cut it out... to stop pretending... even physically... even subjectively...," Kouko smiled, in good spirits. In her current mood, as awkward as she was, she might easily say things like "Can I look? Oh!"
For the time being, there was no way he could keep her away from this kind of hazardous materials.
Quickly pouring the coffee, he set it on the low table in the center of the room. And then, saying "Let's sit over here!", he suggested the cushions on the floor. Little by little, biding his time, he didn't suppose it was time yet to invite her "Don't your feet hurt? Won't you sit on the 'sofa'?" but the time would come. There was no use in hurrying now.
Banri quietly dropped the dark brown powder into the cups, waiting for the water in the pot to boil.
"You've really fixed up this room, haven't you?"
Looking over the small room from the stool, Kouko spoke as if in admiration.
"What's more, somehow it smells nice..."
Here and there in all the disorder of the room, he'd set out some powerful air freshener, working even better than Black Rose.
For now, Banri felt relieved.
He didn't think this cramped, one-room apartment was a suitable place for a perfect woman to live in, but it didn't seem unpleasant to stay here.
So, Kouko was perfect. Today she was perfect too. The lines of her body precisely outlined, the soft material of her one piece dress a pink pattern tending towards red. However it was constructed, it was made to resemble a traditional kimono in the chest area, and showed off her cleavage quite deeply. When he saw her in the morning, it had caught his gaze before he knew it, and to hide the fact he'd said "Th, those clothes really suit you!", at which Kouko had said with a smile, "It's a Fürstenberg!" set one hand on her hip and struck a poze as of a standing model, showing off for him. He had no idea what it was, but anyway, Banri felt he really liked it. He loved it, thatFasutenbaagu. It was a really good thing.
Wound through her long, dark brown hair she wore a white katyusha. On her wrist was set a rather large bracelet... not a bangle. Her bag, too, was white. Her entire body wearing a summer fragrance, Kouko seemed to sparkle.
She was like that now, too. She was radiant, glowing as a beautiful woman.
"Co... coffee's ready!"
Unintentionally, his voice had turned into something upside down.
Kouko, still seated on the stool, said "Wow, thanks" and reached out her hand. "No, not so", said Banri, withholding the cup.
"Do-don't you want to sit over there!?"
Jerking his chin over towards the low table,
"I'm fine here. Somehow it feels really comfortable, it suits me! This stool."
Banri, smiling, kept a poker face. Told like that, he couldn't refuse, and handed the cup over to her. He gotten to where he'd wanted to throw it away! This stool. While he was practically trembling, for the moment he sat himself at the table as he had intended. This wasn't working out very well.
Realizing that the sound of his long sigh echoed strangely, he grabbed the television remote in a panic. They were running the evening news, and while Kouko swung her feet,
"Wouldn't it have been better if you'd bought some munchies?"
She was talking as if she were completely relaxed.
"One of those limited time, look, what was it you said? You said it when you left."
"Like potato chips!?"
"Yes yes! That, that kind of thing..."
"Like chile flavor!?"
"That was it! Wow, incredible! How is it you always know what I'm thinking!?"
That's not true! It's because I told you what I saw when I went shopping at the convenience store not long ago! And because while I was at it, I saw a bunch of new products that had been piled up there!
"...Hahaha! How is it that... thinking about one's beloved, of course you'd understand... how is it..."
"Enough of that! Well well, I don't know you either, do I? Yes, that's it! It got it! Among those vegetables, is there any spinach!? How about it, does that hit the spot!?"
---He was dizzy.
I beg of you. Please don't open it up and check it. Right now, there are some truly incredible things stuffed in there. I beg of you. Great god. Great Lady Kaga Kouko.
While on the verge of passing out, unable to speak, Banri, for the time being, drank down the hot coffee in gulps. How was he going to separate that box of hazardous materials from Kouko's curiosity for puzzles?
He could use a well-known pattern, in which he'd say something like "Ouch!" and spill some coffee. When he did so, Kouko would say something like "Are you all right!?" rush over, and with a dish-cloth wipe his chest dry--- and so on. How about that, he wondered. Things would process naturally from there.
Should he try spitting out a mouthful of coffee, and then pretending to be burnt, exaggerating it, tricking her just a little jumping around like a soccer player trying to simulate aiming a free-kick?
"Hey, Tada-kun. Setting aside the spinach, are you listening to me? We had a few things to talk about today."
It might be worth giving it a try. Banri held some coffee in his mouth. And then, ...one, two, "Was there something between you and Linda-senpai?"
He spit out with all his might.
Coughing violently from coffee stuck in his windpipe, after that he didn't have any voice. Finally Kouko, according to his plan, came rushing over with a dishcloth in one hand and saying "Are you OK?"
"Cough cough cough! ...Urk!"
Of all things to have happen, looking like he was about to throw up, falling to his knees, he turned his back on her cleavage.
"Tada-kun, should I thump your back!? Is there water!?"
"...I'll... I'll be OK..."
Gulping down the nausea that was building to the rhythm of his coughing, Banri took another step, opening up the distance between him and Kouko.
He wondered if there was such cold water.
Why was such a topic brought up here?
She simply hadn't forgotten, of course. He always thought that he couldn't just leave the matter of Linda as it was. Ignoring her messages and running here and there, there was simply no way she could like the self that was pretending not to see the senpai that saved his life, that was truly kind and gentle.
He was simply... feeling out of sorts. Being out of it in various ways, he lost control. That was it. Just himself, getting along playfully with a woman, chattering her up, "How goes your cleaning?" "How go those hazardous materials?" There was no way to have fun like this. It was no way to be happy.
Coughing violently again, Banri covered his mouth firmly.
There, it was done. Over with. Just like that, it seemed.
It was time to look away from inconvenient things and pretend not to notice, enjoying life. Period.
There was no way to escape the reality placed, bam, in front of you. Jumping out, running away even, such was only a temporary flight.
Did something happen between you and Linda-senpai? ---Do you and Linda-senpai have a past?
Before his accident, he and Linda seemed to have gotten that close together, having fun. And then his memories were gone, and without even knowing, they didn't see each other again. Linda, as if she didn't know anything at all, had built up a new relationship with him, and then it failed.
Banri crushed it. My past self must've been pitiful, was, probably, and blamed him.
Linda seemed about to explain, but without so much as listening he had run away.
He was running away the same way, even now. He decided there was some reason for Linda's behavior, some logical reason for it, and that it could be understood, later.
Later, because he did not know what kind of face he ought to show if he ran into Linda.
Feeling he wanted to disappear while standing in front of Linda hurt.
He felt that as far as Linda was concerned, his current self must be something painful. She's probably telling herself that she had to deal with reality. She probably wants the real Banri to return to her. She must want his currently existing self to disappear.
The truth is, nobody should ever be in this position, you cannot even stay human. Nobody knows this better than I.
But, having virtually become like this, I do like this and live. That being denied him, well then, he thought over and over, what should I do? A sadness that he could let go of continued to ooze out from that place, always flowing.
"...Tada-kun, hey, are you really all right? Though you've hidden something..."
However, there were fingertips touching softly that back.
Gentle and warm, those white hands were worried about Banri.
Raising her face, Kouko sat down at Banri's side, her eyes blinking as if in worry.
He thought, wondering that already he could not live without the miracle of her, of Kaga Kouko, staying with and loving such a one as himself.
"Y, yes. I'm OK. Or rather..."
Finally, taking an honest breath,
"Why were you suddenly talking about Linda-senpai...?"
"About that, you see, err..."
He tried to look up at Kouko's face directly. While her large eyes blinked in surprise, Kouko's lips thinned as if she were dodging the question,
"...A woman's, intuition? Sort of?"
Hehe, she shrugged her shoulders.
The matter of his past with Linda, and then the time he happened to spend with Linda recently, what would happen if he told Kouko about it all? He considered it, but stopped at once.
He didn't want to set such "difficulties" between himself and her. To the relationship they had only just joined, he didn't want to impose too much of a burden. For them as a couple, he didn't want to leave even one more item looking even a little bit like work. Even in the best of times, he himself was a landmine. Having something dangerous like loss of memory, he was a man not to be relied upon.
For the perfect Kouko, a perfect happiness was called for. For her, the right thing was a spotless, perfect love, all wrapped up neatly.
"...Did you come all the way to my place, specifically to talk about such things?"
To the girl he absolutely couldn't lose, Banri, with all the power in his hands,
"What are you saying? I have nothing at all with Linda-senpai. I like her, naturally. For her, I want to behave as an underclassman."
She grinned back. Nothing more, nothing bad had happened at all, with such a perfectly blank face.
Stiffening towards Kouko in a slightly awkward kneeling position, Banri said "But Kaga-san must be like that too", and broke out in laughter once more. Yes, she nodded meekly.
"Well then, that's over with. Where were we? Munchies? Shall we go buy some? Me, I've somehow gotten hungry. But it's still early for dinner. Or how about if we go get something light at a shop near here? Err, there's a cake shop, an eat-in bread shop, a Vietnamese-like noodle shop, and though we don't have a Starbucks, we do have a Doutor! Our coffee's gotten cold."
As if encouraging himself, Banri said "Let's go for it!" and stood up, full of energy. Wanting to escape for a bit from the mood, he quickly stuffed his cell-phone in his pocket. The housekeys too.
"...That right, isn't it? Well, why don't we take a look at the cake shops for a bit?"
Kouko stood up too, taking her bag from where she'd hung it on a stool.
He had about enough money in his wallet to get into the coffee shop, without even having to go to the bank. About 3,000 yen, if he wasn't mistaken... there wasn't anything in particular he had to buy right now... while he was remembering this in his head, he was tapping out a rhythm with his wallet in his hand.
Something fell, plink, to the floor.
Before Banri could notice or even bend over to look, Kouko got there first.
What's this? Crouching down and reaching out,
"Just now something fellll~~~!"
Raising an awful shout, she fumbled it two or three times and let it fall.
"Wh, what!? What's wrong!?"
What the heck is it? He went to pick it up. Silvery, the little package was reminding him of something... and then, recognizing it from what he had just purchased at the Muji store,
Banri shouted too.
He wondered if secret intentions had ever been exposed so openly as this. His mind blank, his face bright red, he kicked the thing under the bed at the speed of light,
"...Did you see!?"
Looking back, he covered his face with his hand. Yep, yep, Kouko nodded.
"Have you seen it!?"
I saw I saw I saw, I saw I saw I saw I saw, she answered, mouthing the words.
"...Wh... What did you think!?"
What are you asking, in her face like a straight man chewing out an air-head? Whatever she thinks or does, wasn't she going to step back from you?
And yet Kouko,
Her body wrapped in a one-piece dress, as soft and supple as a cat, she suddenly started laughing. Her face was bright red, about the same as Banri's. Before long, she raised her chin high, one hand on her hip.
"Fufufufu! Fuhahaha! Aahahahahaha!"
...She looked like an evil queen who had conquered the whole world.
Acting the seductress, she laughed as if she were trying to manipulate him, brushing her long hair up before Banri's eyes,
"It is! Hey! ...So it is! It's so, isn't it!? ...Isn't it!?"
Still in the pose of laughing loudly, and yet she was a little awkward in her movements. Half of her was the evil queen. The other half, C-3PO.
"Because we're dating, those... of course, such things happen! I understand! But hey, well, just look..."
Still holding her bag, she was backing off. Slowly but steadily. The upper half of her body not moving, the movement only in her feet.
"...I think something like that, hey, ‘naturally'. If such a thing were to happen as a natural progression, it would be fantastic... I, don't understand very well though, but if such a thing were to happen like that, I don't understand very well though! It'd be beautiful! But! Still! Anyway! Naturally!"
Before Kouko, who was talking round and round, the veins of her forehead livid, could he do anything other than nod? Banri nodded yes at every single word she said.
He almost fell over.
He thought it would be rather incredible if they were to progress "in due time" and arrive at long last in Paris. At the least, Banri could not "in due time" go to Paris. First of all, he would have to start "in due time" getting himself to the government offices, and "in due time" obtaining for himself a passport.
Then, though Kouko had drawn back, she suddenly raised her eyebrows in a sad expression and slid over, drawing closer to him,
"...It's a dream, something I see. When it comes time to do such things with a guy for the first time, then it has to be Paris. The city of lovers, Paris. To see the Eiffel Tower from a petit hotel... with somebody you love from the heart... It's destiny, one night."
"All, all in due time...?"
"All in due time."
As if she were teasing him, she stared at him with moist eyes, and then suddenly she was clinging to him. She wrapped her smooth arms about his neck and pressing against his lips with uplifted fingers,
"Oh...! Hold, on... Kaga...san!"
What do you mean by "Shh"? Does our conversation carry? Her softly swelling chest pressed up against him perfectly, in a manner of speaking.
As if she were trying to look into Banri's left eye and right, Kouko's beautiful eyes swayed back and forth.
"...I don't want to dishonor our fate by doing things half way. I want to be the perfect lover. As far as I'm concerned, it's something important. ...Very much. Very, very, very much..."
She was sticking to him like a kiss. Just not on the lips. Aiming for the border between chin and neck, her lips pressing up against him were meltingly soft.
It was giving him goosebumps. An excited shiver ran from the nape of his neck to his brain.
With the sound of a kiss again, Kouko's warm lips separated.
From less than one centimeter, point blank range,
"...Shall we go for cake?"
Kouko's lips spoke. There was just no way he could resist that sugary, sexy, husky voice.
Like a puppet, putting his feet into motion, Banri turned towards the entryway. Mechanically, he put on his shoes. He waited for Kouko to take off her socks, then went outside and inserted his key in the lock. He turned around.
"...I... might have died...?"
Really, he muttered while they walked together down the outside corridor. Pushing the elevator button, Kouko turned back to Banri happily.
"If we were in Paris, you'd've died. Shell-shocked."
... Those strangely unpleasant sounding words that Banri didn't understand, their r's rolled, he thought it was something she really loved. It was probably something awfully good.
"How could we go there, Paris...?"
"If we buy airplane tickets we can go."
"I want to buy them, I want to buy them soon...!"
"I'm looking forward to the Eiffel Tower."
"Eiffel~.... My Eiffel...!" y Entering into the elevator, the moment he touched the "Close" button,
The figure that came running from some room on the same floor was small, but she jumped through the door opening. She'd been startled all of a sudden, and from her lips a cigarette was dangling. If you looked carefully, it was not lit, but in her hand she held a lighter, and seeming irritated, she subjected the "close" button to a barrage of pushes.
Rather quiet, she automatically traded glances with Kouko.
Seeing his neighbor for the first time, she seemed to him rather dangerous.
At a glance, she was wearing worn-out black jersey pants, and a loose black T-shirt. From the beach sandals she was wearing, her black-painted toenails could be seen. Her fingernails were too. On her middle finger was a huge skull ring. Her skin was too pale. Her body was too skinny, like a middle-schooler. Barely realizing that she was a grown woman, he saw through a gap in her sleep-mussed deep black short-bob haircut that her face was surprisingly pretty and well arranged. Looking like a child without makeup, she seemed pale and plainly unhealthy.
The three of them awkward in the closed room, they slowly descended to the first floor.
"...What? You two."
Banri was surprised to be spoken to out of nowhere. He wondered if she was asking what he was looking at.
"Hah. You're dating, of course. Hmph."
Being softly mocked bewildered him yet more. Not knowing what else to do, he looked down at the floor. Kouko looked uncomfortable too, hiding behind Banri's shoulder and looking up at the corners of the ceiling.
"Are you ignoring me?"
Arriving at the first floor, that person left in what appeared to be a bad mood. As soon as she got outside the entrance, she lit her cigarette and puffed with all her might as she walked off.
"...What was that? The person just now."
"I wonder what. She felt a bit scary, don't you think?"
Banri and Kouko turned and walked away in the opposite direction as the scary neighbor, for now, taking aim for the shops.
* * *
Like that, slithering away.
He couldn't help but to sneak around, continuing to run away from Linda and from the Omaken table, and in the end he managed it a whole week.
During that time, he went with Kouko on a date to Ueno Park and they met every day at school. Her credit cards taken away still, Kouko was cut off from her addiction to Starbucks, and seemed uncomfortable, but simply dating as fellow students and walking hand in hand was plenty of fun, and as far as Banri was concerned, he didn't think it too much of a problem.
As the time he spent with Kouko increased, his time with guys decreased. It was a bit unfair to Mitsuo and Two Dimensions, and for a few days they were even a bit shocked.
And then, June in Tokyo.
And the start of the rainy season.
According to what Kouko said, "It's the season for roses!" and here and there in the area around Banri's apartment brightly colored rose blossoms bloomed in profusion, giving off a sweet scent.
The temperature suddenly went over 85 degrees, and then the next day it fell back 25 degrees. As if trying to accustom the locals to the red hot inferno of summer, the ordeal neared, soaring up and down. Banri wondered if it wasn't the warmup run for the next season.
It alternately cleared up, clouded over, got hot and cooled off. Unable to decide what clothes to wear, he couldn't wear the New Balance shoes Linda had given him.
Banri had secretly stole a glance or two at Linda's form. It seemed to Banri that her situation had not changed, and that she was spending the normal days of a second-year college student. Only that the texts stopped coming. He was unable to meet the faces of the senior Omaken members, but the date they'd previously set for rehearsal was nearing.
Going to the rehearsal would be awkward. But for the only two freshmen to be absent would be awkward too. If Banri skipped, Kouko would probably have questions too.
He couldn't keep on like this. Banri thought he was treating them badly--- Linda, and everybody else.
But as he kept on running away, each day, each hour, each minute, each second even, the weight and awkwardness of his crimes piled up on top of him, and Banri's feet slowed down more and more.
As time passed, the question of "What should I do?" in bitter regret was changing to "What should he have done?"
Even if he could do any of it over again from any point, he could hardly have wound up procrastinating worse. But while he was unable to do such things, more and more time passed.
Time spent with Kouko, that fun, sweet, rose-colored and completely intoxicating time, Banri wanted it all, greedily, for himself. Setting aside pain and bitterness, just spending more and more time going out to eat, he was coming to life. Eating to get time together, he found himself burdened more and more with increasing weight, and he was sure that in the near future he would get to where it couldn't be undone. To Banri, the weight hadn't gotten so bad as a backpack.
Alone like that, still paralyzed, before long,
---Time must have been standing still.
"Isn't your cell-phone ringing?"
"...What? Oh yeah, it is. I mean, I don't know this number."
Second period over, he'd met up with Kouko before the back door of the big lecture hall.
Pulling his cell-phone out of his back pocket, Banri looked at it in puzzlement. The incoming call was an cell-phone number he didn't know.
"Better not answer it. Sounds suspicious."
Her figure in a vividly orange one piece dress, Kouko raised her prettily drawn eyebrows and shook her head side to side. Today, her white forehead was exposed by braiding her long hair and gathering it up, acting in place of her absent hairband, and in her ears were diamond earrings sparkling brightly.
"Hey, let's go. What do you want to do for lunch today? The cafeteria, of course? As for me, I'm always undecided between specials A and B,"
"Oh! Wait a second. It went to voice-mail."
Talking like a spoiled kid, Kouko said "Let's go! Our favorite corner seats will get taken~," and while she tugged Banri's arm to follow her, the message left by the caller on the answering machine started to play.
He tried to listen, and suddenly he gasped.
A woman saying she worked for the company managing the apartments where Banri lived was saying something like "There has been some accidental flooding on the veranda of the apartment next to yours, and we would like to make sure nothing got inside your place."
"Oh man, are you kidding...!? That's horrible...!"
"They said there was a water leak next door, and my room might be flooded! Wow. Excuse me, but I've got to go home right away!"
"Eh!? You're kidding! Shall we go together!?"
"No no, don't you have third period? Go to the lecture! I'll send you a text later!"
The television, the computer, the wires connecting them... while thinking of the things he didn't want to see wet, Banri waved to Kouko and dashed off. Running to the lobby, slipping through the glass entrance door, he went out under the warm mid-day skies.
He wondered how to get ahold of the insurance company if there was damage. Or rather, he might have been told long ago. He was afraid his parents would ask him "Weren't you listening?" if he called them. He would make his parents worry, calling with such problems again. But this wasn't big enough a problem for that.
He ran to the station, hopped on the train, and worried anxiously til they got to the station nearest his place. Arriving at the platform, he flew out the ticket gate and into the neighborhood, running for the street entrance to his apartment building.
He took the elevator, as unchanging as ever, to the fourth floor, and grabbing his house key as he went out,
"...Eh!? What's going on!?"
"He came, he came. He really came."
The person standing in the narrow outer corridor like a roadblock was completely black.
Jet black hair in a short bob, parted in the middle hanging down in the front, heavy makeup. A studded choker in punker style. In slim black denims and a worn-out tank-top with a skull design, she wore thick rubber-soled boots. So skinny as to rattle like a skeleton, carrying a second-hand guitar case with stickers on it, that figure with the foreign cigarette stuck to her lips... what was the name of the character in that certain shoujo manga?
"You're NANA-senpai... aren't you!?"
---Cosplay, it looked like that was all it was. That, and yet.
"You. You ignored me altogether the other day, didn't you? Even though you've stood on the very same stage with me."
"Eh!? The, the other day... what're you talking about!?"
NANA-senpai squinted sharply, looking presumptuously at Banri's face. So, he had met this person in the spring, a third-year student from the same college. Leading the odd band with the two chainsaw guys and the drummer, while performing that noisy, destructive 'poetry reading', knocking Banri and Kouko from the stage with that guitar, with all her might, she was one very dangerous upperclassman.
Her style was too extreme not to be noticed on campus, so he suspected she might have been unsociable of late.
NANA-senpai raised her extremely thin eyebrows with a "Hmm?" and plucked the unlit cigarette from her mouth with a skull-ringed finger.
"You don't recognize me? We were on the elevator together."
In other words, some days ago, the time Kouko came over, the person who had said "you're ignoring me" over her shoulder was this NANA-senpai? But in that case...
"But isn't there something wrong about your height!?"
Without a word, NANA-senpai pointed at her boot soles, which were at least 4 inches high.
"I mean, isn't your face completely different!?"
She said that sharply, with a cold look, as if she were disgusted or amazed at him.
"Well, even though we've been living on the same floor, we never noticed. But, if I hadn't noticed, would I have been able to trick you into coming back with such a phone call? That stuff just now about a leak, that was from me. 'Next door' is my place."
"Eh, eh, eh...!? Neighbor!? You're my neighbor!?"
"You seem to be easily deceived. You ought to be more careful."
"Even though I went around to say hi to everybody when I moved in, weren't you the one who didn't want to come out!?"
"Why would I come out for something like that?"
"I even said we'd brought some evening snacks: ! With my mother! Even though I rang the doorbell!"
"So hard, just what you might expect of somebody from Tokyo!"
"I'm from Saitama."
While listlessly muttering "Warabi", NANA-senpai started walking down the corridor as if guiding Banri. As he was following after her without complaint, as meek as a servant boy, Banri shouted again.
"So why would you do such a thing...!?"
She opened the door to her own place, next door to Banri's, and sticking her face inside,
"Now. Didn't I tell you he really does live next door?"
She was talking to somebody. And then the face that suddenly and awkwardly came out,
His breath stopped.
Linda. The person Banri was avoiding, the person in question. As if saying, "I give up," her hair all askew, Linda was also at a loss for words.
Like that for several long seconds, they stared at each other in silent stillness.
"It... it's not what it seems..."
For her part, Linda's voice squeezed out, seemingly painful.
"This, NANA-senpai arbitrarily, practically forced... me, really, I had no idea you'd been living here all along... and then NANA-senpai, this NANA-senpai, NANA-senpai,"
Shaking her head while arguing with a desperate look on her face,
"Aren't you 'Nana' too? For now, get out here."
NANA-senpai stepped inside, grabbed Linda's hand and dragged her out into the corridor. When she tried to go back inside, she was roughly pushed out again, or rather kicked out by those rubber soles.
"Since you're half-baked, mushy and noisy, go get that 'I want to talk to that guy stuff' out of your system. I'm fed up with your complaining about something I don't understand, so by this way and that, I've made him come here. I've got work to do. And rehearsal. And sleep."
The cold door closed before Linda's nose. At the sound of the key turning from inside, Linda jumped frantically at the door,
"Senpai! Senpai you! I mean, my, shoes! Aren't they in there!?"
Banging on the door, insisting,
"How should I know?"
From inside came only those words. Banging on the door,
"You're an idiot!"
Said Linda, and
"Your shoes and bag are set aside to be burnt."
She said. Sorry! I'm very sorry! Senpai isn't an idiot! Senpai's a genius! Linda's voice repeated over and over, but for now there was no answer.
Linda was standing on tip-toes, with nothing on her feet but light sneaker socks. The door to NANA-sempai's room was of course closed, and Linda looked at Banri with a stiff face.
"...things, are though..."
Banri, already dumbfounded, as if he'd become numb stood up abruptly then and there, and looked Linda over.
Well then, shall we go to my place? ---Though it took him three whole minutes to get those words out.
"You know, that person is one of the original Omaken..."
Virtually terrified to go past the awkwardness, Banri could not even draw in an decent breath, and yet,
"But she quit right after I joined. So we've known each other since then."
He tried to imagine NANA-senpai, together with the broken job hunter ex-President Hosshii and the ape-like Kosshii-senpai trying to dance the Awa Odori, the Yosakoi or whatever in ecstasy with cigarettes stuck in their mouths, sucking the last of the oxygen from their throats.
"...That... I wouldn't have expected it."
"And that person, her real name isn't 'Nana'. From what she's said, that's not her formal name."
In Banri's room, just the two of them.
"But it seems her parents called her 'Nana'."
Linda, looking bored, stood still for a bit in the hallway by the kitchen.
Meeting Banri's eyes, who stood stock-still in the middle of the room, she laughed, looking a little nervous. In jeans and a tank-top, and over that only a unisex-style shirt, Linda-like, ambiguous, appropriate, a good-looking style.
In the room, still as he left it in the morning, it seemed to him that the tepid air was mixed together with his own body odor.
A crumpled towel-blanket rolled up in a ball, A T-shirt used as sleepware left behind, thrown on the floor. In the sink, there was a big plate and spoon used last night, still dirty where it was, and the cup he drank tea from in the morning, still sitting there. The stool he sat on, still there. Plastic bags from the convenience store, bulging with garbage, were rolling around, and the north-facing curtain was hanging loose, half open.
A dank atmosphere that could not be concealed hung over the room with the two of them. Banri's expression became gloomy once more.
Unable to say 'please laugh', unable to even offer her the slippers he'd bought for Kouko to use, Banri was still in a daze, doing nothing particular in the middle of the situation.
What he should say, what he should do, his thoughts were unsettled. Quietly panicking inside himself, he'd become as silent as a board.
"...Living by himself, in this room."
Linda was murmuring to herself.
Ignoring Banri, he could not answer, she walked in her socks over to the window before the north veranda and looked out over the scenery. There shouldn't have been anything important to see there. Still, this somewhat cluttered neighborhood where Banri lived alone had no scenery to speak of.
"So this is where you live. Banri."
Pressing her forehead to the glass, she spoke a little more clearly this time, as if she were making sure.
Then, turning around and putting the window behind her, she looked towards Banri and took a deep breath. Her throat sounding as if she had been sobbing,
While calling his name, Linda was half-covering her face with her hand. While breathing out she hunched her back, hanging her face down sharply. She was talking like that.
"I'm really sorry."
Her voice was soft. One by one, tumbling down like sweets, the sounds gently echoed.
Her shoulders were sagging like somebody weeping, her face was hidden like somebody shedding tears, but it sounded like there was a gentle smile present in Linda's voice.
Her voice gently caressed Banri's ears, his neck and his back like a warm rain shower.
As if melting Banri's coldly frozen life, it enveloped him in a warm, reviving breath.
"Now, even getting to be like this. Even until now, everything. I did horrible things, and created too much confusion."
Standing several yards away, Banri felt his body begin to tremble. He wondered why. Even though it wasn't cold, he could not stop.
Please stop apologizing like that, there's nothing wrong with you, Linda-senpai, I was just running away from you out of worry--- that was what he wanted to say.
But he couldn't say anything.
Banri's intention was to distance himself from her, but his body, now, was simply trembling. And then, slowly but steadily, a dampness begin to overflow from inside him, a strange sensation attacking him. Suddenly, he wondered if he was going to wet his pants. He was astonished at the abrupt feeling of incontinence, but it wasn't even a little bit of ‘leakage'. It was tears.
He didn't understand why it was that tears suddenly started streaming out so surprisingly.
There weren't any emotions overcoming him. Banri couldn't understand why he was crying.
Simply that his body was crying of its own self. It was as if it wasn't his own.
What should I do?
I don't know what I should do.
When she noticed Banri's tears, Linda opened her eyes wide as if she had received a shock. Then, almost as if she were jumping, Linda stepped towards Banri. Straightening up, she peered at his face.
"...What's this? Why are you crying? Are you sad? Are you lonely? Are you OK?"
Frantically shaking his head side to side, Banri wiped the tears from his cheek with the base of his thumb. The strength of his body leaving in one breath, he sank down miserably to the floor.
Altogether like a guardian, Linda sat down with him, looked hard into Banri's eyes, and raised her voice as if to persuade him.
"There's been something I've wanted to tell you all along. So much, no matter what, I wanted to say. I am truly happy to see you again. I am really glad."
Taking his shoulder, Linda smiled at him.
"I was wondering what I could do to change things. So I said, 'God, let Banri live.' I was worried, you know? That day, I suddenly heard from somebody they'd found you in the river, badly hurt, unconscious, and all that, with such talk about... he might die, they said. I'm serious. Everybody but me was saying, 'Banri really may have died...' I was rea-lly worried, and scared. I thought, 'If this is a dream, wake me up.'"
As she spoke with a smile, she kept on shaking her head from side to side. She seemed to be trying to persuade him not to cry, that he could not cry.
"And so, my wish came true. You live, and here you are. For something like that, I can give up anything. I would allow it with pleasure. But just one thought... I am wondering just how difficult life must be for you. Just that. If my being here by your side makes it more difficult for you, then perhaps I should leave here, your side. It wouldn't hurt much more inside. Compared to Banri eternally lost, it would still be a joy."
The reason for these tears, freshly welling up, not even Banri knew.
His own foolishness, his own awareness of being an idiot, was tearing this petty body and heart to pieces. The tears were blood streaming from fresh wounds.
I wonder how mistaken I am, he thought.
I am not even trying to understand the person known as 'Linda'. In my own narrow field of vision, and with a very small scale, I am weighing the heart of this person to my own convenience. If she loved the previous Banri, she probably wants my present self to disappear. Hiding that was probably really hard. Oh, I'm sorry. ---Making such assumptions, in fear because its suits me, always running away without even listening to Linda, I have burdened myself with guilt of my own accord. I thinking of Linda as if I were punishing myself with a stone weight, as if I were saddled with a burden of misfortune.
Even though she was glad this body was here, even like this.
Even though she prayed that his life be spared and remain here.
Somehow, it seemed so. He lived on without dying, and his life was protected, because Linda exchanged it for something. More than just a "lucky accident", as far as Banri was concerned this person always, always seemed to be authentic. She seemed to be the real thing. He felt that to that extent, it was the truth. If he were to look at the person before him, at the person called Linda, carefully, coming to know her well, he would understand a person capable of such things.
He wondered just how bad a fool he'd been.
Really, but how much?
"...I am very sorry...!"
Banri crouched low, pronouncing those words to Linda. Finally, he'd said it to her.
Then, getting up, he pulled an unused bag from the closet. Inside there was a single photograph.
It was the photo of his former self with Linda that he had discovered back home. Under the blue sky, smiling broadly and cheek to cheek, there was the two of them in their high-school years.
Unable to leave it behind, yet unable to look at it either, a weight on his heart that he could not escape, "that time" now changed the very meaning of his existence.
Because such a time had existed, because there was a time that sparkled like this, the present existed too. Because this time living with Linda happened, I was able to survive in this place.
Now, meeting up with Linda again, he was living like this, in this place.
Holding the photograph tightly in both hands, pressing it to his chest, he was able to tell Linda those words.
"This... is that so?"
Smiling while looking at the photograph, Linda, who seemed to understand, lowered herself to sit on the floor next to Banri. Sitting on the floor with her knees up and her face against them, while both her hands fiddled around time and again with her ears and hair, she gave a slow nod.
"That's how you knew about me. ...Now I see. It was from having something like this."
"...You and I, what kind of relationship did we have?"
Sitting down in the same pose as hers, Banri asked her what he had always wanted to know. He wiped away his tears with the base of his thumb and continued, his voice coming out smoothly and naturally. It seemed to him that here his pain and suffering was nothing. Before he knew it, he could even smile. But his nose was still running, the drippings salty.
Linda gave him a long, slow look, as if she had missed him.
"We had a truly, really, incredibly good relationship. In the same class all three years of high school, in the same clubs, oddly we felt like--- the best of friends, so to speak. We were always stuck together, the two of us. But, we just weren't dating. Our relationship was beyond good, but it never became a love affair. We would tell each other that even if either of us managed to fall in love, each of us separately getting married and having families, and growing old, we would always, even as we came to be grandfather and grandmother, stay bosom buddies. It was that kind of relationship."
Banri, again alone, realized his misunderstanding.
Before, he and Linda had hung around together and confided in each other. He wondered, even though they weren't dating, wasn't he, at least, in love with Linda, deep down? The face in that picture seemed to glow with such a fever.
But, it was possible that Linda simply didn't know of those feelings. Unable to convey those feelings still, Tada Banri, had perhaps disappeared entirely from this world.
While thinking that if that were true, it would be a shame, Banri peered down at the pair in the photo. With innocence, with openness, they seemed to be laughing happily. The base of his thumb touched the picture softly, and the tear stuck there fell down over their smiles. Both Banri's face and Linda's.
Linda reached out, wiping it off at once with her dry fingertip.
"Banri was a good guy, whimsical, funny and friendly. But sometimes, he seemed somewhat unreliable. I was forever following Banri around. Like that, saying things like ‘What are you doing? Are you OK? Hey, Banri!' I was always doing like that, looking after him. More than a ‘guy', he might have seemed more like a little brother. Though we were of the same year, I was like his older sister."
"Somehow, things haven't changed much, have they?"
"...Now that you mention it..."
They exchanged glances, which shortly turned comical, both of them cracking up at virtually the same time. Their laughter turned out strangely light-hearted.
It really did. Banri and Linda's relationship had not changed after all. He had lost his memories, they had left their homes, time had passed, and they were doing the same things. Linda the surrogate older sister was looking after foolish Banri, following and covering for him.
Come to think of it, from the beginning, from the moment the current Banri met Linda, it had always been so. The one who rescued Banri from the tumult of the entrance ceremony, Linda. The one who saved him when he was kidnapped by that strange cult too. And from then on, as his club senior, Linda kept Banri under watch always, worrying about him, watching over him.
"I mean, I am somewhat of a disgraceful fellow... but isn't that the same as saying that I'm so useless that I cannot live without Linda-senpai? There was a chance that I might have gone to a different college, and if we hadn't met up like that at the entrance ceremony, then about now I wouldn't have the self-confidence for living."
Linda gave Banri an exaggerated laugh at that, but he really did think that way.
If Linda had not been watching over him, and had not been standing by his side, protecting him, his current self wouldn't be here, he felt from the bottom of his heart. ...Specifically, for now, perhaps on that mountain, he, together with Kouko, would have fallen prey to the Crystal God.
He looked at Linda's face again. Laughing "What's this?", her face had a gentle shape.
Plainly, she was an angel. As far as Banri was concerned, Linda was clearly a guardian angel.
Sheltered under that person's gentle wings, one way or the other, he lived. In this way, blessed with a strong guardian, his existence was possible.
Even he recognized it: he didn't have the power to do it by himself.
"That's not true! Don't think you cannot live if I'm not around. It's just not so. The truth is, you are not such a weak man, Tada Banri. I guarantee it."
Turning about, from right in front of him, Linda looked back at Banri. She looked him straight in the eyes.
"But hey, I don't think that your life from now on will be a piece of cake. So hey, from now on, as your senior in the club... or rather, as a friend you met in college, plus, as a person who knew you before your accident, I think I can be a good support for you. Unless that bothers you."
"It's such a bother! Why, it's not nothing! But..."
Scratching his face a bit, not really wanting to say it,
Because he couldn't think what the "reason" was.
However, Linda's eyes opened wide in surprise, as if she were asking "What're you saying?"
"But you aren't Banri. Naturally not. Even if you have forgotten, you are an important person to me. ...Meaning that I enjoy being with you. Though you've changed, you are unchanged. For me, the time I spend with Tada Banri now is enjoyable. And so, I was thinking I want to spend some time together with you, in a normal way. That's all it is. ...You know what I mean?"
Smiling sweetly, Linda extended her right hand to him.
Nervously about to try and take that hand,
"This kind of thing is over."
She gave him a strong high-five, then suddenly gripped his raised hand firmly. She let go at once, then pointed at his face. That was their proof of being best friends, apparently. And then Linda suddenly stood up lightly.
With convenient timing Banri's cell-phone rang, and at a glance he saw that it was Kouko. He urged Linda not to leave yet as he pressed the answer button.
'Hello, Tada-kun? How's the flooding?'
"Ah, well... that was OK for sure, though..."
'In truth, I've had some problems here too. Is it OK to talk now?'
While giving an ear to Kouko's voice, he looked over towards Linda, wondering what he should do. Linda lightly raised one hand and with a low voice,
"I'm going back next door. Catch you later."
Still barefoot, she went to leave. Disconcerted, Banri covered the telephone mouthpiece with his hand,
"Ah, hold on... you can use my sandals if you want! Err, they've got to be around here somewhere..."
"It's okay. Don’t worry about it. Stay by Kouko-chan's side and listen to what she has to say. If you love her, you must not leave her side. Never. See ya."
Linda opened the door and, in her normal light-footed way, went out. Supple, quite like a capricious cat on a street corner.
* * *
Riding the train, he gazed at the route maps pasted on the wall with an uneasy feeling. Was he going to arrive safe and sound at Mitsuo's place or not?
It was the train he used for his normal commute, but the station near Mitsuo's place was the next one further from the college than the one near where Banri lived.
It was the first time he'd come to this district since arriving in the capital. The bright sunlight had already begun slanting, giving the view through the shaking windows of the spreading Tokyo townscape a strong orange tint. Condominiums all standing lined up tightly together, as if glued to each other yet haphazardly, pachinko parlors, questionable looking pink chain store advertisements standing off to one side, and in the other direction thickly growing green belts. Together with the darkening sky, it all seemed so vast.
The evening rush hour must've been building up. The train was beginning to get a little crowded, with the uniformed shapes of middle schoolers quite noticable, and here and there regular passengers standing around too.
The cell-phone that Banri held still contained the address for Mitsuo's place that they'd politely exchanged when they'd only first met.
Though up to now Mitsuo had only come to Banri's place, there was no particular significance to the switch. It was just that Banri's place was closer to the university, and Mitsuo had many opportunities to pass by casually. This time Banri asked if it was all right if he went to Yana-ssan's place, and Mitsuo said it was fine.
...Because he'd said that, and said he didn't have to call ahead... sort of... so, he trusted in that and got on the train.
Though he said he didn't need to make prior arrangements, he was heading that way now, so of course he sent a text message. He'd tried calling him several times. Still, there wasn't any reply. He sent a message off to Kouko too, but there was no reply yet from that quarter either.
Kouko's status said "Mitsuo may be in crisis."
She said it was after that. As for where Kouko had observed that he might be in crisis, she said that after Banri had been tricked into returning in a hurry by NANA-senpai's bogus phone call, the person in question had left the school cafeteria by himself, "lonely" and "sad", according to her.
The campus being as busy as usual, and by herself, carrying a tray, searching for a seat too, conscious of other people's eyes on her, it seemed that Kouko was rather desperate to find somebody she knew. And then, spotting Two Dimensions and Mitsuo and drawing near, she sat down with the guys without saying anything. In the end, nervous and alone, she sat down in a chair somewhat apart.
Shortly thereafter Ultrasonic--- Chinami showed up, leading some other girls.
"When she said 'Oh, it's Yana!' I knew that spoiled, yapping voice. I knew at once."
It seemed that Chinami said something like "Today I'm not letting you escape!" Kouko looked her way, and Chinami was about to approach him smiling, brightly, as if clearly nothing had happened. She behaved herself as if nothing had changed from before.
For a while, Mitsuo stayed with the other guys, but eventually saying "Chinami, could we have a moment?" he invited her off to the side.
Since that place off to the side, so to speak, happened to be right in front of Kouko, she pretended to be asleep for now, turning her face down to hide it with the tray by her side. Then,
"Mitsuo spoke like this. He said, 'Because the other guys notice, would you not call out to me? I've noticed that everybody's laughing at me.' At which Ultrasonic said 'Like that, forever?', and Mitsuo replied 'forever.' So Ultrasonic said 'I will do as you wish' and walked away, leaving Mitsuo there for a while, looking down at the floor. I was desperately pretending to sleep. Wondering if it was okay yet... I lifted my face and Mitsuo was still there; I was looking directly at him. I was thinking, 'This is bad!' and I tried to say 'Hi!' to him, but he ignored me completely and left. Since then, he didn't come out to third period, he's ignored the texts I've sent... I've been a bit worried."
Through the telephone speaker, Kouko's voice seemed quite colored by worry. Then,
"So I thought I should call you and ask if you could go over to Mitsuo's place and check it out. Hey, it's not like I can just go over there myself, right?"
"Yes, you. Don't you want to?"
"No, it doesn't bother me, or rather, I'm worried about Yana-ssan too, and though I'm completely OK with going, what do you mean by 'It's not like I can just go over there myself'?"
"No way, what are you saying? Though you're my boyfriend, there's no way I can go into the places of other guys living alone. Two people of the opposite sex, secluding themselves in a private room, isn't that scandalous? Shouldn't it be? Am I not right?"
"Yes, it is!"
---If that's the case, then haven't we been fooling around already?
But of course, he didn't say that. Banri set the matter at first priority for now. Leaving his room alone, he took this train. Kouko must've already gone to fourth period by now, or if there wasn't a lecture she was probably on her way home.
He'd thought about bringing Kouko along too, but he had an uneasy feeling about what Mitsuo would think of that, and if worst came to worst, and Mitsuo wasn't home, having stepped out somewhere for a bit, then it seemed to him easier to just return home by himself.
As he neared his intended station, the platform came into view. Banri was trying to calm the uneasy feeling in his chest, taking deep breaths repeatedly. When he finally reached this guy's place, it would probably be the first time he didn't get lost in this town. Then he wondered if the guy was OK.
It seemed to him that this was surely "Mitsuo's Crisis."
The guy who had to tell the girl he loved to stop calling out to him… it was that Mitsuo. About now without a doubt he was feeling really depressed, descending into self-loathing.
The train's brakes slowly engaging, Banri stood up from his seat. Not having any bag, he had his wallet in his pocket and his cell-phone in his hand.
With only local trains stopping at this station, there weren't many people getting off. Walking across the empty platform, he went up the stairs. There was a north ticket gate and a few south ticket gates, and wondering which he should use, he tried the north gate because of the address.
Beep, he left the ticket gate using his pass.
Banri looked around the area a bit.
Though it was the first time he'd gotten off at the station, it was arranged the same as many before. It seemed to him that not even the scenery was all that different. What caught his eye at first was the same signs as ever:, Century 21 and so forth. But even so, the shopping district didn't seem as nice, nor were there so many shoppers as in the neighborhood where Banri lived. You could even call it dreary.
He checked Google Maps on his cell-phone, then followed the main street to the right.
Along the sidewalk, a row of Ginkgo trees grew thickly.
Even with the slanted sunlight, the humidity was strangely high today, and Banri was flapping his two-layered T-shirt, trying to pass some air under it.
Walking straight ahead like that, didn't he say it was a few minutes from the station ticket gate? Turning at his landmark, the building of a small device manufacturer, and looking carefully at the map, he rounded a tricky corner into an alleyway. Down that way was the apartment where Mitsuo lived.
A quite normal, nondescript two-story building. Adequate for a poor student to live in, it was a traditional wooden apartment. Banri's place a phoenix from the ashes by comparison, you could say this place was very old, but more than giving the impression of falling apart, it seemed really cool. Many trees and plants were planted on the grounds, growing thick and dense, bringing a certain charm it seemed to him.
There were no automatic locks of course, so he just went up to the second floor via the outside stairs. Mitsuo's room should be #203.
Seeing as he'd been ignoring texts and phone calls, whether he'd come out or not when his doorbell was rung was a good question. For that matter, whether or not he was in his room was a good question.
But for now, about to step forward into the corridor,
He froze. Without thinking, he backed down the stairwell a bit and hid himself.
"So really, I'm not feeling good today..."
"So aren't I worried about you?"
"Didn't I say 'I want to be left alone today'...?"
"There's no way I can, didn't I say I was making you dinner? Hey look, look, I bought something for you."
Framed by the room's open door, a young lady was arguing about something. Dealing with her from inside the room, no mistaking him, was Yanagisawa Mitsuo. A shopping bag dangling from her hand, she was saying "Since I finally brought it, let me in. I'll leave soon." and clinging to him, was surely a second year from Film Studies... or was it a third-year? Once or twice before, no three times or four, ...perhaps even more. In the times he’d been with Mitsuo, the senpai had called out to him quite frequently. Banri remembered out of the college’s myths and legends there was a really beautiful girl, with a strikingly showy face (though not to Kouko’s level!), and yet,
"Was, was it that one...!?"
Banri pulled his head back for the moment, gasping a little. That senpai, as Banri remembered her, normally wore boots or something like that, a denim shirt and a skirt with a flowery design. Indeed, she dressed casually as you might expect a female college student to.
But now, in her thick, light brown, curly hair, there was a purple satin hairband.
She was wearing a feminine one-piece dress, with a bold green print design, and delicate high-heeled sandals. She had what appeared to be a brand-name bag slung from her shoulder, and there were large, bright sparkles on her ears, her fingers and her chest.
She was, how to say it, ...a faux-Kouko.
On her white face she wore a deeply colored lipstick, made to match the hairband. But it wasn't even that. For now she was rather frightening, in several ways.
"Hey, Yana, do you like Nikujaga?"
Timidly, he peeked out once more. Somehow, the senpai-turned-faux-Kouko was about to step into Mitsuo's room, the toe of her sandal pushing into the crack of the door.
"N-no, I'm serious..."
"Ingredient-wise, you know we could even do curry? Hey, which will it be? I mean, with all day free... you said if I felt like it, I could stay over. So, are you going to open up?"
"Will, you, open, up?"
Mitsuo, though he was trying to close the door, nevertheless felt uncomfortable with the notion of crushing her toes, and remained frozen there with a worried expression on his face.
He found her assault troublesome, was clearly unaware Banri was watching them, and scared she wouldn't leave. A little dangerous. So he thought.
It would be a good thing if he rescued his younger friend from this situation.
"...Get moving, Yana-ssan!"
Banri jumped into the corridor.
And then, walking briskly, getting nearer quickly,
He stood, one hand on his hip like a model. Muttering thickly yet rapidly, he tried to wedge himself into the space between them with an angry shoulder. How about it, will she back off? Sticking up for Mitsuo, flashing his teeth in his own special way, he gave her a challenging pose.
Mitsuo's happy sounding voice was at the back of his head. And then senpai,
Muttering disagreeably "what's with this guy?" she glanced at Banri and took a step back.
Banri, playing the role of an effeminate model still, the spitting image of a lovely girlfriend, raised his chin and looked at her, his eyes half closed. They looked downwards on her, like guns firing. She flinched a bit, but she wasn't defeated. With a sharp look, staring back at Banri,
"Hold on, what? Hey Yana, what's with this guy?"
With a nasal voice, trying the snuggle against Mitsuo,
"This guy is my boyfriend."
He'd won--- Banri exclaimed "Han!" in triumph and drew yet closer to her.
"What if I want Nikujaga too!?"
"I'm not making Nikujaga for you!"
Spinning on her heels, she retreated. Her thirst for blood was for the time being hidden by the sound of her heels as she went down the stairs.
"Sa, saved...! That was frightening... that person was showing an awful lot of cleavage...!"
Seeing her back off from the open door, Mitsuo, as if he felt relieved from the very bottom of his heart, took Banri's hand. Saying "Hush hush, Uncle's here so it's all right now," Banri nodded deeply.
"I haven't felt up to answering my mail," apologized Mitsuo, inviting him into his room and yet,
"Ooh oh oh oh oh... ohohoh oh oh oh..."
In all honesty, he wasn't expecting this. Becoming a little like Kouko, Banri surveyed the state of the room. My oh my, Mitsuo...
"Dirty, isn't it? ...Surprised?"
"Or rather, a feeling of 'What's wrong?'"
Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and on his neck headphones set loud enough you could hear the sound spilling out, an over-long cable slithering behind him in an entirely homey style, Mitsuo nervously rubbed his chin. Even if he'd gotten like this, he still had a handsome face.
"These few days, I've entirely lost my energy for cleaning and tidying up..."
"If she had seen this, even that senpai would have retreated on her own, perhaps."
His admission that it was pretty untidy surprising even Banri, it was indeed a cluttered place.
Not very spacious, at best a six tatami single room, there was cast-off clothing taking up space here and there, on the table there were some cup-ramen with soup still remaining, chopsticks, and who knows how many empty and partially emptied PET bottles. There were dirty dishes in the little kitchen's sink, and somehow a mountain of convenience store garbage tossed in there too. Unrestrained by the door to the combined bath and toilet facility, wet smells, towels and whatever else bulged out. For now, you could hardly see the floor. He could barely make out what appeared to be vinyl flooring.
"But for now, I know exactly what I have and where it is."
As soon as he said that, Mitsuo stepped crack on something barefoot, and his handsome face twisted. By the sound of it, it might have been a CD case. In a panic he tried to lift his foot and lost his balance, and his headphone plug popped out from the notebook computer it had been plugged in to.
From the speakers flooded very loud male vocal music. The high-pitched, slow and mellow singing voice and the clear sounds of a trombone for some reason or other didn't seem to fit Mitsuo.
"...What I'm listening to has a curious feel to it."
He muttered that he wasn't even asking. "..." Mitsuo said it was. Whether that was a joke or not, he didn't understand right away.
"...No, it's like the song's title though. Or rather... I really am useless right now. I really have to do something. To this room... and then to my life..."
Mitsuo crouched down and moved the mouse, stopped the music, tore off his headphones, threw them aside and sat down on his bed. Removing the pile of clothing and magazines there with a thud,
He was suggesting that Banri sit next to him. While saying "Ah, OK" and sitting down, he was thinking "I don't want to sit side by side with him on the bed... definitely not..." Mitsuo for some reason gave an embarrassed grin.
"During the day this serves as a sort of sofa."
"No, it's a bed... this is absolutely a bed..."
But even so, for the time being, you could see on his face a feeling of relief.
"Well, it's nice to see you feeling better for the moment. Because we were rather worried about you. Because, err..."
"...I suppose Kouko heard something?"
"Something, or rather, so she did... yes, the whole story..."
His face unreadable, Mitsuo shrugged his shoulders, turned on the television and fiddled with the remote control. He changed channels randomly.
The slightly awkward silence continued between the two bums in a closed room. Banri tried to bring it back on topic.
"That reminds me. That senpai, what the heck was she doing?"
"Aah..." answered Mitsuo, his tension easing.
"About that... Word must have gotten out about Chinami turning me down. Shortly afterwards, I was getting persistent texts already. Are you okaaay? Can't we go drinking? Aren't you feeling down? Her attacks finally got to this point today. Saying she would go shopping for me... telling me she could stay over, for me it was just scary, I mean, she was really showing off one huge chest. It wasn't the cleavage and such, but rather those points of hers... seemed like they reached the floor. They were kinda beige. Isn't that a crime already? Against me."
At those comments, Banri laughed involuntarily, but,
"It's not a laughing matter. ...I mean, everybody knows about it. About Chinami dumping me. What? Why? Are people that interested in what happens to others?"
Mitsuo sighed, his feeble shoulders drooping, his head hanging.
"Well, there were certainly many witnesses... that was probably it."
The actual place where Mitsuo was dumped was a big drinking party with dozens of people. Chinami was already a central person amongst the first-years, and Mitsuo's appearance was outstanding; he was a conspicuous fellow, and, with rumor calling out to rumor, Banri didn't think it mysterious that word had spread even to the upperclassmen.
In his completely beaten state, Mitsuo's expression clouded over.
"It seems to me that everybody knows about my problems, and I really don't like to be in the public eye, so to speak... I have gotten strangely self-conscious, even nervous, that I have been floundering around too much, only deepening my wounds, and getting the feeling that I'm making mistakes in just about everything."
So, for the guy who stands out, it hurts becoming the guy who stands out? Banri looked around the wreckage inside the room and thought, in this room lives Mitsuo's heart.
"...Of course I understand. How am I supposed to behave towards Chinami? Should I be acting the same as always, cheerfully, as if all were easy? Even though I knew that... I couldn't hardly do it, as I thought, I wasn't able to. If I ran into her, I'd think 'whoa', be embarrassed, get depressed. Everybody would see me that way and laugh, and I'd be thought of as something beneath them... and so on over and over. And now this mess. What am I going to do? I'm too useless. It's horrible."
"It doesn't seem 'horrible'."
"No, it's horrible."
"About your girlfriend," Mitsuo changed the topic.
"As you might expect, I resent Kouko."
"O, Oh... So you do resent her."
Mitsuo nodded 'yes' to him.
"Very much. I feel like I've been used as a stepping stone. She drove me into a corner, even forcing me to change universities. But in the end, she found a place to settle before I did. After holding me back for so long, she went on ahead, just like that. It's frustrating... But there's no point in saying that to Kouko. 'Don't go out with Banri because it's mortifying to me.'"
"No, stop that... seriously..."
"I won't say it. I won't say anything, ever. If Kouko settles down with you, then as far as I'm concerned, that's a good thing. One way or the other, she's a childhood friend. Though it's impossible for me to love her. Regardless of any feelings... Sorry for telling you this, am I bothering you?"
Banri answered "Not at all, I understand," and Mitsuo gave an obvious sigh of relief.
"...Cause you are a friend. I want you two to be happy. Really, I do... I mean, when I decided to end everything with her, I wanted you to stay by her side. I thought if you were there, she'd be fine. I still think so. That's why I can consent to it, even be a bit glad. It's just, I can't help but feel frustrated that I've been left behind. Like, it's just me! Just me! In a place like this! You know...?"
With his speech faltering, Mitsuo seemed to be ashamed of what he was saying, his mouth twisting.
After a while,
"...Just me, left behind at the very bottom, as this sorry mess. Here I am, speaking ill of my childhood friend in front of her boyfriend, my friend."
How about this? Seeming to want to say something, he raised his hand. Mitsuo was staring vacantly into space, seeming to want help from a god, or an angel, or some such thing. He said a little more, as if speaking to himself.
"It isn't... resentment. More precisely, I'm envious. You guys seem to be radiating happiness. I want to sparkle the way Kouko does. I wanted to become like that. But of myself I cannot do things well, getting together with Chinami, being able to be friends with her too, anything could be believed of the future. ...But being dumped like that by Chinami..."
"Chinami is the only one for me. But as far as Chinami is concerned, I am only 'one of them.' It doesn't matter that I love her, I am just one of many others. ...It's Kouko's fault, of course. By chasing me so insanely, she made me think that I had to be something special. Despite being a nobody, I was not at all used to it. I thought, why? Why is it that Chinami cannot come to love me? And then, why? Why would she have said such things then? It seemed that I was no longer eligible to be loved, that I deserved it, it seems like."
With Banri right next to him, Mitsuo was tying himself up more and more in a masochistic loop. He would say so much that he would hurt himself, and then blame himself for his hurt self yet again. Truth be told, it is only natural that that man would feel jealous. His appearance was outstanding, and he was furthermore raised well and rich (though for the moment brought low), as a good person.
In short, not at all self-confident, Banri thought. In spite of the handsome profile he presented, it seemed this man could not see his own good qualities at all. Though perhaps even Mitsuo masochistically saying that Kouko was to blame was not all that far off target. Not wanting to be loved, not wanting to be chased after, wanting to be released and continuing to dwell on his teenage years, it was possible that Mitsuo was only being made to learn how to put himself down.
Don't chase me, you don't have to love me, because for me there is no value in being loved so much! ---For example, like that. To the last, there in Banri's convenient imagination.
It suddenly made him think of Linda. Whenever he was in a tight spot, looking for help, the hands reaching out to him was always hers. Supporting him.
He thought, these hands were caught, pulled up, by Linda's hands.
These hands that were helped by Linda, perhaps he should use them now for the sake of his friend, to pull him out of this masochistic loop he is in. He wanted to take those hands firmly. ...Nonetheless meaning that figuratively, of course. In a literal sense, not letting go of Mitsuo's hands would be weird. But.
"...Yana-ssan. Hold on."
From his back pocket, Banri pulled out a sparkling mirror and opened it with a click. It was the commemorative present, the hand-mirror Kouko had given him.
"Look in here, at that mug of yours."
He told him to look at that handsome face. If this is reality, then to the extent that it is OK to be proud of one's self, he could be proud. It's just fine for such a cool-looking guy to stick out his chest impressively and swagger along. That was what he meant, and yet,
"Oh... thanks, Banri..."
With a forced smile, Mitsuo, embarrassed, directed dull eyes at him. While peering into the hand mirror and scrubbing around his mouth with his thumb,
I hadn't noticed it, he said.
And then, in that empty place, an echo of Two Dimension's voice sounded in Banri's tired ears. Saying to somebody, 'That's one of Yana-ssan's good points...' This guy's fine as he is. Because of this, it's good.
Closing the mirror, he stood up.
"Well then, you even found some Nori! Sushi! Hand made sushi! You ate it! For now, follow me!"
Playing the part of a complete fool, giving him a thumbs up, Banri struck a pose in front of Mitsuo, waving his arms as if to say, "Let's go!" The depressed hunk, looking confused,
"...What? What are you doing?"
"Let's clean this place up! And then, who knows what next!? I mean, when you live in a dirty place like this, of course you get depressed."
Mitsuo focused his still somewhat glassy eyes and looked around his cluttered room.
"I suppose... it is, but..."
"No 'buts'! You're a total slob! Stand up! Hurry up! Uvoi!"
"Uvoi? What's that?"
"It means 'Get over here now!' You should understand that already!"
Eh? Mitsuo was still sitting there moaning. Clapping his hands in front of him,
"This is an order! Clean up! Come now, move it! Because I'm going to help too!"
Standing there in a threatening way, Banri bossed him around as if he were his older brother.
In reality, Banri was still just an inexperienced kid. I mean, truth be told, he's just a little one year old baby. Nevertheless, acting as if he were older, he wanted to somehow show Mitsuo the way out of his difficult situation. He wanted to make him stand up, even if it be by force, and clean up the filthy place. As Linda did for him, he wanted to help somebody too.
He wanted to hide his inexperience beneath a mask of "older friend".
"First of all, let's take out the garbage! Things that go bad, over there! Sushi! I mean, can you put out trash any time you want?"
"...No. Burnable trash goes tomorrow morning."
"Well then, if we collect the trash, then let's go to my place. You can stay over! I mean, let's talk. Let's drink! So, if you're going to come back in the morning to put out the trash, don't sleep in! Let's do it, really!"
Mitsuo lifted his face a little and looked at Banri's face. In helpless eyes like an abandoned dog's, and the nod of somebody older, his assent could be seen.
And then, with both hands grasping unseen sticks, boom! boom!, he swung both his arms.
"War drums! There he is! Yana-ssan, garbage bag in hand!"
"Ah, is that 'helping out'...?"
Come on now, aren't we heading out to war!? Banri really was, of course, ready to help out the best he could, encouraging him to the best of his ability.
"I'm the cheering squad! Ora! Throw out that rotten ramen broth right now!"
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