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Tada Banri was walking.
Accompanied by Yanagisawa Mitsuo, he was going over a cross-walk.
The traffic light flashing, the two of them messed around like dogs, playfully laughing out "Watch out!" "Run, run!" as they broke into a run. Each of them had plastic supermarket bags in both hands, swinging heavily.
As for me,
"...Wait for me, Banri..."
Already, no more words than that came out.
Not having completely finished crossing when the light turned red, I crouched down in the middle of the road. The cars started up, passing through one after another. Without me even raising my head, I was run over and shot through. Nobody even hit the brakes for me.
And then, I couldn't scream. The voice to scream "Please stop!", "Please help me!" wouldn't come out.
Obviously. Because I'm dead.
Banri went walking ahead, not even looking back at me. Though I called "wait", he couldn't hear me. He didn't even notice.
Even though there are things that should be said, this voice reaches nobody and there is not a person in this world that knows that I am here.
No matter how much I cry and scream "I'm here!" nobody notices.
I have never known such loneliness before. I understood it to be a blessing. It was my intention to surrender myself to it entirely. I thought that I would accept this fate calmly, resisting its approach being futile. I was watching over Tada Banri. In my own way I even imagined that even with the passing of decades, until in due time Banri died, I would still be doing this.
But in that moment, when Linda cried, I understood. In Banri's room, Linda laughed, but in her heart she was crying. I didn't understand that because I'm a ghost. I always listen closely to Linda's voice. So I understood.
I had made a promise. If Linda were to cry, I would absolutely come running. So, that time I thought, "I wish I could have been beside her." I abide by my promises, unchangingly. I wanted the power to get close to the crying Linda. To reach out to her, to talk to her. To try and touch with those fingers her shoulders, her back, her hair, over and over again.
And then I finally realized it.
I couldn't touch Linda ever again.
This voice would never reach her again.
There was no point in being a ghost at her side, his very existence unknown from the start, and besides, Linda had given up on me entirely.
Trying another time...
"...Banri... please wait..."
Nobody understands me any more. Why should I go through things like that so calmly? It's not okay. There is no way it would be okay. Since I died, my mind seems to have become strange: crying, shouting, raging. Clinging to Banri, biting him, screaming to you who lives to do something. Do something to this me. And yet, nothing changes. Nobody notices me.
I thought I was afraid of disappearing.
But now, I'm afraid of things never ending.
He wondered if he would be able to take it if things stayed like this forever. If there is no end. If I must continue to exist forever, just myself as I am now, having nothing to do with life and death, forever. If my parents died, and Banri, and Linda and everybody else I ever knew died, and there was no end.
"...Hey you, wait up!"
Wiping the overflowing tears from my cheeks with my hand, I stood up desperately. Chasing after the departed Banri, I cried aloud as I ran unsteadily. I've been trying hard so far. But I don't want to be set aside. I don't want to be left behind by myself in such a place.
As I was running, it dawned on me. Banri was more than a year further along than me in living.
* * *
In front of the apartment entrance there was a tall figure, easily recognized from a distance,
"Sorry, Two Dimensions, were you waiting!?"
When Banri and Mitsuo rushed over, he turned towards them.
"Hmm, you're late! I've been waiting!"
His face suddenly resembled that of a toad, puffed out. He twisted at the waist. However much Two Dimensions was his bosom buddy, when he was disgusting he was disgusting. They automatically exchanged wordless glances, and he tried to pass by as if he were a stranger, but,
"Wasn't this set for 6 o'clock!? It's already been fifteen minutes!"
From that tall figure's shadow suddenly, and in the same tone,
"If you were going to go shopping for us, then you could at least have met up with us at the supermarket!"
A beautiful white face made its appearance.
"...You've got to be kidding. Really, I'm not mad at all. If I can see Tada-kun's face, then 15 minutes or an hour makes no difference. Just being able to meet up with him, I am h-a-p-p-y."
With four steps she closed on Banri, fastening on to his left arm like a baby monkey. That, of course, was Kaga Kouko, who he didn't remember calling. Mumbling "Hmm!?" he looked into her face. Responding with an "Ufu!" Kouko tilted her head, looking back up at his eyes.
Two Dimensions took four pigeon-toed steps and clung to Mitsuo too,
"Being able to meet up with Yana-ssan, I am h-a-p-p-y too."
Refusing him with all he had, "Kii!" he shook himself hysterically to be let go. That "kii", perhaps, was a "kii" of disgust.
Surprise! Kouko's eyes were sparkling, but no, he really was surprised. Banri thought he'd only called Two Dimensions to this "get-together to cheer up Yanagisawa Mitsuo @ my place." He'd even sent a text to Kouko telling her not to worry about it.
"Wh, why? Why is Kaga-san here?"
And yet, hadn't she even come entirely changed? Even her hair style was different from how it was at noon. Over an unusual earth-toned no-sleeve blouse, she wore a large necklace, knee-length pants, and the bangs of her long hair were raised up with a beaded hair-band. Like a bright lemon-yellow plaything, a little bag hung quietly across the middle of her back, and, exposing her beautiful legs yet more, she wore gladiator high heels that could kick them to death, had they been sheep.
"You're happy, aren't you? Won't you say you're happy?"
Dressed in style for drinking at home, Kouko hung her entire weight on Banri's left arm, fawning over him.
"Ah, well, of course..."
"I'm happy, I'm happy! I'm super happy to be able to see Kaga-san!"
"Hmm... hearing that, I'm happy too..."
She rubbed her round forehead ecstatically against Banri's shoulder, like a really adorable animal. She was lovely, but that was that, and this is this. Pulling back a little,
"No, seriously, why'd you come...?"
Asked again by Banri, Kouko replied "Cut it out, what're you saying?" a little miffed. Only her eyebrows tipping up,
"Don't you see? Aren’t I your girlfriend? Can't I come see you if I want to? Isn't it obvious?"
"Right!?" Turning, Kouko looked at Two Dimensions. Two Dimensions shrugged his shoulders a little and laughed. Saying "Hey, it's just common sense," she turned back towards Banri.
"Though I thought even Tada-kun understood it, if he didn't know it, now he does. When I want to see him, I will go see him. Because I'm your girlfriend, it is only natural. Be ready, 365 days, 24 hours a day. OK? OK, right? Understood? You understand, right?"
She didn't let him say anything more. And she pressed her index finger firmly down on Banri's lips. Doing that, Kouko chuckled, and bringing her face even closer to his,
"Actually, I've been sticking around here since about five o'clock. I was wondering if I ought to go home already. Then Two Dimensions showed up, and when I called out to him he told me about the drinking party. Wasn’t it already decided I would be at such things? I mean, I want to hear why I shouldn't. ...Why didn’t you call me?"
Her face suddenly went serious.
She was cross-examining him, but her finger still sealed his lips. Banri being unable to even try and answer, from his side Mitsuo raised his hand in reply.
"Wasn't it decided!? Because the get-together today was to cheer me up! It's because I wasn't going to get cheered up with you there!"
"I didn't ask your opinion."
Ignoring such comments with a snort, Kouko stared at Banri motionlessly, as if she were making fun of him.
"Hey, Tada-kun. ...No, 'password Tada'. The reply? And who am I?"
Incidentally, Two Dimensions' was 'Kilobyte Satou' --- that making the three names of their pact.
With the simple vow "if any of us goes to a drinking party, we would all attend without fail," these three had bound themselves together. If any of them were to break their vow, something important would be lost to them.
"It is, isn't it? So, according to our oath, it is by all means my right to participate in this drinking party... no, it is my duty. Isn't that so? It is, isn't it? And so, the person who shouldn't be here..."
Striking a pose like a model, Kouko, pointing at Mitsuo and lightly sticking out her chin,
"Mitsuo. Rentre chez toi."
She declared to all the rest, her eyes cold. Snap, from the area of Mitsuo's temples came the sound of something breaking,
Still silent, he took off his boots, ready to use them to hit Kouko. "Hold on, hold on!" Banri shielded Kouko behind his back, but Kouko took off her gladiators and brandished them,
"There's no way your Red Wings are going to beat my Jimmy Choos!"
"Aren't you going to say anything about the crap those soles stepped in last week!?"
"Crap nothing! I've got studs over here!"
"Idi-ot, idi-ot! Shunned woman!"
"You're even using a shiny yellow bag like a kindergartner's! Are you trying to look cute!?"
"Huh!? What are you saying!? Isn't it a Celine!? Ah, is that it? Is your head scrambled so completely from being dumped so much that you don't even know what a Celine is!? Mitsuo, you are so pitiful!"
"Who's the pitiful one, you prune-face!?"
"A free perm! Cheap perm solutions kill your hair at the roots!"
"Are you ready to say 'bye-bye' to your hair for eternity?"
Banri was stuck there in the street, in the middle of an unseemly shoe battle unfolding between two childhood friends: closing from the left crap, and from the right studs. Both were scary to about the same degree.
"Eeek! Two Dimensions, please do something! Two Dimensions!"
"Uh, hold on. Phone."
But Two Dimensions of course lived in another dimension, ignoring everything, playing with his iPhone,
"Is something coming over the phone!? Really, pull these people apart!"
"I mean... its Oka-chan though. Incoming call. Shall I answer? Should I answer?"
Hearing his voice like that, the boot fell plop from Mitsuo's hand. Kouko stopped moving too, and traded glances with Banri.
"...Oh. She hung up."
Nobody said anything for a bit, a fragile silence continuing for several seconds. Of all times now, at a time like this, the phone rings with Oka Chinami---
Kouko, seeing Mitsuo's loss of fighting spirit, casually caught hold of Banri while she put her gladiators back on, but Mitsuo stood there like an idiot, one foot shoeless still.
"Eh, eh, eh, what...? In other words...? Two Dimensions is close enough to Chinami that she shared her phone number? Eh? What? How? A-at what moment...? No, I mean, not that I'm all that concerned... I'm not... no..."
And on he went muttering.
No way was that sorrow. Two Dimensions, stuffing his iPhone in his pocket with a slightly impatient look,
"No, not at all! She said it wasn't anything special! The other day the two of us were just killing time, and that's when we exchanged numbers! That's all! I mean, that was the first time she's called me!"
Banri looked at him. That occasion "killing time", it must've been when Banri had fled from Linda.
For now, they were going to have to get an explanation of how Two Dimensions and Chinami "suddenly gotten close." He thought the explanation sounded really contrived, but he let it slide without doing a special investigation of the two.
Of course it would seem strange, wouldn't it? With his current sight, Banri understood anew. However, explaining it would take an awful long time.
"...Haha. Ha. ...Laugh."
Mitsuo put a hand on Kouko's shoulder. "Don't touch me so easily," said Kouko, brushing him off quickly,
"Don't you want to laugh at my embarrassment? It's OK. Go ahead and laugh. Laugh at me... it's OK, all you want, have your fill at my clumsiness..."
Seeing Mitsuo as he was, exhausted and forcing a pitiful laugh, a sad look came to her face. Turning around then as if troubled, she looked in Banri's eyes. 'What should we do?' those eyes were asking him.
If you were to look at that face--- or rather, he had known from the start. In the various things she'd said, Kouko was definitely worried over Mitsuo. Dissatisfied with the message Banri had sent, she had, without a doubt, come to see Mitsuo's condition with her own eyes. But because she could not come to Mitsuo's apartment, for the time being she'd tried coming to Banri's place.
Because he knew that well, Banri had no choice but speak for Kouko, who couldn't speak very cleverly for herself.
"Come on now... Yana-ssan. Kaga-san was really worried about you. There was nothing I could say to a person like that."
---Even though she's my girlfriend! Who was only concerned about the guy! It's annoying! It's frustrating! After all, wasn't there no future left there!? What are you thinking!? Just because Oka-chan dumped him and he's alone now!? If that's the case, I, I, I... arrrghhh! I will put such thoughts aside, now.
"Is that so?"
"...In particular, I,"
In particular, just because I was worried about you, don't misunderstand! Hmph! For some reason behind Kouko, Two Dimensions was using a template to add a soundtrack for it all, but for the moment she ignored it.
Asked by Banri if she would listen once more, nicely, "Yes...," Kouko nodded meekly. She suddenly seemed to have become a timid little girl, hiding herself half behind Banri's shoulder. Seeing Kouko like that, Mitsuo took a breath also. He sighed, looking as if both his breath and his energy were leaving him, almost as if it had been his cheeks that had taken offense.
"Kaga-san, if you want to be part of today's drinking party, then please don't fight with your shoes. Will you please take part nicely, having fun for Yana-ssan's sake? If you can, then it's OK for you to be with us."
"You too, Yana-ssan. Are you good with that?"
While answering curtly, Mitsuo stepped to the side, closer to Two Dimensions. He muttered, "Sorry for boring you," so softly that not even Banri heard. Two Dimensions laughed softly and started walking towards Banri's room.
Banri held Kouko's hand casually as Mitsuo and Two Dimensions entered ahead of them like customary guests. He really could get used to doing this, it seemed to him. He was convinced such feelings came to him because he believed in Kaga-san. Because he believed that her being kind to Mitsuo wasn't because of lingering affections. As if wrapping her slender fingers, they walked shoulder to shoulder. But Kouko, shaking that hand loose,
Pretending not to notice, and still not saying anything, he took her hand back as fast as he could, entwining their fingers deeply, to the point where their palms were glued together. They always laughed together when holding hands, calling it the "Vacuum-packed grip~" and "Proof of the super lovey-dovey~." For some reason, they'd chosen to use the old Doraemon voice on such occasions. Kouko did the best she could, but couldn't quite match the remembered "Nobuyo Voice," and Banri chuckled. As if not to raise her voice either, Kouko looked down and just laughed inside her throat.
"Hey you guys, aren't you awfully close!? You have to take into consideration Yana-ssan's broken heart!"
Noticed by Two Dimensions in the elevator, they moved apart quickly, as if they had been forced apart by a karate chop.
"It's OK, it's OK..."
Mitsuo was alone by the wall, trying to hold his left hand with his right, as if vacuum-packed.
"I'm quite the expert at being alone... look, like this even..."
"I have some surprising news for you, Kaga-san."
Taking off her gladiators in the entranceway, the Kouko asking back was suddenly four inches shorter. She put on slippers, of a splendid pink rose design, especially for her use. From Olympic, 980 yen.
"Though I only just found out about my neighbor too. That was NANA-senpai's place."
Of course none of the guys had anything like slippers, not even Banri the head of house. Mitsuo went straight for the refrigerator, saying, "I'm getting the ice!" and Two Dimensions went straight for the facilities, saying, "I'm borrowing the bathroom!" All of them were barefoot apart from socks.
"She was that strange person the other day. Remember? We'd gotten into the elevator, and we were wondering who was that person all in black. That was NANA-senpai."
"Are you kidding!? That was somebody entirely different!"
Kouko's expression one of complete surprise, she looked over at the wall behind the kitchen. So, it seemed that person lived on the other side of that wall.
"It was a really big surprise. But it seems that NANA-senpai realized a long time ago that a new student in the same university was living next door to her. So it seems that time she invited us to the live show..."
Because the bathroom was separated from them by only the door, Two Dimensions' sorrowful voice echoed painfully indeed.
"A little background music, please~~~..."
Hearing that, Banri grabbed the television remote and hit the ‘on' button. He raised the volume a bit. It was a rule in the small apartment when visitors used the bathroom.
The room was still as he'd left it when he took off because of Kouko's phone call.
The floor that Linda had walked on in her socks, the window glass she had placed her forehead against. The rug Linda had sat upon. Everything was still as it had become at the time Banri had cried before Linda's eyes.
The picture of Banri and Linda was still on the table where he'd left it. It was there face down, and nobody had seen it yet. Banri grabbed it casually, and instead of putting it on the bookshelf, he put it into the middle of a cheap set of shelves.
Then, so they would get some ventilation from the two windows, he opened both of them wide. Kouko didn't notice anything, staring strangely at the wall adjoining the next apartment.
"I wonder, has 'NANA-senpai' said her family name?"
"Who knows? She hasn't put up a nameplate. But we have established that she’s from Warabi."
Eeehhh... while nodding strangely seriously, Kouko went to take the plastic grocery bag which Two Dimensions left on the floor to the kitchen. Hurriedly reaching out, Banri lifted the heavy bag.
"This is a side-dish that Two Dimensions bought in his home town. He said it was croquettes, menchi and potato salad. If I had known we were doing a drinking party, then I'd've bought a few things too."
"Now now. Wow, it's still warm. What's more, it smells really good... dangerous, that aura of overweight scratching its way out."
"Tada-kun, what did you two buy?"
"Well, we bought sake, a few snacks and some side-dishes. Macaroni salad, karaage, (wow!) mayonnaise and some heavenly fried foods... and then what? Hey, Yana-ssan!"
Mitsuo pulled his head out of the refrigerator,
"A selection of pickles, sausages and fried rice. Oh, and because Kouko's part of the head-count too..."
Though he was answering, Kouko said "You knew, in other words."
"Great. No veggies at all. I've felt like veggies all along, but don't see anything."
"Huh? Of course there's veggies. Potato salad, macaroni salad, pickles. I mean, Banri, would it be okay to take some of this, like the Ajipon, out for a while? As it is, things won't fit. Don't you want to cool down the sake?"
Mitsuo pulled out some containers of seasoning and stuffed the cans of sake in to the space that opened up. Banri lifted up the one bag left in the kitchen,
"Though I thought that for the moment, this area was my job. Not even you should be in here."
Kouko cast a quick glance at the contents.
They'd bought cans of shochu highball, cocktails, along with beer, ginger ale, alcohol-free cocktail style juices and beer-like drinks.
"I was simply annoyed the other day. Saying, can't they just hurry up? There was a good stock of teas and such."
Kouko shrugged her shoulders, looking just a little bored, her killingly cute eyes turned up.
"...But, just a little is okay, right? Just one mouthful. Just the first cup. ...Just one can. Can't I? For Mitsuo's sake? Look, isn't the most important thing about a drinking party a lively atmosphere!?"
She glued herself to Banri.
"Besides, even if I don't get drunk, I'm the type of person who can get excited quickly if there is a need."
"Leaving that aside, was that talk about 'butt chin' for real?"
Very much so. About to sit down by her and rub the front of her lovely tapered chin with his finger, she made ready to escape at once. Lightly seating herself on her favorite stool, she said "Everybody's chin is cleft. Because that's where the left and right sides of the jaw join together," and showed her cheeks. Banri laughed, and took down all the glasses he had from the kitchen shelf.
"Haa... finally! That was good!"
Two Dimensions came out of the bathroom, his expression carefree, wiping his glasses with the hem of his clothing.
"Well then! Speak of the devil, I got a text from Oka-chan! The contents had to do with Yana-ssan! My bowel movements are in excellent condition!"
Proud of himself, he situated himself on Banri's bed. He turned towards Mitsuo enthusiastically.
"Wh, what kind!?"
"Do you want to know, Yana-san?"
"I want to know!"
"It was moderately moist, had lots of volume, and is yet in some ways aromatic."
"Not that. I want to know what the text says!"
He put his glasses back on. Ignoring Kouko asking "Two Dimensions sends texts from the bathroom...?" with doubtful voice and a funny look on her face,
"'That last call I made was because I was worried about Yana.'"
With an awful sounding falsetto (he was probably trying to imitate Chinami's voice) he started to read the contents of the text message. By that voice alone, Banri, Kouko and Mitsuo were rooted there and,
"'Did you see Yana around this afternoon? Though we're taking third period together he didn't come to the lecture, and though I marked the attendance list for him, I was concerned that perhaps he was having some problem or other. Sorry, that was all I wanted to ask. Things being as they are, it's difficult to get ahold of Yana. Catch you later!' There're three hand-marks. ...Looks like that's it."
"Sorry Oka-chan, I've made your text public," Two Dimensions looked into space and put his hands together.
Mitsuo, apparently lost somewhere deep in thought, had stopped moving. Banri casually closed the open refrigerator door.
"She went so far as to call out for him, no, she's hung out for Mitsuo's sake. Ultrasonic went so far as to mark the attendance list for him. She dumped him, but then did something nice for him."
That's a devil's trick, isn't it? Perfect. Saying that, sitting on the stool and swinging her legs still, she watched Mitsuo without moving, her eyes slightly malicious.
"Naturally, you're going to ignore her, right?"
"Talking to her, meeting with her, isn't it no use already? If that's the case, then you just ignore such things. You ignore her forever, having nothing to do with her for eternity. Isn't that how it is?"
Mitsuo squared his shoulders and turned towards Kouko's white face, but his forced expression only looked depressed. Breathing in, gasping a bit even, brushing his hair up,
"Me, ...m, e..."
Who knew where the energy he had while fighting Kouko earlier had gone? His face was just like that of a nervous little kid. As it was, he was mumbling and stuttering.
Seeing him in such a state, in the end Kouko heaved a great sigh. And then, getting up from her stool and saying "lend me" she snatched the iPhone from Two Dimension's hand. Slipping her fingertip to her ear, she ignored Banri's "what the heck?"
"...Hello, it's me. Because Two Dimensions and Mitsuo are here at Tada-kun's place to drink, you're coming too. Though I didn't want you to come, for Mitsuo's sake I'm reluctantly calling you, Mitsuo's feeling down and he's whining! ...Huh!? What do you mean, shut up! Questions aren't allowed! Yes!? I don't know, so just shut up and listen! The address, ..."
There was a callback at the speed of lightning. Certainly so high-handed it could penetrate the heavens,
"If you don't come, that's fine! But I don't think Mitsuo would like that! Hmph!"
Take that! She hung up. Returning the iPhone to Two Dimensions with a smile and a thank-you,
"Good grief, how troublesome can you be?"
She turned to Mitsuo the face of a cold-hearted childhood friend. Banri fled to the kitchen, apparently not happy with things,
"And aga~in I wound up being nice for Mitsuo's sake~. Recharge~"
Phew... Tilting her head like a swan, she pressed her cheek to Banri's shoulder. Oh, it's all right, Banri automatically stroked her back.
"...Why, that... what were you doing, calling Chinami!?"
At last, with the blood vessels in his head about to burst and his eyes burning brightly, Mitsuo drew near, shuffling on his knees and sputtering while shouting out at Kouko. Kouko, entirely like a pet cat, breaking away from Banri,
"Be quiet, you're making a scene. You seem like a neighborhood nuisance. Besides, the neighbor is somebody we know. Take that into consideration. What would you rather I do? Your saying 'Me, me,' I couldn't tell quite what you wanted to say. I don't have the spare time to hang around and decipher your shouting, even life isn't long enough for that. The same is true for Tada-kun. And Two Dimensions, even. Whether Ultrasonic comes or not is a good question though, but for now, I called. If you want to go home, why don't you?"
Mitsuo was listening to all that with a terrible look on his face. As if frozen into a kneeling pose, he wasn't moving nor even breathing.
Tugging casually but firmly at the hem of his clothing, Banri spoke.
"Like Kaga-san said, you can go back too. You can go back to spending your days awkwardly killing time. Or you can stay here and stand a chance of fixing things."
Slowly, Mitsuo looked at Banri's face. He was deciding if he wanted to do what Banri said.
"Kaga-san's way of doing things is a bit rough, but, well, shall we call it 'strong medicine'? You could ask, 'Will you live, or will you die?'"
In a corner of his mind, a strange thought occurred to him. He realized that he'd seen somebody giving such strong medicine recently. For Mitsuo's sake, Kouko had made a quick call to Chinami. For Linda's sake, NANA-senpai made a false phone call to Banri. Those two were entirely different, but still,
And then himself, well, whatever.
"Does it seem that my staying here is for Yana-ssan's sake?"
Although he could not use the strong medicine as with those two, then he could at least give out careful doses of something like herbal medicine. Because he thought so, he tried to say it like he was happy about it.
Mitsuo, looking very embarrassed, looked at Banri but before long took a breath and stood up. Saying "Hold on," Banri quickly rose and tried to follow him, but Mitsuo didn't turn towards the door.
He stood in the kitchen and washed his hands roughly, as if he were angry. Then turning around,
"...These sausages, can they be boiled?"
* * *
At around seven-thirty, he got a phone call in a teary voice, "Banri~, come here~."
"You left the main street at the pet shop? Oh that's it, you're turned around. We're exactly the opposite direction from the station. I guess there's a convenience store? You understand? I'll go right out to meet you, so just wait."
Once he hung up,
"Was that Chinami just now...? She made it close to here?"
Mitsuo was practically trembling as he asked him. Answering yes! Banri stuffed his cell-phone and the key to his place in his pockets and stood up.
Having decided to stay here, Mitsuo was obviously still nervous. He'd hardly touched the side-dishes, and had been drinking only sake for some time now. Drunkenly relaxed, his face was paler than usual. It looked like it was due more to the stress than to the alcohol.
It was from here to the next thing, but, not even Banri could save the day. He wouldn't be able to do it by himself.
"It looks like Oka-chan has gotten lost. I've got to go out and bring her back. And while I'm at it, is there anything I should pick up?"
"Sake... more sake sake sake," said Mitsuo. "Carbs! Stomach stuffers!" said Two Dimensions. Kouko said, "Well, if Ultrasonic's going to be making noise, then packing tape and some rope," and such, looking over the table as she spoke.
"Kaga-san, let's go together."
When he reached out to her, she smiled at once. Bouncing up to her feet, slinging her little bag over her shoulder, she followed behind Banri to the door.
"Ho, ho, hold on! Banri! What should I do!? What am I going to do with this horrible, awful tension? How will I handle the wait!?"
"You should be fine if you go easy on the potato salad."
"Potato salad!? Two Dimensions just finished eating it all!"
Two Dimensions looked back at Mitsuo, his mouth stuffed with the last of the potato salad.
"Sh, shall I show you...?"
"That's okay! Ah, you don't need to show me the inside of your mouth, idiot! Aan, aa~n! Now there's no more potato salad, and I don't know what I'm supposed to do!"
Scratch what was said before. As one might expect, he'd gotten drunk enough already. He rolled around the carpet on his back, throwing himself about violently like a turtle throwing a tantrum, and began to ram his head into Two Dimension's butt.
With a stunned expression, Kouko took off the gladiators she had just put on.
"He seems to be dying already. Hold on a moment, Tada-kun."
Wondering what she was going back to do,
"Mitsuo. Because I can't just look at more grief, I'm going to specially lend you this."
From her own hair, carefully disarranging her hair by hand, she extracted a sparkling rhinestone-studded hair-band.
"The power of the hair-band is incredible. This, by itself, flips the switch. In a wave of power, your whole body goes into GOGO mode. A wimp leaps up and turns into his very strongest self. Beautiful and tough, I turn into my perfect self. But pierced earrings would be rather difficult, don't you think? If you have the chance, then a necklace too. Putting on too many things thoughtlessly, without style and without preparation is no good. That's all you need keep in mind."
She held it reverently in her hands, as if it were a queen's tiara. Then, squatting down and reaching over her fallen childhood friend,
"Okay? The moment you put it on, you will become perfect. You won't be something scary. And so, this evening, who will be more beautiful and tough than any other? Mitsuo will be."
She stuck it into his puffed up no-charge perm as if to hold his hair back from his forehead.
"Yes, for you. ...Look! It suits you! Doesn't it!?"
"It suits you! It does!" Banri and Two Dimensions also applauded in unison with Kouko. The sparkling hair band raised his bangs, like a young girl, or perhaps like some guy in a gaudy fashion from days gone by. Mitsuo still stared blankly in amazement, his white forehead shining smoothly.
"Am I... perfect?"
Putting his hand to his chest, he tried to make a beaming expression.
Laughing from having seen that, Banri and Kouko left the room. Seeing them off with a wave, Two Dimensions called out "Take care!"
Taking the elevator down to the first floor, the two of them pushed open the heavy door. Stepping out the next instant,
Banri's voice rose automatically.
The outdoor evening was astonishingly warm and humid, wringing wet. As if the moisture were descending upon them, it was perfectly windless. It wasn't all that hot, but in any case the humidity was awfully high. It seemed that if he stood still, drops of water would stick to him.
"What is with this, this awful clammy feeling... it hurts to breathe!"
"It's already the wet season. Isn't it going to rain these coming days? It's good for me to be around places like this though, since my skin's dry. Now, where was Supersonic going to be?"
"She said she would be standing by the pet shop at Sunkus . ...Wow, it's not even summer. If it's this wet now, how's Tokyo going to wind up? I don't like it when I sweat so much."
"Summer around here is awful, to a level that is truly life threatening. But we'll get through it. With a Grande Frappuchino."
"Better than that, let's go to the sea. Or the pool."
Or the river, which he realized that of course he couldn't say. Very much so. How was he going to speak of playing casually in the place he'd nearly died? Even though he couldn't remember it. Kouko smiled openly and innocently.
"No way, I absolutely want to go! To the sea with Tada-kun! That or the pool! What shall we do, it'll be so fun! Let it get hot soon!"
Kouko looked up at the sky comically as if giving it orders, and Banri laughed.
"I mean, just why would Ultrasonic be in such a place? The pet shop isn't just the other side of the station. Couldn't she look it up on a map?"
The two walked out under the streetlights. Kouko's high-heels sounded, clack clack.
There were lots of people coming and going in the neighborhood. Ladies in suits looking like they were coming home from work, women with bags of stuff they'd bought, parents with children too, and there were kids still wandering about in their school uniforms. They continued on to the station, and when they entered the shopping district there were yet more and more people about.
"Do you think she didn't hear you well when you gave her the address? But Oka-chan heard those people she invited to the party quite good."
Saying "I'm not bad," he shrugged and taking Kouko's hand, they walked as if they were crashing into a flowing wave of humanity. As they walked hand in hand like that, Banri remembered what Mitsuo had said.
Though for me Chinami is the 'only one', to Chinami I am just 'one of them.' A fellow not worth worrying about. Slow, hesitant.
"...Something for a fellow not worth worrying about, being called out specially, all of a sudden, and not showing up."
Banri thought that way and yet.
"Would she come out for anybody's sake? She's a charitable soul. 'Ultrasonic' doesn't seem to like him that way. It's more like a love of humanity. Kind of like 'Ecology, Love and Peace!'"
While he laughed a little at Kouko's manner of speaking, he looked sidelong at her. Because of her heels, there was hardly any difference in their height, and they were practically on the same line of sight. When they talked about Chinami, she always seemed to be pouting, a lovely woman with a ill-tempered look in her eyes.
Banri said, "Though I don't think it's like that. As for me, I think that because Oka-chan, as might be expected, has some special feelings regarding Yana-ssan, she is paying plenty of attention. Even in dumping him like that, that time. Besides, for who's sake would she be saving her strength?"
"Maybe she does it with that mysterious vitality of hers. They say Ultrasonic isn't unusually powerful. She seems to have about 500 million times my strength! But doing such things for other people's sake is impossible for me of course. I have my hands full with just loving you."
"Is that true?"
"True, true, absolutely true."
"And despite all that you were nice to Yana-ssan. You even crowned him with your life-giving GOGO-item hair-band."
At those words, spoken in a joking manner, Kouko blurted "Eh?" and whirled towards Banri, her eyes wide.
"But, that isn't what you said, Tada-kun! You said 'it's okay to be nice to Yana-ssan so he stays at the drinking party!'"
Of course he remembered it. But he didn't say it all that seriously. ...Well, maybe just a little nuanced, some seriousness mixed in, and yet. Anyhow, the surprise on Kouko's face was adorable,
"Maybe it made me a little jealous."
What kind of thing was he trying to say?
"Eh, eh, eh! No way, no way! There's no way you got jealous! That was never my intention!"
"But a man's heart is a complicated thing... even when his head understands, his feelings can easily be..."
"My heart... has been wounded..."
"Sorry, sorry, I said I'm sorry!"
Kouko tried to walk quickly, and while clinging desperately to Banri's arm she blinked her long eyelashes and looked up at him.
"If you'll forgive me, I'll do anything~!"
"Well then, let me verify your butt-chin."
She obediently stuck out her chin. When he touched it with the widest part of his thumb, Kouko's elegantly tapered chin really was distinctly divided.
"Whoa... it really is split...!"
"Are you done with that?"
"Not yet! How did Yana-ssan come to know about this mysterious butt-chin!? Spit it out!"
He moved up right to the tip of her nose, but Kouko still didn't resist, looking very sorrowful,
"All the kids we associated with knew. Because in my second year of high school suspicions of plastic surgery arose, and in order to prove I hadn't done anything I let everybody touch my nose and chin..."
And so on she talked. When he tried to imagine 'Kaga Kouko's face being touched like crazy' it got just too funny, and Banri unconsciously burst out laughing. Bursting out here and there all over her face,
"...Hey! Enough! I'm getting mad!"
This time Kouko moved quickly and stepped out in front of Banri. "But I was joking!" "I can't hear you!" "Sorry!" "You're not forgiven!" "Did you have plastic surgery!?" "No, I didn't!" ...of course in the end the two laughed together loudly as they slipped through the gaps in the crowd. They walked quickly as if racing each other, hands entwined together, then apart, bumping into people and then clinging together again.
While they were playing around they passed through the station, heading towards the convenience store where Chinami was supposed to be waiting.
From Banri's place, it must have been about fifteen minutes. Leaving the main street and going down some streets that were getting dark and lonely, there was their landmark, a suspicious-looking pet shop amongst some random stores.
He thought she would be inside reading some magazine, but Chinami was standing out front. Banri called out to her, but she didn't raise her downcast face. White earphone cords could be seen at the corners of her hair, and it looked like she was listening to music.
About to call out once more, Banri hesitated.
She didn't seem the cute female friend with the anime voice, Oka-chan, but rather she seemed like some girl he didn't know. Words failed him. She could have been somebody from another country.
The full, long black hair spilling down, the white profile was looking at nothing in particular. She didn't even look up and call back to him. Her black all-in-one dress blended into the night street entirely. Her handbag had rows of beads stuck on it. On her delicate ankles were simple sandals. From her short sleeves stretched slender arms. Casting no shadow she stood in the night street, her body more than ever seemed broken, and an uneasy feeling came over him.
Her figure appeared on the verge of disappearing in a puff of smoke.
Having a feeling that he shouldn't recklessly intrude, Banri instinctively froze in place, but,
It was Kaga Kouko's way, of course.
Not even noticing Banri's hesitation, she'd quickly closed on Chinami in her high-heels and sharply pulled out her ear-phones. Chinami lifted her surprised (that would be surprising) face,
"You, you surprised me, I hadn't noticed...! Even you came out to greet me? Sorry, and thanks."
That voice, her normal anime-voice. It was the same old Chinami.
She laughed, and when he focused on her, he saw that around her eyes and cheeks, her skin was like a baby's: transparent, pale and soft. But her eyes flitted here and there evasively, her attitude fathomless.
"We're sorry too, Oka-chan. It would have been better to have met you at the station from the start. Don't you think it was rather pointless to have walked so much?"
"No big deal. I mean, I had simply spaced out. Though I had no idea where I was going, I just kept walking."
Chinami, putting her full black hair over her left shoulder, tilted her head slightly to one side. In the dark it was too white, her slim neck. Having looked a little nervously, Banri averted his eyes in a hurry. Just by not wearing her normal guru-like weeds, Chinami looked so strangely feminine. She was excessively child-like, with hearing her saccharine anime voice as the icing on the cake.
"Were, were you at home?"
"Yep. And then suddenly the phone rang. Oh no, I thought. It's Yana, I thought. At first I said 'I can't!' ...he was pretty upset after all. I was too. So look at what I brought!"
Opening her bag, Chinami showed the contents to Banri and Kouko. Banri reached out to take it without thinking,
"Now I get it... this was shaking."
They took a good look at it. They were two bags of store-bought seimen noodles, with only "Chinese Noodles" written on them. Looking like they had been grabbed straight from the refrigerator, they still had cool drops of water stuck to them. When she said "Yes!" to the drinking party, it was probably all she had, so it couldn't be helped.
"Two Dimensions might like them. He said he'd like something like noodles."
Kouko took one bag too, and smiled cooly. Then, as if remembering something,
"Oh yeah, what's with you?"
She went straight up to Chinami's face. One eyebrow raised and her mouth still a chilly smile, her scowling look was a pile of poison thorns.
"No satisfied with just playing around with Mitsuo's heart, you're going to wrap your wet, slimy tentacles around Two Dimensions this time? Just how dark are you? In your greed, of course, I'm the big picture too!"
"Eh? Wh, what?"
"Didn't you call him? Two Dimensions? Do I have to spell it out to you?"
"Why, why? He said it was okay for me to call him! And I was worried about Yana! Besides, wouldn't you get mad if I called Banri?"
"Naturally! I'd get angry, or rather impossible! So impossible, it would take you back into your past to where even your birth would have been cancelled!"
Suddenly Chinami, turning to face Banri,
"I knew it~, Banri and Kaga-san are going out together! I saw you, you were holding hands rea-lly tight."
She pointed at them with both hands.
"Ah, you've seen us!?"
"Of course I've seen you!"
Banri let his face fall and laughed, but Kouko still glared cooly at Chinami, not moving one inch. Her arms folded and clasping a bag of noodles, her chin jutted out, her beautiful face like that of a demon.
"I mean, I'm going to spell it out clearly for you now. You, as far as Mitsuo is concerned, are ve-ry harmful. I can't even imagine how much Mitsuo was wounded, troubled and has suffered because of you. Mitsuo is not the same as people like you. He's innocent, not knowing the ways of the world. From now on, don't you go around poking at him playfully. What for you is a playful shove, for Mitsuo may quite possibly be a fatal blow. Mitsuo is overwhelmed, but he is trying with all his might to get back on his feet. From now on, you will swear to not give him ideas. Here and now. From now on, don't torment him. If you cannot do that, then of course don't come around. I really don't want to see you having anything to do with Mitsuo again."
Her head slightly tilted, Chinami looked back at Kouko's eyes.
"Swear to you? Why? I don't have anything to do with you."
As if taken by surprise, Kouko held her tongue.
Banri gasped a little too. The Chinami they'd known, if Kouko ever said anything to her, would just laugh as if embarrassed.
"What I think about Yana, what Yana thinks about me, what might happen between us, it has nothing to do with you. First of all, aren't you and Banri dating each other? What do you get out of paying attention to it? If I were Banri, I'd feel pretty bad about such comments. If I were thinking about being forgiven for something, wouldn't that make for misunderstandings from the very start? Don't concern yourselves with other people's business."
Illuminated by the convenience store sign, Chinami's white face didn't seem angry. Making the same pretty face as ever, her dark eyes shining, she remained unruffled. Unruffled, she threw strong words at them. As if she were casting even the pebbles beneath their feet at them.
"I swear. Let's go back."
Turning towards Kouko and Banri, who had gone still, she opened her bag and drew closer to them. But at that moment, opened too widely perhaps, from the bag came the sound of both sides tearing,
It fell at Chinami's feet. All that was left in her hands were the handle-straps. It happened in an instant, as if it were part of a sketch, in that moment it fell a crunching sound reached even Banri's ears.
Chinami hurriedly crouched down, checking inside her bag. Pulling out a pouch, opening the fastener,
"...Are you kidding!? I stuffed it into a bag like this~ of all things... man~...!"
As things were, she was greatly troubled.
Stuffed inside the pouch was Chinami's treasure: a small handicam. The Oka Chinami Camera, or O-Camera for short. Bought with money she's managed to save from a part-time job, she'd been showing it off at the drinking party the other day.
"That didn't sound too good... can you turn it on? Shouldn't you check?"
Though Banri spoke timidly, Chinami nodded and pushed the power button on the O-Camera. A little red light turned on, and peeking through the viewfinder,
"It's okay... It looks like it wasn't broken. Perhaps we should record something... what do you think?"
Chinami stood up, and immediately turned the lens on Banri. A ham, he waved his hand automatically. Not wasting any time, he pretended he was an Olympic athlete munching on one of the bags of Chinese noodles. Moving the lens to the side, she next focused on Kouko. Kouko, perhaps still in shock from Chinami's counterattack and not yet recovered, stood there quietly in the street.
"This is Kaga-san. Kaga Kouko. This is her first time O-Camera. Hi there!"
While it recorded, Kouko, naturally, ignored the chatting Chinami and turned away from her, but Chinami kept the lens pointed at her. With the lens plainly functioning as her eye, it was as if she were still staring straight at her.
"Hey, Kaga-san. It hurts me too. Though perhaps you can't see it. But, so it is, so it is, really. Really. You see, because, for Yana,"
Suddenly, her voice got interrupted.
Chinami was still posed, ready to record, though Banri had noticed her shoulder trembling. Taking little breaths, Chinami seemed to be trying to stop the trembling. But, as you might expect, unable to endure,
"Twice already I've called out her, is she going to speak...?"
She lowered the hand holding the camera. Her white face crumpling, her big eyes suddenly filling, Banri stepped towards her with a groan.
Oka-chan was crying...
It was Kouko.
She pushed the bag of Chinese noodles she had in her hand into Chinami's face as hard as she could.
"Enough of this crying so cute and behaving like a little kid in front of Tada-kun, in this world only I can do that. Only by your stopping crying will I know that you understand."
Pressing the back of her head with one hand, she pushed the noodles with the other. She put so much force into it, it was like a human modan-yaki. In the end, sorrowful noises were coming out from beneath the noodles.
"Ka, Kaga-san... You're suffocating Oka-chan!"
"...Have you stopped crying?"
Kouko checked how things were going, making sure Banri could not see. And then, shaking her head from side to side "not good", she pushed firmly on the noodles once more.
"Looks like she needs more."
"You mean that, even though she really looks in sad shape...!?"
She was trying to free herself somehow from the modan-yaki, but Chinami,
"Hey, hey... Banri... Banri..."
In spite of her difficulty breathing, she was calling Banri. She was still made into a "" by Kouko. All she had in her hands was the camera in one, the bag strap in the other. And then,
"I look rather funny right now, don't I?"
Record it... try and record it... she was asking. She extended the camera out to Banri. So I can see this mess later on, she said.
Banri had no choice but to take the camera and follow Chinami's instructions, and do what remained to be done to record this strange face-mein affair. With the simple controls, he shortly knew how to use even the zoom. When he waved the camera in Kouko's direction, the lens faced a posed smile. She gave him a little wink back. A salaryman who happened to pass by turned his face away in open annoyance, then escaped crossing to the other side of the street at a trot. A group of elementary school kids returning from cram school and going to the convenience store waved their hands for the camera, but other children were restraining them, saying "Shh." For the moment, he was left to record even such responses from the world around them.
Before long Chinami,
"Hey, could you let go your hand just a little, Kaga-san...? Somehow I'm feeling it's pretty stable."
Slowly, the noodles placed on her face still, she set out walking by herself. It seemed that because they had been pushed on so hard, the noodles were sticking tightly to the curves of her face and not falling. While recording video of that bag stuck there, leaving nothing out, Banri found it simply too surreal. Was it all right to laugh, or should he not? Really, it was as if he were seeing noodles with swaying long hair, walking around.
"Shall I call it a face... or a mask, or noodles?"
Banri said, "The letter is for mein, or noodles, right?" but Chinami,
She suddenly started to dance, moving only her hips so that the noodles on her face wouldn't fall. The bag simply too idiotic looking, Kouko suddenly lost it. In seeming annoyance, she hid her mouth, but she burst out laughing anyway. Chinami too, as if she couldn't stand it anymore, broke out laughing "Fufu...fufufu hahaha! What am I doing!?" and finally dropping the noodles,
"No, seriously, how would that be for an entrance!? Then with Yana there too, perhaps we can concern ourselves with forgiving and forgetting."
She was rubbing around her eyes as she picked up the bag. Hiding even the traces of her tears, the night fairy tried to laugh with her normal soft face.
"That, of course, is too foolish, and he might get offended," they said, squelching that idea. With that, the three of them turned towards Banri's place, and yet,
There was an excess of foolishness over face-mein, but back in the room they were waiting naked.
The hair-band power-up equipped Mitsuo, along with Two Dimensions, were sleeping unclothed, cuddled up in Banri's bed. Two Dimensions, with his glasses, for the moment looked like John. The manly Mitsuo was snuggled under his arm. They had been in this position the whole while, waiting for Banri & Kouko to bring Chinami back to the room. Arguing between the two over whether they were coming or not.
His bed contaminated by the naked pair of bums, Banri blew. Their eyes contaminated, Kouko and Chinami blew. Reading the mood, Two Dimensions quickly got up, said "Well, we can start the drinking party over... this time with Oka-chan here too..." and got dressed.
"Well... Chinami... would laugh at it... we, thought..."
Mitsuo, the hair-band still in place, looked up at Chinami awkwardly. Chinami slowly shook her head from side to side,
"Yana, that wasn't funny at all. It was just plain disgusting."
Cut in half by a single stroke. While turning her face away in disgust, Kouko said so to Chinami so softly that not even Banri heard.
"Face-mein took the prize."
"Fuhahahahaa!" Chinami raised a victory laugh by herself. Mitsuo kept looking up at her in wonder. "Ah, it's gotta be some kind of noodle," Two Dimensions grabbed the Chinese noodles, and Banri washed his hands in the sink.
Since it plainly seemed that nothing had happened, they could restart the drinking party.
* * *
Banri tried as hard as he could to open his eyes, and it occurred to him, after I've fallen asleep, why wasn't something fun keeping me awake?
In any case, there wasn't any sake to drink. It's okay if you don't wake up until morning, he thought.
But how many hours they'd talked like crazy about foolish things, and gorged themselves on the side dishes they'd perhaps bought too much of,
And in the end, it seemed he'd fallen asleep without realizing it.
Two Dimensions and Mitsuo were muttering things like "Five dimensions seem incredible" and "The concept of the universe is greater than its substance," with the strange mood characteristic of the middle night, and though they were talking up a storm, and he should have been taking part, had he fallen out naturally?
Slowly raising his body, waking up was like a continuation of his dreams. He looked around the dark room, lit by the first little traces of light. Two Dimensions called this lighting condition "the crack of dawn." "Let's turn on the lights at the crack of dawn," he'd said. Whether that was what it was called around Shitamachi, or it was peculiar to the language, in either case it seemed to have a oddly nice flavor, and Banri decided to call it 'the crack of dawn' next time.
Banri was half off the futon spread on the floor, apparently disarranged by him rolling around. Mitsuo had fallen asleep right in the middle of the futon, a towel-blanket over his head. Two Dimensions was pathetic, his body curled up under the table, looking cold, a light snoring noise rising from him.
Chinami was sleeping in the bed with Kouko.
She had fallen asleep first, with Kouko, who was frantically moaning in her sleep "Don't drop the makeup... We can't go to buy makeup we've lost..." When they went to sleep, at least, they were looking pretty good. They were peacefully sleeping, sharing a pillow, Kouko turned sideways towards the wall, hugging the petite Chinami from behind as if she were a plush toy. Breathing in unison in their sleep, it was oddly amusing.
Right around ten o'clock, Kouko called home. She lied to them, saying she was staying over at a college friend named Oka Chinami's house. In order to gain the trust of her doubting parents, who'd asked "You aren't with Tada-kun, are you?" Chinami was put on the telephone and introduced. Eh? I'm not an elementary schooler! Eh? My voice isn't synthesized! Eh? I'm not sniffing helium either! ...And so on, she talked for dear life. Though they weren't sorry, it was funny, and the guy-team was desperately covering their laughter.
He felt sorry for her having lied, but his conscience wasn't bothering him much. He thought, 'We're college students, and this kind of thing is okay.' He thought so because they weren't doing anything "bad." He still couldn't see the lights of Paris. Because keeping a relationship pure is such a rare thing nowadays, doing this much should be forgiveable. Maybe.
Three in the morning.
Alone, Banri absentmindedly rubbed his eyes. "...Shoot," he let out in a small voice.
The quiet room was a horrible mess. Food and sake, and what you might call the aroma of youth, had been swelteringly, hotly brought together.
Getting up softly so as to not make any sound with his feet, carefully stepping around the feet of his friends that had rolled out onto the floor, he turned towards the closet and quietly pulled out some blankets. Used in the springtime, they were things he'd rolled up and stuffed away unwashed in the recent heat, but they didn't smell when he sniffed them. Kneeling quietly, Banri draped the blanket over Two Dimensions.
Doing this so his guest wouldn't get cold, he opened the window to get some ventilation. As he did so, a wind came through. Banri sat down by the window, the cool air of the dead of night pleasant on his throat worm from so much chatter.
He gazed at the bed. Groaning "no..." softly, Kouko buried herself under the blanket. He wondered if she'd gotten a little chilled by the wind. No longer able to see her sleeping face, he was very disappointed.
---Where was the last station of love!?
Their date was an unusual time. While the drunken Chinami threw herself down and munched on dried squid, Mitsuo while doing sit-ups cried out "Marriage!" in answer. "After that perhaps, it'll be habit! It'll be living! It'll be reality!" he said. Two Dimensions said, "Saying that nobody can see the way before him in love, a man takes a trip by train... if it derails, he doesn't arrive at the station... hey, isn't that phrase just now good? I'm going to use it for something," taking note of it at once, he fiddled with his iPhone.
And then Banri and Kouko, their eyes making contact, their voices in unison, said "Paris!"
Concealing their reasons from Chinami's query of "What was that about?" they had paired up, and knowing that if you were looking at it from outside they were annoying to the extreme, had kept on laughing.
The last station of their love was Paris.
Sleeping under Banri's blanket, the curves of Kouko's figure could be seen dimly.
The obsessive side of himself, impatiently saying 'I want to go to Paris, I want to go soon!' and the side of himself that seemed to be satisfied with simply sitting by the window like this, feeling comfortable listening to Kouko breathing in her sleep forever, both sides of himself certainly existed, it seemed to him.
Well, if it could really happen, he'd prefer it if Kouko were staying alone, though.
He wanted to try and have a bad relationship he couldn't tell his parents about, forsaking everything else in this apartment in Tokyo. Already, he didn't feel that was a lie.
He wondered too, whether the others would tease him for getting close to the eccentric, clingy Kouko, wondering if they were spending time alone together. They would wonder what else was going on. The two of them, murmuring sweet words, drawing close to her lovely face, holding hands without concern about where they were, touching, clinging, because it was all right.
She was probably thinking that no matter what, Tada-kun was safe. We're not in Paris, unfortunately. He would promise that he wouldn't explode, even if she lit the fuse. Banri felt sure of that, as if it had been written in fireworks.
But if he was a firecracker, wouldn't lighting his fuse normally make him explode? It was a mystery, her trust in him.
The soles of his feet feeling strangely hot, he pushed them against the glass.
In the middle of the night like this, a night where all of his friends were sleeping, his girlfriend Kouko was sleeping too, and only he himself was completely and wide awake. Feeling sad and thinking strange thoughts, without anybody to stop him from doing it.
He tried to keep his voice down.
Was there nobody? He asked, rolling to the floor. Alone, he looked up at the dark ceiling.
Was this an after-effect of a fun time, from talking on and on, making lots of noise? His wide-awake head randomly high, he was unable to get back to sleep.
He was unusually intense, as if he had been left behind alone.
Apart from himself, there probably wasn't anybody else in this world waking up at a time like this. It came to him just like that, at that very moment.
From somewhere nearby he could hear the sound of a window sash being opened. Was it from the apartment next door? That was NANA-senpai's, but maybe---
Almost grumbling, rolling and getting up, Banri took his cell-phone off the charger. Thinking it might be a problem at such an hour, but he was strangely sure.
The message he sent was very short. 'Are you awake?' was all it said.
He pushed the send button, and a few seconds passed. Rather than an e-mail, Banri's cell-phone vibrated from an incoming call. Cutting it off after only one ring, Banri, saying 'as I suspected,' stood up.
So there wouldn't be any noise, he went out on the veranda, quietly shutting the door-wall.
Walking barefoot and tip-toe on the cold rough concrete, he leaned his body over the railing and deftly peeked around the easily breakable panel which separated him from the neighboring veranda.
Over there, he saw the person he suspected would be there. As expected, Banri laughed.
As easy as that, he had called out to her.
Not reproaching him for having omitted the honorific, Linda was holding on to the railing in the same poze, looking at Banri and laughing.
What does one do with one's neighbor at three in the morning?
A former class-mate, in a place like this.
The situation was becoming strangely comical, the two of them by turn talking and laughing softly. Linda made as if to press her arm against his mouth, and Banri, his mouth open but no voice coming out, did nothing but laugh.
"Wh, what are you doing!?"
"It's you too!"
Talking softly in voices already hoarse, they pointed at each other. Really, what was it they were doing? Having drunken the high spirits of the night, they were still laughing.
While he laughed, Banri was thinking about something odd. It was okay to talk casually. Rather than calling her Senpai, now it seemed more natural to call her "Linda", he thought.
He felt as if he remembered it always being like that before, but Banri's breath caught. Phew, as if in relief, he realized it was as if a hard tension, stiffening his body everywhere, was coming undone. The night-chilled oxygen diffused through him pleasantly.
"A drinking party?"
While bringing his laughter under control, he nodded to Linda in reply.
"Is NANA-senpai there with you?"
Taking a quick breath, Linda combed up her bangs. As soon as she set it in order with her fingers, the night wind messed it up again.
Looking towards him, her eyes shone brightly.
"What I mean is, I was just now remembering. About you. So when your text arrived, I was really surprised. How did you know I was awake?"
"How did I? I sort of had a hunch."
"The Banri from before was that sort of guy. There were times at training camps, away races and so on. There really were, a few times a year. In the middle of the night, apparently unable to sleep, you came creeping into the girls' room… coming in and saying 'Hey Linda, are you awake?'"
"Hey, I'm not a stalker."
"But that's how it was. You were almost like a stalker. So even though you were looking really awful, you'd nervously say things like 'I can't sleep... maybe it's because of tomorrow's practice race...' To which I would answer, 'How would you like me waking you up? And then, the two of us getting sick during the morning run for lack of sleep.'"
"I suppose I didn't have any male friends?"
"You did, you did. You'd gone to every one of them asking 'Hey, you awake?', and in the end you came over to where I was."
"Oh, in other words you're telling me that I decided to be a stalker after I'd checked to make sure that all the guys were asleep... isn't that your typical premeditated crime!?"
"More like we were just kids. And still quite childish, especially you."
"No, that's not right. I understand my present self. In that behavior, my intentions were absolutely ero. I absolutely was. I, was, guilty."
"Re, really? ...Wow, then maybe, that time I lost my panties, was that really you...?"
"What's with saying 'I was guilty' in an 'I was gay' sort of way?" Linda was doubling over in laughter. A long time ago, the fiance of a certain famous person in a press conference said such things, and the cruel brats of the time joked about and imitated that way of talking. ---Whether talking such things was bringing back his memories of the past, or it was general information that remained to him, it didn't make a difference to the current Banri.
The sound of her laugh remaining on her lips still, Linda sighed and looked down upon the city.
Banri too looked over towards where Linda was looking.
The night city was strangely quiet, not even the slight wind could be heard. It was just like time had stopped. Since he'd first moved here he'd known how loud this area was at middle-day, flooded with the noises of cars.
He joined with Linda, standing side by side on the veranda, separated by the panel.
Oddly, even idly silent like this, he didn't feel uneasy. Rather, it was comfortable. He felt as if he was accepted, and released from all pressure.
It's all right not to talk, even silent still, Linda understood he wasn't thinking anything strange. Everything was okay. It was all right. He could believe that unconditionally. Such things as being understood, angering someone, being disliked did not exist, and he could be at peace.
And so Banri,
Setting himself in the same poze as Linda, he rested his chin in his hands, thinking at his own pace still about what he could say.
"It was for some reason, though."
"I think that in those days I loved you. And so that time, using being unable to sleep as an excuse, and seeing it was about time for Linda to be falling asleep... It was rather ero, I think. For that I am sorry."
With a big smile, Linda laughed.
"Is that so?"
Looking at Banri sidelong, Linda's mouth twisted in a strangely evil way. She was laughing scornfully.
"...You never thought that way?"
"...Why does everybody seem to think I'm a bomb ready to go off...?"
That I'm not safe to be around. That nobody knows when I'm going to explode.
At that moment, Banri became aware of an object rising softly before his eyes.
The mysterious object, coaxed onwards by the wind, rose and fell over and over again like a jellyfish dancing underwater, but then went up and without stopping flew away high above.
Would it ever come down to earth again, even on some far, high place?
"What's that? A plastic bag? ...Or what?"
"What? Which one?"
"That one. Look, over there."
Linda leaned out around the panel, and looked out to where Banri was pointing. The two of them, their bodies bent out at the same angle, watched for a while as it went flying higher and higher.
"...It's a plastic bag, isn't it?"
Though it was becoming impossible to see, they had somehow chased it with their eyes, and soon Banri's shoulder was pressing against Linda's.
He had no idea even why he was thinking things like "If I could be like this, I would be safe."
He could believe without reason that even if all the people of this world were asleep, if Linda was there it would be all right.
Banri didn't even know whether it was the feelings of his current self, thinking of Linda as a guardian angel, or whether it was the memories of his past self, who had spent so much time with Linda.
For now, he simply stayed as he was.
And so they overcame the lonely dead of night, leaving it behind. They waited for the morning. He had surely done like this before now. So he thought.
"You know, it would have been better if we'd talked normally about the old days from the start."
Still looking far away, Linda spoke. She said that close to his ears.
"...Somehow, once you miss the chance to say something, it can quickly turn to poison. Even when you don't speak of such things, but saving them up they turn to harm. As time passes, they become dangerous. However bad they are, it is best to get them said."
About myself, about my friends. Even about today's drinking party. About being with Linda. At each memory, Banri nodded. It really was so. He quite agreed.
Though that was so, not everything can be done so easily and honestly. The thought passed idly through Banri's mind that some things are like poison.
Making sure to look him in the face, Linda let out a great sigh.
"Between us, from now on, there is nothing we cannot talk about. We haven't changed. ...I think it's okay if we think like that. The truth is, nothing has changed. With Tada Banri, Hayashida Nana. We're living, both of us. We're looking at the same sky. That has not changed at all."
Unable to answer, Banri looked back into Linda's eyes.
He wondered if nothing had changed.
Himself here not knowing Linda, living in Tokyo, living by himself in this room. To Banri, it was obvious that things had changed since that time. About the only things that had not changed were their faces. And if one layer of their skin were peeled back, then they'd be nothing more than unrelated, different people.
And still, he wondered if Linda wanted to believe nothing had changed. Banri is Banri, and that time still is, of course he wondered if that was what Linda wanted.
Of course, he wondered if really she just couldn't accept "this self"...
Somebody said, "---That's what it looks like."
It was me that existed with Linda.
You weren't there.
"...That's it, isn't it..."
Banri's ears heard what was certainly the sound of a voice. I heard something, he thought. Answering it with something like a groan, Banri slowly closed his eyes.
He wondered how much longer he had to wait for the still distant morning.
He pulled away from the shoulder he'd been leaning against. The part of him that had been touching Linda until now, exposed to the wind, was being chilled too much.
Opening his eyes, but the world was still night. In the blackness there were spots of light, city lights.
"Do you want to go back to that time? To that place? Were you thinking you would want to return if you could to that time where I used to be?"
There being no response, their conversation fell silent.
Linda stood by Banri's side, her hand hiding her mouth still, only her eyes facing the dark sky. Silent for the moment, she seemed to be thinking about something.
You can't go back already, eternally--- Banri thought that way. Going back is simply not possible. He had become like this, everything had changed, and you cannot turn back time. Accepting reality, one way or the other casting aside the things you can't do anything about, can't be helped. Though of course he couldn't get it out of his mouth, he thought over and over again "that's the truth."
The words he couldn't say were truly becoming poisonous. And then they were gnawing on his body. It was to blame for the pain in his chest.
He took a breath. About to say something entirely different, Banri opened his mouth and then,
"I, want to go back!"
---Shocked, he looked at his hand.
Linda was shocked too. Bending her body as if going stiff, she looked at Banri's hand.
What the heck he said, what he shouted, what he was about to do, he had no idea.
His hand was near Linda's elbow and about to grab it. He realized it hadn't moved yet, aimlessly hanging in the air.
Slowly, he moved his fingers. He brought them close to check them. Without a doubt, that was his hand. Though it was his own hand, and though it was his own voice,
"...What... did I just say...?"
What he was doing, he really had no idea. He saw Linda's jaw quiver for an instant. The panel that separated their two verandas felt cold against their hips.
She said. Eyes blinking in surprise, she looked back at Banri, looking surprised from the bottom of her heart.
"You fell asleep? Just now."
It's gotta be, she nodded and laughed. And pushing hard against the handrail getting herself up,
"We probably both need to get to bed already. Lack of sleep isn't good for you. You'll become oversensitive, and even think things you shouldn't. So they say."
She waved her hand and turned away.
"Good night. Tada Banri."
Cheerfully closing the door-wall to NANA-senpai's residence, Linda quickly returned inside the room. Left behind, Banri was still in a daze.
Unconvinced, unable to agree entirely, he still couldn't go back into his apartment. Stepping into the silent world of those sleepers, he couldn't settle down and close his eyes.
I am alone in the soundless night, he thought. I am the only one wide awake right now.
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