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Since that Wednesday, ten days had passed.
Two hundred and forty hours.
Had he noticed the way time was passing, it was already the second Friday since then. As Banri headed to the staff room, his sports bag slung over his uniformed shoulder, a soundless chill ran up his back.
The school building in midwinter, past 7pm, was quietly getting dark and chilly. The other students were already gone from sight. All the lights had been turned off except for the staff-room, and walking alone in the corridor his slippered feet were illuminated by the green emergency lights.
In time with Banri's steps, the clubroom keys in his hand jingled. Of green and of yellow, it seemed that when the two plastic tags hit each other they made a noise. It was such a little sound, he had not noticed it before.
Accounting for and inspecting the equipment after club activities, being in charge of returning the clubroom keys to the staffroom after everybody had left, was what in the running club was called being the "Last Act", and the second years had come to take turns in doing it. Up to now Banri had done it many times, but it was perhaps the first time he'd done it by himself.
Perhaps, or rather, for sure. It was the first time.
Banri's feet stopped for a moment. Until now, Linda had gone with him every time. When it was Banri's turn to be Last Act, Linda had come with him.
It had already been ten days since then. So many days had passed because he had come to ignore Linda.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the week opening, Monday, Tuesday, a second Wednesday, with Thursday, and then today Friday--- counting them inside his head as if to make sure, once more his feet moved. When he stepped forward, he grabbed the strap to his slipping bag, putting it back in place with a grunt. It would be like this from now on, he'd decided. ...Thinking about it over and over, as if convincing himself, was strangely upsetting.
Telling himself he would not feel anything, Banri firmly sealed his slightly chapped lips. Staying disinterested, silent, he would do as he had decided. Alone, resolute, he lifted his eyes.
He would never, not another time, say another word to Linda. He would not be concerned with Hayashida Nana.
The staff-room door opened at his soft knock and he went inside.
To Banri, who had been walking alone in the cold dark corridor, the flourescent lighting in the room was too bright. It dazzled his eyes. And the heat was working too hard, which made the air too dry. While blinking over and over, he hung the keys up on the wall right next to where he entered.
"Excuse mee, I'm back from the running cluub. Thank you very muuch."
Dipping his head in the direction of an apathetic teacher’s voice, without skipping a beat he made his exit as if he were being drawn from behind and closed the door.
And then again, the chilly, dark, silent corridor. The world of mid-winter.
Today’s Last Act mission was with that completed.
Again alone in the corridor, Banri took a small breath without realizing it. He wrapped a wool muffler around his neck up to his mouth like a girl, and tied it behind his neck.
Even if Shizuoka was a relatively warm place, it was February.
Outside the sun had set a while ago, and it was probably appropriately cold. When he looked at the window pane, he saw from the raindrops sticking to it one after another, as if drawing sharp diagonal lines, that at some point it had even started to rain. With a thirty-percent chance of rain having been predicted, he had brought along a folding umbrella.
Continuing down the dark stairwell to the entrance, Banri descended carefully so as not to stumble. To the landing still as death, only the sound of the rubber soles of his hallway slippers on the metal step edges, clip, clap, echoing strangely clearly.
That Wednesday's Last Act was Linda. ...He wondered if Linda too had heard such a ridiculous sound at a time like this. At least his ears were completely covered up against the echoes.
---I am not in love with Banri!
Shouted by Linda, such were the echoing words.
Though he didn't want to remember them, they came back to mind once more, of course. Casting his eyes downward, when he reached out to grab the handrail his fingertip was suddenly zapped by static electricity. Surprised by the pain, Banri lifted his hand from the cold metal. What the? He muttered to himself sullenly. Sulking, he stuffed both his cold hands deep into his pockets.
What the heck, really.
What the, what the heck.
Since that day, that was all Banri thought about. What, what the heck. It continued to weigh on him, and in a deep funk, between the many careless comments, and people acting the fool even, he was gradually forgetting how to go with the flow.
Wednesday of last week, Banri was waiting by the stairwell for Linda to come out bringing the room key as the Last Act.
However Linda was still there, perhaps chatting merrily with the other girls, not getting a move on at all. So Banri, growing impatient, thought he would return to the room and call for her to get moving.
Once he stood before the thin door, he could clearly hear the high-pitched laughing voices of the girls on the other side, and mixed amongst them was Linda's voice too, shouting "How has it come to this!?"
Saying "of course not," while half-amazed, he took hold of the door knob, ready to turn it, and,
"Eh, you're kidding! Are we wrong!?"
"But all of us thought that Linda-senpai and Banri-senpai were dating!"
He became unable to move.
Banri, stood there alone, even stupidly, paralyzed, his eyes wide as if he'd just been given an electric shock. The voices just now were of the first-year girls, he thought. But, what the? What in the world were they suddenly talking about?
Though he had no intention to eavesdrop, he could hear everything from the very start, the thin door providing no soundproofing effect at all. To Banri's ears, the girls' conversation... was what you'd call 'girl talk', and for guys, that just goes straight in one ear and out the other.
Shouldn't a guy get a move on? Still bewildered, he thought so in a moment of honesty, but,
"Well I thought so, or rather I 'think' so! Why have you been hiding it~!?"
"Really, really. You guys have been super close, you look like the perfect couple, and you're always the most magnificent. Doesn't it look like you're having fun hanging around together!? So there's just no way you wouldn't be dating!"
Banri was still in the same poze, door-knob in hand and about to turn it, but he still could not move.
He wanted to answer back, "...It just isn't like that! It couldn't be more impossible!" but he couldn't gather the voice to say it, standing there bolt upright, gasping in vain.
They thought that he and Linda were dating.
It was quite a shock.
But that sort of thing. Linda and himself dating. This me, and that Linda. Being seen as a couple. To Banri it was something truly unexpected.
For sure, he and Linda were pretty close. They got along strangely well. Their sense of humor going off randomly, the fun they had when they were together, and the conversation and the mood too, it was as if they responded to each other. Constantly looking after each other without reservations, it was cozy being with Linda. And so whether it was in the classroom, the clubroom, wherever or whenever, the very first thing Banri did was look for Linda.
But, he thought that was as far as it went.
That is, of course, Linda was of the opposite sex. He knew that. She's a girl. He understood that. She wasn't the same as his male buddies. Her long hair was silky, her white skin was smooth too, and the way she ran was beautiful. He had even wanted to stare in silence at her eyes, wrinkled with laughter. At her mouth too. Especially the area around where her skin meets her lips. Linda's lips, by their light pink color, indeed, by looking soft, they looked altogether different from my own. He had even imagined what they would be like if he were to touch them. The other guys had not once, not for one second thought of such things.
But, because of that... because, of that.
Trying to think, Banri held his breath.
All the reasons he wasn't ever likely to date Linda, and that it was unlikely from the start, now that he'd said them, they were nowhere to be found.
Because they got along the way they did, and were really close, it wasn't particularly odd it had come to this.
In fact, from near at hand that was what it looked like.
Linda is pretty and...
At the moment he suddenly became aware of possibilities he had not realized existed until now, Banri's cheeks suddenly blushed furiously.
If he could've seen it, they'd turned into bright red balls of fire. Suddenly he was hot around his eyelids too. It seemed his eyelashes were burning up. Attacked by a ferocious turmoil of uncertain meaning, Banri held the door knob as if clinging to it, holding up his body which was starting to shake. All of a sudden, the ground swayed to match the way his heart had started beating like crazy. He realized that his brain seemed to be boiling.
Unable to understand, squeezing his eyes shut without thinking,
"Cut! It! Out! What are you guys!? Are you idiots!?"
He heard Linda's voice.
It was as if his entire body had become an ear. No, rather, he was a human parabolic antenna. All of his body given the ability to receive, he directed himself towards Linda through the the door separating them.
Aware that he was becoming desperate, Banri asked himself, "Can this be real?"
He had suddenly become like this by simply being made aware. It seemed to him as if Linda's smile was floating in his mind, its brightness blurring slightly, as if it were melting. What a simple person I am.
"But Banri and I aren't like that! We get along, or rather, somehow it's come to be that I look out for him! Look, Banri isn't reliable, or rather, he doesn't act like a man! So you could say I just can't leave him alone!"
"Ah yes, ah yes..." they said, in a tone of voice as if they were teasing their respected senpai Linda, some of the girls joining together in a falsetto.
"Now, I, get, it. You're saying you can't leave Banri-senpai alone because you like him!"
It seemed to him the temperature in his brain had risen to its limits.
Banri had already forgotten even to breathe. His heart was pumping his blood like crazy, beating strangely fast and at great pressure. Linda liking him, wow.
There was no way, no way it could be...
"You're wrong! For one thing, I don't even see that guy as a man! In other words, it's not like that!"
Banri opened his tightly closed eyes wide.
He said "What?" but there were so many stupid voices spilling out at once that in spite of the noise he made, they still hadn't noticed his presence.
Linda's voice, her words, he had heard them clearly of course. With their meaning and their intent precise,
"I don't like him!"
---This time, cool oxygen suddenly penetrated deep into his brain cells.
What his open eyes were seeing, even he did not understand. For a moment, Banri even forgot where he was.
Standing alone, it suddenly felt like he'd been thrown up into the air.
As if it were impossible to resist, he was suddenly grabbed as if by an eagle's talons and flung high with all its strength. And then,
"There we are again! You're just shy, don't you really like him?"
"No way, you've got it wrong! I ne-ver liked that guy!"
And then only the fall to earth is left... so they say.
Would it be said that without a safety net, he would have struck so hard he would die and the crash site be impossible to discover?
"Your blood rose all at once to your head, but now it's falling back down to your feet just as fast. I think you're going a little pale."
"I don't love Banri at all!"
The door-knob was warm.
The fingers grabbing it, they were too cold.
What the, what the heck.
He felt it suddenly quiet down inside his chest. ...What the, what the heck. What the heck was he doing? That, he wasn't. By himself, flying high to suit himself. Violently up and down. Taking a nose-dive, unable to keep from making noise. And even now, he couldn't move.
It wasn't even for a few seconds, but how'd you like my foolishness in soaring lightly, high in the air? The simplicity of it. Acting like it was one big misunderstanding. One giant misunderstanding. He was ashamed of everything, and accursed. He could not help but be detestable. Too indecent even to look at. An overly showy exercise in futility. A sharp, stabbing pain.
Banri, without realizing it, bit his lip firmly and raised his face. Squaring his uniformed shoulder, he took a breath, in and out. His parents' expectations were excessive. In all the time since he entered high school, Banri's build hadn't gotten any bigger. Well, he was still growing. Though it may not look like it, he was taller than he was last year.
Besides, in particular. It is.
He didn't like things like this with Linda.
He understood how she might not want to say she didn't like him, or other such things, directly.
It was just,
"...Unreliable, unmanly, difficult to watch out for..."
He was muttering to himself as if he were spitting out the words, and the door to the room was suddenly opened from the inside, almost at the same instant. When the first-year girls spotted Banri standing there, they gasped.
Inside the room there were three first-year girls, and Linda.
He didn't see Linda's face.
Banri turned on his heel at once and stalked off, as if leaving behind the understandably awkward silence.
Not looking back even once, not running, changing his shoes at the shoe-rack, he left the school.
In the time it took him to reach the first traffic light, he had to tell himself to stop saying "Linda" twice already. Stop worrying about her. So he decided.
If she doesn't like me, I'll be fine. He wondered if as things were it would become a non-relationship anyway, with Linda not caring at all. He wondered if she'd even think about him at all. If it turned out that way, that was fine. Forgotten entirely, made into something that never was. Even here, he did not want to beg a person who did not like him to stay on good terms with him.
As things were, he was irritated, because she was embarassed of his being by her side, not guessing what he might think of her, without even doubting, making that face as if it were her natural right.
So Banri thought. It was unexpectedly clownish. For more than two years, Linda, while acting all friendly on the surface, when she saw him was deep inside thinking he was a guy she didn't like.
(As for the precious time you've spent keeping an eye on me even though you didn't like me, I'm very sorry for having been a problem for you! Please, from now on, spend the time of your life on the guy you love!)
---Shaking it all off and leaving it all behind, Banri broke into a run on the way home, as if he were escaping. Banri's view of the world had gone blank, as if somebody had painted it over in white.
It had been like that for ten days now.
Linda, over the past ten days had tried to call out to him cheerfully "Yo Banri!", tried to call out to him softly "Hey, Banri...", tried to call out to him indirectly "Want some candy?", tried to call out to him directly "About what happened the other day...", tried to call out to him by e-mail "Good effort at today's club activity✩" and even tried to use her brother like a caveman messenger sent from the jungle to call out to him "Uvoi! How ya been!? Whatcha doing!? Oh, wanna banana!?" At any rate, she freely used all sorts of methods to try and establish communications with Banri.
Banri ignored them all.
The reason being that he had decided to not have anything to do with her anymore.
"...Ugh. They're cold, of course...!"
Pulling on his loafers for the walk home, Banri having completed today's Last Act alone, he left through the deserted students' entrance.
Just then, blown against his face by a cold winter wind from the north, the freezing raindrops made him gasp.
He opened his cheap, but better than nothing, and in fact entirely sufficient folding umbrella with a flapping noise. It happened when he had descended the three steps and was turning towards the school gate.
The wind was blowing the rain under the eaves to the side of the entrance steps.
Standing alone in the icy darkness, no umbrella to be seen, in a dark green duffle coat like a blackboard.
As if lighting faintly the night darkness, a snow white face.
Standing up upon seeing Banri, Linda opened her mouth as if struggling to do so, but in the end she didn't say anything. Banri didn't say anything either.
Still without a word, several seconds passed. The two which had been friends until ten days earlier both looked down at their feet.
The one who moved forward was Banri.
Hiding the face halfway inside his dark blue umbrella, not wanting her to realize that he had stopped, he stepped out again forcefully. He passed by Linda's side. Leaving her behind, he continued forward. He had decided to not look back.
However, a small voice called Banri's name.
Perhaps due to the winter, Linda's voice seemed to be shaking as if overstressed.
Banri's feet stopped.
...Did she not have an umbrella?
Still not turning around, in the night amidst the sparkling drops of rain-water, he heard Linda's breathing behind him.
He wondered how long she had been there. He wondered if by chance she had been waiting for him. In such a cold place, by herself. ---For the sake of a guy she didn't like, why?
Would she like an umbrella?
Banri looked at the folding umbrella whose handle was grasped tightly in his hand. He thought there was no way Linda would come beneath this umbrella like a friend.
But, if she would, she could. Even for an unrelated person, even that much kindness should be okay.
There, a troubled, unfamiliar girl, one not associated with him, not liking nor hating him, not a friend nor even an acquaintance, standing in the cold mid-winter rain. In such a case, there were reasons to be kind, Banri thought.
But still not of a mind to say anything at all, Banri turned around. Once he handed over the umbrella, he intended to run away at once.
Her hair wet from the rain, Linda looked at Banri. She had been watching the whole time. Her two dark eyes, quietly, weakly glittering, were just like twinkling raindrops in the night. Slowly, as if he were slowly beginning to dissolve, Banri involuntarily forgot to breathe.
But, before long.
Slowly, her lips started to move,
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