Golden Time

By TAKEMIYA Yuyuko

Golden Time Volume 4 Chapter 2

Golden Time Volume 4 Chapter 2

Chapter 2[]

Heavy, explosive, very forceful... such a sound has the word 'woman,' but overall, whether his lover was a suitable and beautiful woman or not, she was certainly complicated.

Nonetheless, he instinctively felt there was something uncalled for in Kaga Kouko today. She was being strangely heavy, and explosive.

Still lying down on the bed, his body feeling heavy and nearly dead from fever, Banri was watching Kouko and his friends seated close by in the narrow room, envious of their excellent condition.

"I really was just kidding. I just thought it would be funny if I said you were cheating. I was trying to get a laugh."

Closest to Banri's bed, positioned right next to the mattress, her head held high and sitting beautifully with her legs to one side, truly the princess, Kouko broke the silence. A silk handkerchief spread across her lap, she covered her legs elegantly as if she were out on a picnic date.

Her smile was composed. She had an aura of calm. She had the appearance of born royalty.

"After all, there is no way my Tada-kun would cheat on me."

Before anybody could think about shaking their heads or interrupting with a snort,

"Tada-kun loves me completely after all. Of course I know that. ...He loves me!"

Suddenly sitting up straight, the veins popped in her temples and her voice rose. Ooh... everybody pulled back a little.

"Or rather, that absolute confidence makes me grow stronger and stronger. The power of being loved runs through me and makes me feel even better, and that in turn makes you... ouch!"

Left to herself, she would have been able to keep on talking forever, but Linda, who was seated next to her, struck her near her white elbow.

"But didn't you look really serious just now!? Seriously, cut it out. For a moment there you really scared me!"

"You're imagining things."

Rubbing the stricken area in a strangely happy way, Kouko elegantly fluttered her big eyelashes with their jet-black mascara. With a light purple eye shadow softly feathered, she was today again so feminine she glowed.

Behaving that way to the extreme, bearing herself like a beautiful actress, she pulled out from her bag some sort of small, round thing only a girl would have, a container the likes of an oyster shell.

"Should I be so strangely suspicious towards the Linda-senpai who came to the aid of my destined Tada-kun? Though I had thought that NANA-senpai would be here too. Has she returned to her place next door?"

She scooped out some of the contents with her ring finger. When Linda answered "Yes, she did," she continued, saying "What a shame, I really wanted to thank her," and then rubbed her soft lips with that fingertip. What she had taken with her finger looked like rose-pink lip gloss, and the sparkle of the melting glaze colored her well-shaped womanly lips more and more beautifully.

Like that, deliberately, she turned towards Banri and her eyes turned gentle. No voice coming out, the others unable to see her expression, she communicated only with Banri, her lips moving,

"Are you okay?"

She said; just the one phrase.

I'm fine, thank you, said Banri, also voicelessly, nodding only to Kouko. Across Kouko's white cheeks, a gentle smile slowly broadened.

Already, there was absolutely no way he was going to speak about having seen such a face, Banri thought.

Kouko had placed the bouquet of roses, her gift to him, by his bedside, just like flowers by a gravestone. ...It's fragrance was now getting rather too strong for his sick body. If he could, he'd set it aside quickly, it was so...

She was missing the mark, but there was no lie in her sincerity. In Kouko's gaze a genuine love was growing, unsullied by even one drop of mud.

When you are dedicated to something that way, you don't worry about your own condition.

Besides, as always--- there was still the matter of the photo. He didn't think that would be touched upon right now.

The picture of him and Linda together, taken in the old days. Banri wondered if Kouko had taken it with her. It was a possibility. Kouko had come down to this room so many times now, and besides there was what happened a few days ago, the day of the Omaken rehearsal. In the middle of that rainstorm. To Banri, it seemed she had gotten awfully unstable emotionally, and had simply burst out into tears for no reason he could understand.

Now, thinking about it, to put it simply, he wondered if it was because she had seen the picture of himself with Linda.

He felt like he had to double-check: Had she perhaps seen the picture? And then taken it? And then, if it seemed like it, then he had to explain the truth to her. Between this and that, tied together with his memory loss, he had not spoken yet to Kouko of his earlier time with Linda.

But, looking like that at his lover smiling at him, he didn't feel particularly able to broach that topic just now.

Besides, in reality, Kouko probably had nothing to do with his losing the picture.

It was simply somewhere, perhaps stuck between the pages of a book. It was likely, and he thought he would prefer that to have happened. First and foremost, being together with Linda in this situation, he didn't think he could just ask straight out from the start.

Giving up everything, putting his own heart to rest, Banri filled his nasal cavities with the sweet smell of the roses. He grew even more dizzy. Kouko let her gentle smile slip from Banri, turning towards Linda.

"Linda-senpai, once again, thank you very much. For your having cared for my Tada-kun, as a woman, I am truly grateful. Please please convey my gratitude to NANA-senpai as well."

"Yes, of course, I was just going to say that. Because we were planning on heading to school once she got back, I was going to do it then. Or rather, if it's all right with you, may I give your contact information to NANA-senpai? That way, if something happens like this time again, though we don't want it to happen, then she'll be able to contact you directly, right away."

"Yes! Sure! Of course! I don't mind!"

Suddenly the well raised 'good girl', she made the expression of the devoted underclassman, nodding and answering to Linda,

"You sure do put on an incredible show. That was completely different from what you were saying a little bit ago."

The voice that burst out in undisguised amazement was that of Yanagisawa Mitsuo.

As Kouko's childhood friend, formerly her unrequited (they say she was even stalking him) partner in love, at the moment you could call him her natural enemy, kept close. Better known as: Yana-ssan.

Anyway, he was a handsome guy, who even when he was dressed simply, in a short gray shirt and old blue-jeans, just by being part of the background, he made Banri's ordinary room look like a stylish movie set. And beyond that, though even in the worst of times he was blessed with the appearance of a natural airhead, lately, because of his new hair-style, his wildness and masculinity has grown rapidly. What's more, having been referred for a moving job by his film studies club upperclassmen, and having started working there, the muscles of his upper body were standing out more and more. He was a guy whose popularity was skyrocketing.

Mitsuo, still sitting cross-legged across from Kouko, with whom he had various complicated connections.

"What're you acting all Miss Goody Two-shoes for? It creeps me out."

He shrugged his shoulders.

Speaking of Kouko,

"...Huh?"

For the moment, she still had a smiling face.

But her gaze alone sharpened to an irritated glare, as cold as a perfect icicle, scowling daggers at Mitsuo.

But as you might expect from their having known each other a long time, even if against his will, even such a look as that wasn't going to silence Mitsuo. 'I wonder if he's immune?' Banri thought as he looked from the one to the other. He had a feeling that if eyes such as those were directed at him, his own will would be burnt out in an instant.

"Don't give me 'huh?' Weren't you just now making a lot of noise, 'It's cheating, cheating, cheating I say! Tada-kun is cheating on me! This is absolutely cheating, cheating, cheating! Phaa!' It was jealousy, plain as day. Right, Two Dimensions? In fact, that was why you even made us come along with you, wasn't it? You even said something like 'Restrain me! In case of emergency, restrain me with all your might!' That's a fact!"

"...Err, well..."

Suddenly, Two Dimensions caught the smoothly talking handsome guy's shoulder.

For now, even though his real name was Satou Takaya, many of his friends had entirely forgotten the fact, or never knew at all, he figured.

Two Dimensions, like somebody from the petit bourgeoisie, was quietly watching Kouko's expression. Banri couldn't see him. But, as a result of having watched Kouko's expression,

"...Well, in that area, in three dimensional relationships, I know nothing at all!"

It looked like Two Dimensions had decided it was time to change the subject. Setting a serene smile on his face and twisting his black-rimmed glasses a little,

"Or should I say, good morning! Sorry about that, it's our first meeting and yet we're going on like this. It'd be fine with me if you would please call me Two Dimensions."

Confused in his deception, and realizing it was their first meeting, he smiled in greeting to Linda.

"Two Dimensions? Is that your name?"

Tilting her head in curiosity, Linda directed a kindly, upperclassman-like smile at Two Dimensions.

"Yes, because I've cast aside the three dimensional. As a sign of that, I call myself Two Dimensions!"

"Oh, that's deeep."

"For now, I even have a bride."

"Eh!? There's no way you can marry a character, is there!?"

"My bride is the work of my own heart. Shall I tell you that story now?"

"Ah, no need. I'm Linda, from your same law school. I'm a second-year participating in the Omaken with Banri and Kouko-chan. Good to meet you, Two Dimensions."

"And it's good to meet you too! Ah, and it's pleasure, to unexpectedly connect with those above me!"

"You haven't joined any clubs?"

"I haven't managed to fully enter one, so here I am. Senpai, you haven't been introduced to Yanagisawa here before, have you?"

"I've spoken with Yanagisawa-kun, or rather Yana-ssan, a bit over one of his courses before. Right?"

Linda started to look towards Mitsuo when suddenly her hand was pulled to the side,

"Linda-senpai, could you please forgive Mitsuo? Mitsuo is rather sick in the head."

That was Kouko.

Softly placing Linda's hand on her own chest, "Sick, or rather, to be blunt, his head is full of crap! It's no good!" she drove home the point, her face serious. At the sight of Kouko speaking like that in spite of her princess-like looks, Linda snorted,

"'Full of crap!' What a way to talk!"

"But it's true! This kid looks normal, but he is in the habit of lying. The poor thing, he doesn't even know what he is saying. His brain is going bald on the outside, and inside is hollow, like an idiot. Or rather, he really is going to go bald, very soon now! Because that perm solution will have made all his roots go away!"

"Huh!? Kouko, you have such a way with words! There's no way I'm going to forgive you for dissing my roots!"

"Oh boy, another seizure."

Mitsuo reared back, forcing himself unnaturally, a faint, malicious smile on his lips, and said to Kouko,

"Are you... full of crap!?"

And,

"You were shouting 'come along with me,' so helplessly we,"

"Yes, yes that's right! In Mitsuo's world that's how it is! He understood. That's good!"

Kouko, her hands clasped together beneath her chin, the very picture of the heroine on the cover of a girl's comic book, blinking her eyes adorably over and over again,

"Well, then, will you leave!? The entrance is over there!"

With a serious look on her face, suddenly jerking her finger to one side, she said, "Mitsuo, go home."

"..."

When he didn't win with his mouth, Mitsuo was left with his strength. All of a sudden he grabbed the end of Kouko's chin forcefully, his thumb at the tip,

"Shall I give your butt-chin a bleeding hemorrhoid!?"

He was crossing a bit over into Seikima II.

"Kyaaaaa! It's breaking, it's breaking, it's breaaaakkking!"

Tell the struggling Kouko to shut up and bending roughly over her... seen from the side it was like a rape scene from a movie. Of course, Kouko resisted him with a desperate expression, her beautifully painted fingernails reaching violently, catching his long hair like eagle's talons,

"Oh you sonnafa...! You, you, you don't pull on my hair! Let go!"

"And you let go of my chin! You started it!"

While the pair of childhood friends looked like they were grabbing each other unseemingly, and were starting to roll on the floor noisily,

"Hey! Stop fighting! I mean, you're making noise next to a sick person!"

...Thank you oh so kindly, in his thoughts Banri applauded Linda, who had forced herself between the two of them.

At the same time as the two childhood friends started to threaten one another in their usual way, Two Dimensions started putting up an obvious "I don't want to have anything to do with them" aura, fiddling with his iPhone, as if he had put up a barrier of cool-ness around him.

"Ah... excuse us. Sorry, Tada-kun..."

Looking like she felt horribly awkward, at length returning to her senses, Kouko got up and peered into Banri's face.

Banri shook his head side to side, saying "No, no, it's no big deal."

And with that, an idea as slim as a hair of his head entered into him, and he got the feeling that he was seeing something fragile suddenly breaking.

Was it due to how her perfectly done up hair had been disarrayed by the fighting just now, or was it because the center of her necklace had gotten turned around to the middle of her back, or was it perhaps due to how she had been in an obscene hand-to-hand combat with her childhood friend right before her boyfriend's eyes?

Up to that point, Kouko's entire being had been filled, as if to overflowing, with a very stable aura... able to say with absolute self-confidence "I am loved!" but it was now suddenly lost. It seemed to Banri that it had entirely left her.

Kouko was discouraged, so dispirited you could hear the sound of her looking downwards,

"...In other words, it's the truth? You weren't thinking about things like cheating on me? There weren't, any thoughts, though..."

Taking a short breath, she glared at Mitsuo once more. It seemed that what her childhood friend had said had pierced to the heart of the matter.

Banri thought he wanted to say something, but Kouko had immediately turned towards Linda.

"I wasn't thinking, senpai. But, how to put it, for any girl but me to come running to nurse Tada-kun first... I got off to a late start, or rather, actually, perhaps I got upset, so to speak... well... I cannot deny it..."

When she didn't seem to make herself clear, even Linda slumped with a look of disappointment. Kouko turned her pretty face towards the floor, fidgeting uncomfortably, digging at a crack in the flooring with her fingernail repeatedly (and because it was rather dirty, she probably ought not to have been doing that...),

"...And because of that, I brought the boys as companions! It was an underhanded thing to do."

"Ah, we were to be companions?"

There was approval in Two Dimensions' voice.

"Two Dimensions for NANA-senpai. Mitsuo for Linda-senpai. By sealing off our lovely senpai's girl power that way, Tada-kun would be left with the impression that I was the 'reliable girl.'"

"You're quite the strategist, Kouko-chan."

"...I felt like I was drowning..."

"It's okay. Hey, look over here. My girl-power looks like this."

The gentle Linda shuffled over on her knees and inserted herself between the two guys. Then all of a sudden, throwing her arms around their shoulders,

"I've been given twin hosts! Aren't they two pistols!? Aren't they nice!? Hm!? Look here, it's Yana-ko and 2D-ko! And their comic dance routine!"

Banri recognized it. Or rather, he saw it.

Mitsuo and Two Dimensions were both messing around and playing the part of giddy school-girls, while at the same time snuggling up to Linda-senpai's form. Showing a surprisingly not entirely uncomfortable smile (oh my!)--- she channeled Matsuda Yuusaku a little bit, saying "What the..."

Or rather.

They weren't twins.

They weren't pistols either.

They'd turned themselves into geisha, come in from outside to pay a visit. Yana-ko, in any case, because '2D-ko' didn't quite manage it.

"..."

Enduring alone what seemed to be a dizzy, spinning attack by his mucous membranes on his brain, without the strength of will to pull himself out of it, Banri gazed the whole time at his friends' apparently quite fun banter without seeing it at all.

It seemed that both Mitsuo and Two Dimensions had entirely accepted Linda, a person who always left you with the impression of being easy-going towards anybody. From the time he had hung around with the two of them, by seeing the strangely happy expressions on their faces, he knew that much. They were stuck to Linda still, overly familiar with her, and whatever they said it was with a laugh. Linda was laughing excitedly as well, answering the guy's jokes with light punches to their shoulders.

"Come to think of it, Yana-ko, that class you just took, did it turn out well for you? For no particular reason afterwards, I was thinking 'Will he be okay? How'd it turn out for him?'"

"Yes! Thanks to you, Linda-senpai, it turned out fine, and I'm okay!"

"You didn't botch any of the first term final exams, did you?"

"Just language study, I think. The rest were easy."

"How about 2D-ko and Kou-ko?"

"I'm fine!"

"I'm doing fine too, with my report almost done."

"That so? Good, good. Well then, all of you can look forward to a cheerful summer vacation."

...And what about Ban-ko?

Couldn't you ask about Ban-ko?

Watching his friends trying in vain to raise his spirits, "That's right! It's summer vacation! Yay!" Banri, alone and depressed, held his tongue.

His lips hurt, of course, even though they were shut, and his dizziness wasn't subsiding at all.

"Wow, I'm looking forward to this summer vacation! It feels like a dream: having the rest of summer free, a whole month and a half! Being college students is the best!"

Under normal conditions, even Kouko was inclined to feel excessively lonely, but whether it was because they felt free to speak about whatever they felt like, or because Banri's room felt like home, they all seemed to be having fun, from the bottom of their hearts.

Everyone had their backs turned to Banri's bed, chattering and laughing at jokes. It seemed entirely like his presence had been forgotten.

...He wondered if he was being too peevish. It figured.

"Real-ly, being college students is truly the best! Linda-senpai, do you have anything planned for summer vacation? Like a trip abroad?"

When Two Dimensions made an attempt at rousing Linda's interest,

"Ah, though I don't have money to travel abroad, I think I'd still like to take a trip. But, it's just 'I'd like.' I have no plans. Realistically, I'd go home, kill some time, and probably do nothing but visit some friends back there."

"Oh, you aren't from around here? Where are you from?"

When the conversation came to Banri's ears, his body suddenly stiffened beneath the towel-blanket.

Home. Home-town. ...It was suddenly a dangerous topic.

If they had such a conversation, sooner or later his and Linda's relationship would be exposed--- maybe. He was going to peek at Linda's face right away, but his body only moved sluggishly.

No, he wasn't particularly worried about being exposed. But regarding his memory loss, that... absolutely nobody could be permitted to know that, the feeling came back to him anew, that...

"Anyway, the beach!"

Raising her voice conspicuously, Linda suddenly clapped her hands together and spoke.

"Of course, I want to go to the beach! It's summer! And it's hot! I want to go play as hard as I can! You guys said you had no plans, right? To go to the beach together! That sort of thing."

"Oh, that's good! I'd really like going to the beach!"

Mitsuo gave a big nod of agreement. And Two Dimensions,

"I have a license. It'd be fun to rent a car and go together."

"Then let's go! Summer's finally here. Should we go somewhere close like Shounan? Or we could go all the way to Izu! The bunch of us together would be good, and a lot of fun! Seriously, let's go! Let's decide on that!"

Mitsuo pointed once around the whole room with his finger.

...For some reason, he was in a strange mood. Banri thought this was perhaps the first time he'd seen Mitsuo actively setting something up like this. What's more, he was casually inviting even his natural enemy Kouko. What was this atmosphere all of a sudden, though he wasn't in the condition to take part in the interaction?

He probably just didn't notice such regrets of Banri's, but,

"What? Are you inviting me too?"

Kouko asked in a flat voice. Mitsuo ignored it smoothly.

"You mean, you'd rather invite me too?"

Even though Linda was asking the very same thing, she was quite cheerful, though she couldn't quite manage an ear-to-ear smile, and turned towards him a slightly shy face.

"Of course! It'd be boring if Kouko were the only girl!"

An immediate thumbs up reply. ...What's with that? Seriously. What're you doing, Yanagisawa Mitsuo? But Banri wasn't even thinking that. His thoughts drifted, scattered by the fever, no longer coherent.

"Yay! Then let's invite your neighbor NANA-senpai!"

Acquainted with NANA-senpai, Kouko snorted at Linda's words. Like she couldn't take it anymore, she opened her mouth and laughed like crazy, her body twisting as if in pain,

"Se, senpai! NANA-senpai and the sea don't at all go together! Ahahahahaha, there's no way, absolutely no way! The sun would burn her to a crisp! That'd be awful! It'd be truly awful!"

"Fuhahahaha! She'd turn into smoke for sure, and then disappear, wouldn't she!?"

Linda started laughing with her too. Two Dimensions bent forward, studying the laughing pair of girls.

"Eh, eh, what kind of person is 'NANA-senpai'? Does she live right next door to here? Does Yana-ssan know her?"

"No, I don't know her either. Does she go to our school?"

"Yes, she's a third-year. Well, to put it frankly, she's a cosplayer though,"

---It's not cosplay!

His field of vision having gradually blurred, Banri stayed quiet still, looking up vaguely at the spinning ceiling.

Was his fever going up again? The voices of his friends laughing and chatting were in some place far from him, and sounded like something happening in another world.

His mood still peevish, he was now feeling quite alienated.

He felt quite clearly that he was becoming like an invisible man, or a ghost.

Banri didn't even know whether he was included (or not) when Mitsuo spoke a little bit ago about "the bunch of us."

Whether his own form was visible to other people's eyes or not, he wasn't really sure.

Perhaps nobody knew he was here. Perhaps nobody knows anything about me. Perhaps they didn't notice him, and nobody here was even concerned about him. Perhaps he could not be seen. Perhaps he could not be heard.

Leaving his unmoving self behind, they all might just leave.

...He wondered if this was some kind of abject childish "odd one out" loneliness.

Or else what?

"..."

Banri sluggishly closed his eyelids and let out a deep, hot breath.

Let's stop this, he thought. Between wound and sickness, and the emotional instability brought on by his resurrected past, he had sure gone into one gloomy downer. Let's set aside the dark thoughts, and start from now to imagine the sparkling mid-summer days.

...Because it's summer, go with everybody to the sea.

Yes, that looks fun, fantastic even.

With Mitsuo, Two Dimensions, Kouko, Linda-senpai and maybe even NANA-senpai. And then, himself. We're going by car. We'll be getting swimsuits ready, buying sandals, raising a ruckus, eager to get together early in the morning. Beach balls. Swim-rings. Coolers. Full of ice and drinks. Not forgetting the towels either. From that, oh yeah, gotta have sun-tan lotion too. And for Kouko, the semi-professional cosmetics she used to make herself look really good.

When he tried to imagine it, he fit in perfectly... at the bottom of the group.

Uncool looking Banri, seemingly happy, playing at the beach with everybody. Messing around at the water's edge, the guys doing back-breakers, watching the groups of women dazzling in their swimwear, eating yakisoba or shaved ice. Shouting out "It's hot, it's hot!" or whatever he pleased in a loud voice, playing the part of a carefree college student to the fullest, Tada Banri was rejoicing under the sun of his nineteenth summer.

---But, that fellow.

Indeed, he wondered about that himself.

By himself in the cool darkness, it felt as if eyes were opened.

As his self yesterday and his self now were clearly "different", he wondered if his current self and his self at the sea would not also be different. Was is possible to deny that such a thing could be? He was such an unstable guy, having changed so much in just one evening.

And like that, he was still watching his present self become his past self, and then his "next" current self come to glorious life... sort of.

He could do no more than that, it seemed.

Under the towel blanket, not even his fingertips could move, as if they were frozen.

Even being like this moment by moment, he felt as if his living self was dying little by little. And then it would be as if he were reborn, he thought. Throwing off his dead self, and then, leaving it behind.

Banri did not know whether the self that thought it was being maintained was even the same as the self of just a moment before. His past self was not raising so much as a resentful voice, perhaps simply letting it pile up at his feet. He was, perhaps, just watching, his eyes open. At this, at me. His voice not reaching me from his place apart.

He was totally lacking in self-confidence.

To Banri, it did not seem at all likely that tomorrow's self could be the same as today's.

* * *


---He woke up.

His room was dimly lit.

It seemed he had dozed off without noticing it. He wondered just how long he had slept. He didn't even know if it was dawn or dusk.

Having lost his sense of time, Banri looked around helplessly. The lights were turned off and the curtains opened, and light from the streetlamps outside lit the inside of his room dimly and vaguely.

It was quiet.

The shadows of the empty stools reached across the flooring.

Near the end of those shadows, there were bare toes.

The whole set of toes was connected to a pair of lower legs, then to knees, and finally to the hem of a one-piece dress.

He realized it was Kouko.

Seated as if she were a doll, her legs stretched out straight, her back against the wall, Kouko was alone and downcast.

Her finely chiseled features lit by an oddly strong whitish light, he saw that she was playing with her cell-phone. Strands of her long hair spilling down over her shoulders and cheeks, her mouth weakly open, her defenses were down. With an expression less than perfect, it looked to Banri as if Kouko had no idea he was watching her.

...Which reminded him, had he not once before awoken and discovered Kouko in his room like this?

Banri didn't speak, didn't even move. He continued to gaze at Kouko's form.

Oh yeah, that was it. It was the night Kouko had been dumped by Mitsuo and had gotten desperate. They'd gone to the live show and gotten drunk. That noisy day back in spring was even nostalgic now.

The gently tapering bridge of her nose was beautiful, her downcast profile illuminated by the cool light.

In his thoughts, Banri wondered why.

That time, and then now too, Kouko seemed strangely like himself. Not that their physical appearances matched at all. Looking, he realized they had no common features. In the first place, she was wearing a skirt which hung down low, and even for a woman, her face was remarkably pretty.

And yet Kaga Kouko was passing time alone in his room, unknowning, helpless, just an anonymous young person like that--- in other words, like himself. It couldn't help but seem such a trifling existence.

If nobody was telling you 'You exist', 'I can see you' or 'I can hear your voice', if simply continuing to exist is difficult, and it appears that your life is about ready to fall apart at any moment, then it couldn't help but be so.

And so Banri...

"Kaga-san"

...called her.

She twitched. He wondered if she was surprised. In the light, her beautifully upturned eyelashes trembling, she looked into Banri's eyes where he lay, still on the bed.

"...Are you awake?"

"Yes. What time is it now? Did I fall asleep or something?"

"Err..."

The light wasn't turned in the room, neither was the television. In the quiet, thin gloom, while clearing her throat, Kouko crept over to his bed-side on her knees.

"Here, look, it's already past seven o'clock."

She turned her cell-phone screen towards him and showed it to him. He shut his eyes dazzled, and so wasn't able to see the time. But he was surprised. Even though it was after dark, he'd thought it was around five o'clock.

"Seven o'clock...? Eh, you're kidding... really?"

"Yep. You slept right through. Did you have any dreams?"

"None at all."

"Well, you slept pretty deeply. Your condition has gotten a little better, though."

"...Now that you mention it, my dizziness is strangely gone... eh, Kaga-san, were you perhaps here the whole time? What about the others?"

"They left around noon. Hey, is there anything you need? Some water to drink?"

"No, I'm fine. Or rather..."

Sitting up a little, Banri looked at Kouko's face. Practically by reflex, a smile came to Kouko's beautiful face. Even though there was no way she couldn't be tired, he thought.

How long had Kouko stayed like that, the television turned off, playing with her cell-phone while staying by his side? Even after everybody else had left.

By his side the whole time.

In a fraction of a second, it felt as if a drop of hot water had fallen on his heart.

Matching his fretfulness, it felt like a ball of flame licking him all the way down to his stomach. It was a friend Banri already knew well.

Whenever he was touched by Kouko's devotion, he became like this.

He could not help but love the person before his eyes. It seemed to him that becoming hopelessly emotional like this, as if wanting to break out in tears, was due to such feelings being too much for him to handle. Not knowing how he should show them, unable to keep them inside a single heart, Banri had turned into a wavering blockhead. He could not do anything right.

Still, as much as she stayed by his side, he was lonely. He knew that if she held his hand it would comfort him. If she were to give him a hug and a kiss, he'd be even more comforted... that much he knew. It was incredible, barely to be endured, only tolerating deception in small amounts, a volume of love so great as to be painful.

---Even like this, even in this changed 'now', it was so.

Each time he looked at Kaga Kouko. Each time, he was a newborn cell, just then, that instant, opening its eyes. Each time, he was thinking lovingly of the woman he had met.

And yet.

What the heck, really. As if he wanted to pull his bangs from his scalp, he ripped the coldpack from his forehead. It had long since returned to room temperature.

Even though he felt like this, even though he was truly here, even though he wanted to return, and had said that he wanted to, it wasn't "this place" . . . not at all.

He gasped in amazement. It was as if that bit of Kouko-flame he had just gulped down had burned his lungs. Hot and painfully, each cell was being torn apart.

There was nothing he could do about it. No matter how hard he tried. Struggling, squirming, he just couldn't sort out his feelings. It didn't even seem like he could sort them out in time order. How had he wound up like this? And who the heck was to blame?

Somehow or another, he looked into Kouko's eyes. Kouko was there by Banri's side, silently waiting for Banri to do or say something.

"...I'm fine. I really am. ...Sorry about that, but are you okay for time?"

"I'm good!"

"Have you eaten? Ah, have you, perhaps, not eaten anything at all?"

"Yes, I'm fine. I've eaten a bread Linda-senpai gave me. I should be the one saying sorry."

When Kouko apologized, Banri looked back at her blankly, his mouth hanging open stupidly. Even if I have a reason to apologize, there is no reason why you should apologize to me.

"Wh, why? What for?"

"Because. ...We barged in here when you were sick, we couldn't take care of you, and made so much noise... There was no way you could rest. Stupid me should not have come; it would have been better if hadn't been there."

In contrast to her timid sounding words, Kouko raised her chin, pursed her lips and narrowed both eyes as if she were challenging him to a fight.

But, the present Banri understood perfectly that it was just a big bluff.

"It wasn't like that."

The roses still placed by his bedside smelled sweetly. There wasn't a vase in this room.

"Was too."

"Nope."

"It was too. ...Even though I want to be a ‘good girl'. I can't do anything right. I'm a complete piece of junk."

"That's not at all true!"

Coming from his weakened body, it seemed the strongest of voices. However,

"...I am so!"

Talking back even then, Kouko wouldn't stop punishing herself. Smiling without meaning, pointing at her white, beautiful face,

"I had thought that somehow, really. ...That I could be, more than I am now, certainly, perhaps, a person much more like Linda-senpai."

He couldn't let her keep on talking like this.

Banri took Kouko's wrist, and pulled her towards him as if he were going to shake her hard. He wanted to tell her somehow, "That's wrong, that's wrong!"

Kouko's skin was cool, as if it had been brushed by fresh flowers, and seemed like it would melt under his own feverish palm.

She was silent, holding her breath. Her balance destroyed by Banri's tug, she had come to lean over Banri's upper body.

He was looking at her eyes, trembling in confusion, at point blank range.

They were blinking over and over again as if they were worried, those eyes. After a bit, her composure returning, her long eyelashes turned up. The smell of her hair lightly tickled Banri's nose.

Kouko remained silent, as if there was nothing wrong, even though her wrist was being held, even pulled, in that gloomy room with just the two of them there, with such a companion as he.

Not saying a thing, it was as if she was waiting to know what Banri wanted to do, what he would try to do. Not even moving, Kouko quietly studied the color of Banri's eyes.

---What the heck was it?

"Tada, kun...?"

Kouko's slim wrist looked beyond delicate, such that even such a useless guy as himself could break it off if he gave it any real effort.

"...Tada-kun..."

All at once, Banri let go the breath he had been holding.

He released all five fingers.

Those fingers trembled as if creaking, and from his throat came a matching laugh.

"...Kaga-san, are you sure you're okay...?"

His groaning voice sounded as if he had been crying.

He suspected he didn't sound very smooth. Nonetheless, he wanted to ask her.

Are you sure you're okay with this, associating with such an incomplete person as me, of uncertain meaning, incomprehensible, as if half-broken, half a phantom?

To his point of view, it was certainly not okay.

I don't know for myself who will be here tomorrow.

And because of that, you should flee far from me.

Banri wanted to say all that. But Kouko was smiling.

"Are you okay?"

If it's me, of course.

The time, and my stomach too. Everything, okay.

A perfect, beautiful smile bursting out from her face, she took hold of the hand he had once released. Her cool, soft, gentle fingertips touched the curve of his forehead, as if checking him.

"...You're still hot, aren't you? Getting hurt like this when you're living on your own makes you anxious, doesn't it? But you're okay, so there. There's nothing much this useless piece of junk woman can do, but... I have love, more than anyone else. If nothing else, I can be by your side. I'll do whatever I can."

Before long, with a definite weight behind them, his eyelids fell shut.

It was good he couldn't see anything; if it's scary even crying is okay. As if you could say it like that.

However limitlessly nice she was, seeming so self-sacrificing it was scary, Banri felt that this was plainly a game of chicken.

Would they be able to show their love for each other without fail, however dangerous the situation? Could they expose their true selves to danger? Could they do what was right without hope? Could they give of themselves unstintingly? It was an overly painful competition, like a race to cut yourself just short of the nerves. Nothing less than such a thing was being done to his current self. All of a sudden, she had one-sidedly started it.

Kouko has no responsibility in this though. She has no reason to be in a hurry for pain. She should simply love the appropriate partner, be loved by her partner and be somebody who wears beautiful clothing, beautiful shoes and laughs beautifully. She is a woman who should only be thinking about becoming happy and doing things at their proper time. Kaga Kouko.

The way things are, if "Tada Banri" wouldn't just drop by...

"Hey, Tada-kun. About me."

Little by little, Banri's body heat, like warm water, warmed the hand with which she covered his eyes. Gently, Banri covered that hand with both of his own. Putting strength into all ten fingers, he pressed her soft hand against his pathetic, ugly face.

Clinging to her.

As if begging for help, as if begging for forgiveness, he held tightly to Kouko's white hand. Kouko accepted it quietly.

"It just occurred to me. We want to go to the sea, don't we? ...Let's just go, you and I, without the others. Just the two of us, do you want to do it? Once you feel better, could you take me there with you?"

Banri heard those words in his ears.

A soft fragrance rose from her hands. Her voice resonated deeply in the still darkness.

"Really? You want to go with me, together?"

"Yes. I want to go. It doesn’t have to be Paris. I want to go with you."

"...That so? I understand. That's good."

"Really? Is that a promise?"

"Yes. I promise. I will take you to the sea. It's summer, isn't it? Let's go. I'll do the planning. We'll have fun for sure!"

He could tell from the shaking that off where he couldn't see, Kouko was laughing. By the same signs, it seemed she was nodding.

If he could keep his promise, Kouko would laugh like this--- she could not help but be happy. And if that was the case, he thought, what else was there to do but keep it?

But though he was inclined to think that, he wondered if the right thing to do was to release her hand at once. That too he understood.

But, he still couldn't do that. After all, it was Kouko's smiling face that he desired. He grinned when he pictured himself trying to satisfy such a desire. It was truly disgusting. He wondered, what am I grinning about?

Hmph, thought Banri.

Right now, he detested himself, his own flesh, his very life. It wasn't something fuzzy or vague feelings of anxiety or fear. Clearly, he was hating himself as a target he wanted to destroy, to erase its existence.

His very body seemed as if it were some sort of germ, soaking into and defiling Kouko's beautiful skin from the moment she touched him. He was disagreeable and repulsive. He wondered, if he managed to be tossed aside, then to what extent would his heart, his soul, come to be at peace?

Kouko's warm, slim hands, covering his eyelids gently, slid smoothly along his cheeks, though if they had pressed against his throat, that would be okay too. He supposed he could think of such things calmly because it was absolutely impossible for such a gentle woman to do such things, and because he understood that perfectly. But he didn't like being in that situation either.

He was in pieces already; a wreck.

Since he could not hope for his lover to do the favor of strangling him, he held his own breath, having no choice but to silence himself. He wondered if by doing like that for a little while, he might sink alone into the abyss.

Still as uncomprehending as a person could be, his eyes and throat hurt so much he could cry. Naturally, his injured lip hurt too.

He was also aware that he was completely trapped in the so-called 'honey pot' of human life.

* * *


Banri contemplated the greatness of everyday things.

Even though it may have seemed you were peeking at the end of the world in despair, through a gun barrel, the sun rises once more, the summer morning so pure white it brought you back to life. It appeared that a single person's problems had no influence over the world.

Before the everyday noises start up, he opened his eyes refreshed and when he tried to get up from bed, found his fever had gone down, and that his nineteen year old body wanted nothing but calories.

Taking care for his wounded lip, Banri slurped nattō.

Nattō met all of his requirements: he had it in the refrigerator, it was nutritious, he could eat it without chafing his mouth, and it was something that didn't require much chewing. He tried one pack, and finding it okay, he went for it and slurped down all three packs he had bought. Sitting quietly on a stool, hunched forward, he ate it straight from the pack. Halfway through, he looked at all the shapes. As they were, without rice, he didn't think for an instant they were monstrous: it was nattō after all. It was healthy. To this extent, it was well suited to Japanese genes, though perhaps for other people's bodies not so much so. Casting off his doubts, as he was, wreathed in the morning light, Banri ran through the remainder of the three packs all in one go, slurping them as if they were noodles.

...When he told Kouko about it,

"My little brother's closet."

Her answer was rather strange.

Or rather, he didn't get it, but,

"The closet is quiet, and it somehow smells of nattō."

Such a look on Kouko's face was by no means a sign of pleasure. Shrugging her shoulders as if she wanted to say "whatever",

"Are you wondering why that?"

"Eh... he hides... in the closet... to eat... nattō?"

"Boo, you missed. The answer was gym clothes. That kid would forget to toss his dirty gym clothes in the laundry. He'd just stuff them into his closet and leave them there. A young man's body odor decomposes before long, turning into an odor a lot like nattō. I can track it down with this nose of mine without any doubt. I mean, Tada-kun, you know, if your little brother hid himself in the closet to eat nattō, wouldn't that be a big deal? Something you don't see every day?"

"...If you knew the answer, why'd you ask me?"

"It's a side-ways conversational technique. Sometimes mixing up questions will stimulate conversation. I saw it on the net."

Kouko tilted her head to the side proudly, with a perfect smile looking up at Banri beside her. And like that, she squeezed the hand of her lover, her fingers tightly entwined with his. Having such a thing done to him, Banri was drained of strength too.

"That sooo!?"

"Looks like it to me!"

"Now I get it!"

"Do you!?"

Nyow I get it! Nya-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha~! ...They couldn't help but laugh like a pair of love birds.

The rhythm of every day, so to speak, was a truly great thing.

While they continued to goof around together... You little~, Kyaa~, Standoffish~, No way~... Banri thought that once more. Sleep, and the morning sun. Having to go to school. Other people coming and going. So long as one is alive, there are instinctive desires that you cannot avoid. Societal masks required of you. Ways to ensure you cannot move. All of these might be a system to help you forget.

Precisely because of things like that, precisely because morning follows night, he wondered that humankind, their huge brains bulging with concerns, could carry out their social lives pretending not to notice things.

If he were by himself, brooding silently, anywhere in the black night could seem depressing. But now, like this, he couldn't feel anything of the sort. The brightness of the sun shone on everybody's face equally. Plainly, things like the night were nothing to it. And so, everybody crawls out of bed and sets off, their faces pretending not to have noticed.

The third period over, the crowd of noisy students left, mixing through the gray law department lobby.

Banri and Kouko, leaving the same lecture, as always a party of two, walked along, forming part of that crowd. As boyfriend he was, perhaps, not impartial, but to him Kouko shone brilliant and dazzling amidst that dark crowd, as if basking in her own spotlight.

"But there couldn't be that much smell left from your little brother's nattō! In other words, it even leaked out from his room? Enough so that you found out about the gym clothes in the closet?"

"No, it never got that bad. I went and inspected my little brother's closet at regular intervals."

"At regular intervals? Inspections? ...Of your little brother's closet?"

"What of it?"

"...Why would you do such a thing?"

"What has that kid been doing lately? As his older sister, I have to check it out. So he isn't hiding strange things, right? I mean, after all, it's an expression of family love. But if he does, then he's getting it!"

Making a sound strangely like some sexy foreign chick, Kouko raised her chin defiantly. Following the smooth line from her neck, it was very beautiful, but,

"Besides the gym clothes smelling like nattō, there was a suspicious DVD hidden amongst the clothes! So, tossing the gym clothes into the washing machine, I took the DVD (which really looked like it had been watched) and placed it on top of the topmost chest in the living room, right out in front, right where it could be seen. Good spot, eh? Right next to the Warhol drawing."

An execution, was the phrase that came to Banri's mind. Quite a devilish thing to do.

"...Didn't your brother get mad?"

"He didn't get mad, but he always watches me darkly."

"...By the way, what was the DVD about?"

"The title was 'Lesbian-esque Trap.' Hey, is that normal? Did the boys in high school all seem to be interested in 'lesbian-esque'? Now, whenever I'm told I'm "-esque" about something, is Shizuka thinking secretly, 'Is my big sister... a lesbian-esque trap?'"

"Yes, well, how to put it...? That guy's got a bottomless pit for a stomach, right? Perhaps he's a maniac with great potential?"

Recently, guys fiddling with their smart phones with their fingers, earphones in their ears, oblivious to all the world, were springing up all over campus. Banri and Kouko, their hands joined to the inconvenience of others, were being bumped into mercilessly by them.

"Ouch!"

"Watch out, Tada-kun, are you okay? I mean, if they're quiet and don't care to look up, shouldn't you be a little more aware of your surroundings... ouch!"

"Oops, what about you, are you okay? I mean, for the time being, shouldn't you not be entering your little brother's room without permission, for each other's sake... uff!?

"No way, that guy just now was really danger... kyaa!"

The poster affixed on the wall "Be Careful: Repeated Accidents" wasn't very effective.

Having been run into by four people in a row, Banri and Kouko hurriedly grabbed each other's hand and took refuge by the wall. Using her fingertips to brush up the forelocks which had fallen to her forehead, "Jeez!" said Kouko, as she raised her beautifully drawn brown eyebrows.

"What's with that!? Can't they see the pitiful state you're in!? People ought to pay a little more attention!"

"Right!?" She said in a sweet voice, wanting his agreement. Banri shrugged his shoulders lightly.

As far as he was concerned, there was no particular reason for the guys passing by to pay special attention to the bandages on a guy's mouth. Plus, he had thought from the very start that clinging to each other in a crowded campus was a particularly troublesome way to be. And more than that, more than anything, that big-sister style execution by Kouko had angered him for some reason. Knowing no more than his name "little brother Shizuka (pet cat Genghis Khan... no, Bibimbap)", he couldn't help but sympathize with him, from the bottom of his heart. He was a guy with big-sister troubles. And since they were blood-related, there was no way for him to escape.

As he was thinking of such things,

"Heey, Tada Banri & Robo-girl!"

From a place a bit apart, a voice with a certain style called out to the two of them. Once they looked, they saw three Omaken third-years over on the other side, Kosshii-senpai waving his hand as to say "Hurry up and get over here." At being invited over by the senior the two of them automatically bowed their heads lightly while,

"...Robo-girl?"

Kouko muttered, "Am I 'Robo-girl'? But why?" Her voice was as if she were groaning deep inside her throat, and she had her head tilted to one side.

The name "Golden Robo-Girl" had already become firmly established amongst the Omaken upperclassmen, but had not yet sunk into the person herself, it seemed.

The Omaken meeting was in its usual place again today. They held it in one corner of the law school building lobby, at a table and some benches arranged by the bulletin board on the wall.

Kosshii-senpai was seated lightly, and next to the bench was Linda.

Even though Banri and Kouko were coming over, she recognized them with a smile and called "Yo!"

"Tada Banri, your fever's already gone down?

Her ankles peeking out the bottom of her girlish cargo-pants, and she wore a simple jersey, but her usual fighting spirit just wasn't there. With a manner as if he were meeting a handsome, nameless cat at a street-corner, Banri showed Linda a playful grin and,

"Yup, thanks to you! Thank you very much! I slept the whole night like a dead thing, and this morning felt just like new!"

While Banri worried about his split lip, she returned the smile with the same expression.

But casually, her gaze followed the headlines of the sports news, which somebody had laid out on the top of the table. She wasn't reading the content, of course. She simply followed the rows of text, deliberately fixing her vision there.

Banri felt she should wake up, that she should be made to get up.

It should be as it had been until now, not thinking nor feeling anything, normal, unchanging. If it were only for himself, he wouldn't change the situation at all. And then, once it was all forgotten and things calmed down, that would be best. But he had no choice.

With that Banri beside him.

"Really, it's all because of you, Linda-senpai. Thank you very much. Today Tada-kun wolfed down his lunch, so he's recovered already. See?"

While she entwined her fingers with his, Kouko glued herself to Banri and looked up at his face like a spoiled child. It wasn't like Kouko was saying "Linda, how do you like this?" but Banri automatically tried to push her fingers away, feeling awkward with her flirting with him in front of the regular upperclassmen.

"It's okay, you know."

She smiled, one eyebrow raised.

Determined, Kouko wouldn't let go of his fingers. It was a little troublesome, but he wasn't going to force the issue. While looking at Banri's face bewildered, Kouko kept up a shining smile.

Today's Kouko was again perfectly beautiful.

In her elegantly wound, long hair, a silk scarf with a bold pattern served instead of a hair-band. The frills attached to her no-sleeve ribbon-tied blouse were blue. The summer-like white and tight mini-skirt and flesh-colored strap-sandals with nine-centimeter heels were pushing her feminine style to the uttermost limits. The gloss on her smiling lips had a surprisingly deep cherry color. A brand-name, beige colored bag slung from her shoulder, that model-like form was, of course, Kaga Kouko!

"Dude"

"He's no 'dude'."

Popcorn being tossed at him by the Omaken upperclassmen, he had no choice but to wriggle out of the way in a strangely erotic way. Even so, most of it hit Banri in the face.

"Once you're all done playing around, please sit down."

At Kosshii-senpai's urging, Kouko's hand finally let go of his. Seating himself next to Linda, he received a printout being passed around. Looking it over briefly,

"Whoa... at last, it's our debut!"

Banri raised his voice without thinking.

The printout that was handed to him detailed the main points about Omaken's debut presentation for the year, at a large suburban shopping district's Awa Odori celebration.

It had already been decided that right after the start of summer vacation, Banri and the other Omaken members would be going up alongside some other large dancing groups.

Clearing his throat lightly, Kosshii-senpai caught their attention and started to speak.

"Just a few words. Everybody, you aren't to lose the printout you just received until after we're done. It has the schedule and times, what clothing and footwear to use, what accessories you will need, which is now your responsibility to prepare. And then, we will have to practice just how we will dance together. In fact, with only two practices to go, we will only just make it."

Everybody raised their voices in dismay. Banri too. The schedule was tighter than he'd thought.

"No whining. That's the Wednesday after next. So it's already crunch time."

The older girls showed their nervousness with "Crap! This is bad! Are you serious?" For their part, the older guys were only talking about "Where's the wrap party? What're we going to be doing? We'd better make reservations early!"

"Well, since we'll be dancing in groups, it shouldn't be that hard. Linda and I will be leading, though we might wind up feeling like we stand out a bit."

Seated cross-legged, Linda, making a pose as if she were bowing lightly, raised her hand in salute, signaling her agreement with Kosshii-senpai. Kouko looked over at Linda's face, questioning.

"'Feeling like you stand out'... has anything happened?"

"You could say that. And that's because Kosshi-senpai and I have to go out before the group a lot, directing from out front, using that position so we can all work together in unison. In fact, our costumes will be a bit fancier than yours."

"Eh, incredible! It'll be like that!? Wow... And since Linda-senpai's dance really is beautiful, then it will surely be great, won't it..."

Linda laughed softly at Kouko's ecstatic muttering.

"Would you switch with me?"

Though anybody else would have understood this as a joke,

"Kyaa!"

...Speaking of which, he wondered what kind of reaction that was.

It seemed that to the mind of everybody present came a vision of Kaga Kouko in the form of a golden robot, head thrown back in a shriek, doing the same shaking robot dance as before. If she were out in front of the group, standing out like that... laughter broke out from all around. Banri and the older guys wound up laughing loudly, and yet,

"Do your best, Linda!"

"Yo!"

At the edge of his vision.

He had seen Kosshii-senpai and Linda tap their fists together softly. It was clearly a crude greeting between comrades. But he knew they weren't so close from the start. After all, we were close friends long ago, with many shared friends from before. Things like that are okay. But with second and third year college students, it shouldn't be possible to develop such a close friendship. Or rather.

---Apart from that.

Thought Banri, looking away.

Apart from that, feelings don't happen without a reason. Apart from that, there is nothing. Nothing at all. There's nothing to think about.

Only, he saw in passing, Kosshii-senpai's arm, stretching out from his T-shirt. That straight reach, the masculine, angular joints, the thick, tense sinews which made his own as nothing.

He was thinking of nothing but nothingness.

The meeting over, the upperclassmen one by one got up to leave. Trying to follow after them, Banri hurriedly grabbed his bag too and stood up.

"Where are you going?"

As if it were only natural, Kouko tried to follow him, but,

"Excuse me, wait a bit!"

And having said that, he ran off by himself.

Catching up with the four guys who left first, he tugged on the sleeve of Kosshii-senpai's T-shirt.

"Err, Senpai?"

"Oh? What's up, Tada Banri? What a girly way to get my attention. Haven't you got the wrong kind of crush?"

"You wanna play mahjongg too? Shall we all go together?"

"Well, I've got something I need to talk with you about... would it be okay if we chat while we walk?"

"No problem. What's up, what's going on?"

Walking leisurely alongside the upperclassmen, Banri opened his mouth hesitantly.

"...Err... about, my girlfriend..."

"Robo-girl?"

"Yes, I've promised to... take Robo-girl to the seaside, but in a practical sense, what do you think would be a good plan? If we aren't going to my home region, then I have no idea where we should go, and I can't rely on my friends, as they all lack experience as well..."

"Yes, that's right. First of all, to make sure she doesn't rust in the salty sea breeze, you will have to blow like crazy over Robo-girl's entire body."

While he answered him back with a bright smile, Kosshii-senpai ground his fist into Banri's side near his liver.

"Ow ow ow ow ow!"

Banri was surrounded in the blink of an eye on the undergraduate building's outer steps by four upperclassmen, laughing and saying "Hahaha, give him a little more, Kosshii."

"We mean, there's not much fun in this for us!"

"Look at his face and judge for yourself!"

"Will you be staying overnight? Hm!? One night!? Eh!?"

He was being attacked mercilessly. Yet,

"Sta, stay overnight...eh!? Why do you think it will turn out like that!?"

"What's with these guys now?" he thought, as they stepped more and more mercilessly on the toes of his Jack Purcells. Both his feet being crushed and ground against, Banri could only raise a sorrowful cry.

"You must think you want to stay there overnight! Like it was nothing! Going to the beach, her long hair flying all over the place, her proud skin showing too... by the time you get back to the beach inn to take your showers, it'll be a wonder if you two young people will be able to control yourselves!"

"'Robo-girl, there's no way we're going to make it back to the inn as we are!"

"'I want to take a good shower! I want to get into a hot bathtub! I'm tired, and I want to take a break!'"

"...Don't go. If you're tired and sleepy, this is the perfect place. The place to spend the night..."

"...Yep. Looks like the place."

"That, like this, right now..."

"What're you saying, all on your own like that!?"

Heey! Banri flapped his feet around, brushing off the upperclassmen's shoes. Besides, things like that were blasphemous in regards to Kouko.

And yet, even though he thought it was blasphemous,

---'It doesn’t have to be Paris.'

"..."

As if to shake off the remembered voice in an instant, he shook his head sharply side to side.

The remnant of the sweet, low, husky voice in his ears reminded him of the night. He shouldn't be remembering it in broad daylight on campus, and besides, exploring the meaning of those words would make him look incredibly shabby to himself. Apart from that, was he even sure there was any meaning at all? Just because it didn't have to be in Paris for now, saying 'Where do I want to go? Oh yeah, I want to go to the sea', was saying only that much.

...But, it might. Maybe the meaning... to put it simply... no, no no no no.

"...You bunch of sleeze-balls. You upperclassmen have your minds in the gutter. Please stop looking at Kaga-san like that. It's a violation."

His plain face, lately a notch brighter, was being made more and more angry. Banri glared at each of the upperclassmen's faces in turn as he shouted. Squealing high-spiritedly in falsetto voices, the upperclassmen pretended to start running away in exaggerated slow motion.

"What's with those voices? Besides, I don't want to ask about such things. More like, under normal circumstances... what kinds of places are good to go to!? What routes should I take!? I was asking about things along those lines. And in spite of that, you guys going disgustingly delusional and not at all trustworthy. I'm disappointed in you already!"

"Yeah, yeah. How about a train?"

"You got a driver's license?"

"...Neither of them. My feet are my only train."

Phew... Suddenly the upperclassmen's expressions changed. Folding their arms as one, they surrounded Banri in thought. Kosshii-senpai muttered seriously.

"Going to the beach by train is painful."

All of them nodded.

"For sure. Guys, I'm not sure that a healthy young lady would like the feel of a place like that. You would be taking a high-heeled princess along with you on a train ride early in the morning, not knowing whether you will be seated or not, and on the way back you'd be sandwiched in with a bunch of salarymen. Your sandals gritty with sand. Smelling of salt. You might find middle or high schoolers there, but not many college students."

"You might be all right with it, but for Robo-Girl it would probably be mortifying."

"Now, let's show you the essence of 'slumming it.'"

"Yes, but the result would probably be 'Robo-Girl, I was afraid of this, but it won't work. I'm not good enough for you.'"

Watching the upperclassmen's faces nod together 'Yes, yes, true, true,' Banri had few words. Frozen with a stupid look on his face,

"What... the..."

He could only groan.

"For your information, it seems that Hosshii-senpai and his girlfriend of last year took the plunge and stayed a night in Atami. The cost for the two of them passing the night in what seemed a good looking adult hot springs hotel, going there and back in a bullet train and with this and that, came out close to 100,000 yen. Well, she's his former girlfriend now, since they broke up that fall. Even though they were half living together."

"Ah, it was, it was. It certainly was."

"Hosshii made a lot of noise about that time, but it was a total waste."

"Though now for some other reason he's going to waste. He told me the other day he was wondering if he'd have to repeat the year."

"For real?"

Confronted by his upperclassmen's reflections, as if they were becoming job searching warriors, their minds and bodies half destroyed, Banri himself was uneasy.

For Atami, one hundred thousand. Though for somebody from Shizuoka it was somehow or other, for once, a comforting name.

"So, Tada Banri. Have you got money?"

Kosshii-senpai seemed to have remembered Banri's existence.

"Eh. ...I've nothing... of course."

"Well, with no way to get there, nor any money, you've not got much choice. Then shouldn't you start earning money at once? You got a job?"

"...I haven't..."

"Don't give me 'haven't'! You'd better go get one, seriously."

"For sure. If you let such a girl get away, you could spend your whole life and not find another so pretty."

"Work like your life depends on it!"

"Go for it desperately!"

"You don't really look like somebody who's working really hard."

"Yep. I was thinking the same."

"I know what you mean. You might think you're working hard, but there's no point if you don't show her that."

"That's right, that may become important for me in such things as job hunting."

"Show her you're a man, Tada Banri."

"You have to do that every now and then."

Suddenly surrounded in all directions by upperclassmen, their faces serious, in preaching mode, Banri was cornered. Having gotten to where he could say nothing more, he touched the bandage by his mouth with his fingertip. He tried to say he was a wounded person, still recovering from his wounds, but no words came out.

At that moment, over past Kosshii-senpai's envious and macho-looking shoulders, he spotted the white face of a bored looking Kouko, standing by herself quietly waiting for Banri. Her solitary form seemed anxious, and looked lonely. It reminded him of how sad she had been that spring when they met.

Wait just a little bit more. It's because I want to gather some hints for the sake of your happiness. So just a little more... thought Banri, looking at her sidelong, when for some reason Kosshii-senpai,

"Haa... everybody hold on! Sheesh! It looks like something's made this guy cry!"

Saying things like that. When he realized he was being called a sissy, Banri got even more resentful.

* * *


"You can't."

Saying it sharply, but with a smile, Kouko had her head tilted slightly, to the perfect angle.

"You can't! You can't get something like a part-time job."

Why was she telling him such things specially? Her gaze very much seemed to want to say something, going from side to side, back and forth, as if comparing Banri's left and right eyes.

At lunchtime the school cafeteria had been almost completely full, and even now, later in the afternoon, there were still students scattered here and there.

There were some guys who seemed to be eating lunch very late by themselves, and many seats were occupied by people just sitting here and there talking.

Banri and Kouko were seated in a less popular area, at the corner of a wide table, their chairs pulled together on purpose.

"Yeah, but..."

"You can't. The time we have together has gotten too short. That absolutely cannot be. I simply cannot permit it. It's impossible."

Indeed, from an outsider's perspective they were plainly a couple, their faces close together, "doing as they pleased." Kouko's knee was touching the denim on Banri's knee. Kouko had her elbow on the table, her upper body slightly inclined, and from Kouko's breast there arose the sweet smell of roses. Even if it was only from her seductive body heat, it was making Banri's face dizzy, and yet,

"...No. It's not impossible."

He said it flatly, and ripped his gaze away from her white breast. Right now, right here, he could not afford to be unable to think. The upperclassmen had told him just now to be a man.

Seeing Banri's face like that, Kouko pursed her dark cherry lips. When she did so, a soft 'nooo...' escaped her lips. Are you Raoh?

"But look, I promised to take you to the beach. In order to do that, I need money."

"Can't it be my treat?"

"No, I just said I really am critically short of pocket money. I think it's normal for students to have part-time jobs."

"Aren't I not working?"

"But you're from a rich family."

"...And if they raised your allowance?"

"Won't happen. As it is, they're giving me all they can. I can't ask my parents for more."

"But, what can't be done can't be done! I absolutely won't allow it! I don't want a job to cut into our date time!"

"That's rather selfish..."

"But! ...Well, let's do this. I'll take you with me. OK? That'd be good, right? Isn't that good? It's settled!"

'That', in other words was... 'let's go, my treat.' Something like that.

Could there be a more pathetic story than this? Well, could there be? Normally it would be impossible.

Having lost the words that should follow, Banri awkwardly scratched his head. Oh, really? Well then, this time your treat! He wasn't a guy to give in like that.

Apart from feeling a little guilty inside, for perhaps the first time he could remember, he was simply a guy who badly wanted to save face.

...Thinking about such things one by one, it seemed he already had a guilty conscience. As if he had suddenly fallen into a place or situation he could not understand, he felt as if he were another person, gawking at himself in amazement.

(Uuuhhh)

And.

(What'cha doing, Tada Banri?)

It was as if his unconscious had been ripped out and set outside next to him.

Returning to himself,

"...ngh..."

...It was all in an instant. It certainly felt like he'd returned to himself.

All of a sudden his back went cold. Sensing a really dangerous other presence, he broke out in drops of sweat.

What the heck was that just now, he wondered.

He wondered what he had been doing, spaced out like that.

Sneaking up on him to launch an attack without him even realizing it, Kouko, her wide, upturned eyes sparkling without restraint, glittering while she came closer to him,

"Hey, what were you thinking just now?"

"...Eh?"

She was slowly tracing around her tender looking lips with the tip of a very attractive fingernail. And she was laughing in a sweet, nasal voice.

Kouko's nails today were a pearlish light white. Lightly splashed on the tips only was a emerald green and silver lame, giving the impression of tropical fish scales sparkling brilliantly at the bottom of the sea. There was also a pretty ring of delicate lacework set on her slender finger.

Gazing at Banri's eyes, absentmindedly staring at the movements of those fingertips,

"From the very start, have you understood?"

Kouko's piercing eyes suddenly looked into his.

They gazed at each other in mutual incomprehension.

In that instant, feeling as if she could see just about everything about him, Banri's heart skipped a beat.

He had a feeling that at any moment, from Kouko's lips would be coming the words "I know that Tada-kun has changed..."

What will I do if that happens? What should I do? If she asked like that... what lie should he tell?

The inside of his mouth suddenly went dry, and he regretted terribly not having brought some of the free tea with him to the table.

However, Kouko's next words,

"I want to spend more time with you. Don't you know that perfectly well? Really, I want to be with you more, more, moooorre. But, because I don't want you to get annoyed, I restrain myself. Aren't you desperate? I'm plenty."

Having been expecting the worst, he found himself in a very different place. He took a breath without realizing, and groaned.

"...Is that... so?"

"Yes, it is. When we are apart, all I do is think of what you are doing, what you are thinking and what you feel about me. Really, I want to stick to you always, totally, 24 hours a day. What you see, what you hear, what you eat, what you feel, I want to know anything and everything. I want to understand, I want to share everything perfectly. But hey, I understand that me being like that could be painful, heavy and irritating. Acting like a stalker can be scary."

Aren't I learning?

Continuing in that way, Kouko showed a perfect smile on her beautiful face. Saying "Yes!" without thinking, Banri nodded exaggeratedly, thereby removing the sting.

"So, if you were working a job, our time would be more limited. Don't you see? Besides that, since it's this time I'm going to say frankly, I don't want you telling me about some girl I don't know that you met while working at some place I don't know. Absolutely, no way. Just imagining it will make my head explode. Or, do you want to see it? My brain, that is."

"...Hey, Kaga-san."

"What's up? Do you want to see? Really?"

"No no no, that's not what I meant."

"If you want to see, shall we take a look?"

"No, seriously, listen."

With Kouko's face drawing closer to his, staring intensely, Banri warded her away lightly with one finger and somehow managed to argue back.

"I terribly regret having to inform you of this, but with regards to your finding value in me as a male of the species, as of this moment you are alone in that."

It's painful to speak of it to this extent, but it is reality.

"Obviously, I am not the kind of guy who drips girls, and from the start the fact that I've been able to go out with you, as far as I am concerned, has been improbable, like a super unreal dream state. It truly is a miracle. And so, being told suddenly you were in shock, and you were afraid of this? I could just laugh. Such worries are really, completely, unnecessary."

The moment Banri stopped talking, Kouko's smile, which until then had been sparkling self-assuredly, suddenly darkened.

In so doing, her gaze, which had been thrust out toward him before, now slowly dropped, trembling, to the table. Letting go of a curl of her softly waving hair that she had wrapped about her finger, she shrugged her shoulders once, up, then down. She seemed to be heaving a long sigh.

At length, she murmured to herself "Why won't you understand?" her voice so soft as to not even have left her mouth.

He wondered if he had hurt her somehow.

Banri peeked over towards the face of the suddenly tense Kouko, trying to find the words he should say, but,

"...I've thought it'd be nice if you became small. About this tall."

She caught on to her smile once more.

Once more regaining her normal perfect expression, Kouko spread her thumb and index finger all of eight inches apart.

"Then, I could set you next to me all the time. Feeding you, putting you to bed, getting you dressed, I would hide and protect you so nobody could see you. To keep you from being stolen, I would take you with me in my purse when I go out. Mirror, gloss and Tada Banri... it would feel like that. And then finally, I want to wrap you up in a sushi roll and eat you!"

"Eh!? Though it is certainly somewhat of a shocking development... well, but unexpected, and not... bad? I will be accepted as delicious, but if I don't get acquainted with even one of your tender skin cells, then perhaps in another life? Even though it's something like the ending of Galaxy Express..."

"What kind of story is 'Galaxy Express'?"

"It's like that! For no particular reason, while I was in the hospital, I read everything there was set around the ward. But they were scattered here and there, different volumes in the middle of series. I haven't spoken in detail because I didn't want to give out spoilers."

"Eeh, no way, I didn't know. It was the kind of story where spoilers become a problem? I was imagining a warm, comfy story with a more romantic mood. Then Giovanni and Campanella got mixed up in the sushi roll?"

"Hm? No, that's not right, it wasn't them. Rather Maetel and Tetsuro."

"Oh, those two!? No way! Tell me straight from the start! Just say it's the 009 story!"

Her cheeks going frighteningly red, Kouko opened her mouth wide with laughter while she pounded Banri on the shoulder, but

"No, no, that's not the right one either!"

I am Kouko... a girl somehow off topic...

At that very moment, as Kouko muttered behind Banri's back, her eyes downcast and lashes fluttering,

"Flirting in broad daylight!"

With what felt like a thump, their ears adjusted to the anime voice.

"Betcha that's Oka-chan!"

Turning their heads, as expected there was Oka Chinami standing there, and,

"No way! Or rather, what the!? What are you doing here!?"

She pointed at her own mouth, then at where gauze had been affixed to Banri's face. As it happened, in Chinami's small hand there was a partially emptied PET bottle of tea. With the bottom of it, she tapped Banri between the shoulder blades.

"Yo, Oka-chan. I fell down at home, my lip got cut and swelled up."

"Eeh! Are you okay!? How'd it happen!? Ah, perhaps..."

Grabbing the cap of the PET bottle as if it were a microphone, she turned towards Kouko. With an evil laugh, turning her head upwards as if she were a child,

"Have you been assaulted?"

"..."

As expressionless and silent as a Noh mask, Kouko snatched the PET bottle from her. Just like that, she struck Chinami on the forehead with the thing. However Chinami, as you might expect, stood her ground. Without even pulling back, as if nothing had happened,

"Wow, that's awful. Was it serious?"

"..."

She had so much to say she wound up babbling. The afterimage was so shocking that Banri could hardly take it in. He took back the bottle from Kouko’s hand, and stuffed it snugly back into Chinami’s bag while explaining briefly.

"This thing is gonna self-destruct. By itself, when it feels like it, it’s going to fall apart."

"Nnyahahahahaa, reallyyy?"

He wondered just what had happened that was so funny. Chinami, at Banri’s explanation, was smiling like a cat whose stomach was being rubbed, and yet, their situation. If he spoke of it. Without him realizing it, Banri’s eyes became those of a skilled craftsman, having entered into a mode of appreciation.

Finding Chinami doubled over in laughter was a daily occurance... like a demon... no, that didn’t suffice to describe her. She was pretty, like a wild demon god or roaring waves.

Crowsfeet drooping softly because of her laughter, her face was surpassingly white and innocent. The texture of her skin was like that of sweet, sticky condensed milk. Her lips were strawberry colored.

Her thick, shiny, jet black hair gathered loosely and falling to her shoulders in the style of a foreign noblewoman, her features clearly those of a doll, her large eyes glittering prettily, as if moist.

And yet for some reason, there was this strangely spicy, not quite jasmine flower fragrance rising from Chinami’s body. It was incredibly comfortable, and slightly flamboyant.

Banri, without realizing he was enchanted, inhaled a lung-full of her aura, getting high on it. He could not get enough of how Chinami's cuteness always took him away from everything unpleasant about life. She had a natural gift of cuteness, he thought. She was, perhaps, a gift from the gods. A gift of transcendent cuteness. And Chinami passed her allotment freely to the other denizens of this world. He wondered if he had no choice but to open his mouth to the falling drops and receive them as best he could.

She was wearing a somewhat baggy embroidered black-linen blouse like a one-piece dress, and similarly black, skinny jeans. She had on leather sandals, and lacking her usual day-pack today, she carried a traditional woven shopping bag. The back of her neck, her wrists and her ankles, peeking from the black clothing were white, slim, fragile and delicate, giving an effect truly beautiful and especially girly. She had put on one slender bead bracelet, also flesh-colored, looking pretty and sparkly. It had white and mustard beige color scheme, with a contrasting red interspersed. It was conspicuosly beautiful.

Today, to Banri's eyes, the cute demon Chinami's form was like a brave figure crossing through the desert countries, materializing from the blowing sands, their brown particles dancing in the air. She was that dramatic.

Unable to keep from sighing,

"What's with you today, Oka-chan? It feels like you came here riding a horse..."

He gave his impressions. But, it seemed Chinami didn't quite get it.

"Does it? Even though I came here as usual from Kinshichou via JR?"

He could hear Kouko mutter, "You're from Kinshichou? For some reason it got changed to Okachimachi in my head." O-ka-chi-na-mi, oka-chi-ma-chi, ...Kaga Kouko... without thinking the rhythm was coming back to him again, but setting aside the joke for now,

"Adult clothing like that looks better on you than your usual Sai Baba cosplay..."

He continued with his impressions. But, as before, Chinami was puzzled.

"...When have I ever done a Sai Baba cos...?

She was confused about that part. The eyes looking back innocently at Banri were virtually a universe. Flickering stars in eternal darkness. Banri was standing still as if a spell had been cast upon him, as if he had been swallowed whole by Chinami's gaze. She was that pretty. With room left over for seconds.

But the feeling of having room for more wasn't being passed to anybody else here. Banri's arm was grabbed fiercely just below the shoulder and shaken,

"Tada-kun, let's go to a different shop."

Her face taut, Kouko stood up from her chair. Though she said "shop", it was just the cafeteria.

"Look. Ultrasonic here is giving off a lewd, perverted aura."

"Ooh... The day has come when words like 'pervert' come out of Kaga-san's mouth..."

"It's the truth, so it can't be helped. If I had been in a place like that, I would have become that meat-eating flower's victim in no time at all. Ah, was that the meaning of 'the flower below'?"

"Hah, that so!? What the heck!? The 'thing below' was me. Wasn't I about to be caught by the dangerously heaving, meaty blossom's crevices!? Ah, was that the meaning of 'the flower below'?"

"...St, stop with the comedy act. I'm not answering anything more..."

Chinami seemed to be muttering to herself while trying to distance herself from the exceedingly rude couple. Even Banri's over-late attempt at smoothing things over "We're just kidding, it's only a joke" was met with a snort and a peevish turning away from them.

"I mean, it's about time for me to head off to my job too. Take care, take it easy."

She lightly waved her hand. Hearing that Banri automatically,

"Hey, look! Even Oka-chan has a job. Of course it's normal. Everybody does it."

He pointed to Chinami, and turned back towards Kouko's face. Kouko frowned, and Chinami stopped trying to walk away and asked back in curiosity.

"Huh? What's that? What are you talking about?"

"Listen to her! I was thinking about getting a job too, but you won't let me, and are stopping me. I didn't think about Oka-chan having one. Part time jobs are super normal and everybody has one."

"It's super normal! Everybody does it! I mean, our shop is taking applications for part time work. Banri, would you work with me? You want an interview?"

"Eh!? Seriously!?"

"Seriously, seriously..."

The conversation was as fast as lightning. In the seconds it took to state the subject, he'd been invited by Chinami. Kouko was frowning opening, sputtering "Huh!?"

"What kind of job is it!?"

Banri had quickly sunk his teeth into it.

Even so, he absolutely had to get a part time job. He could not do as Kouko had told him. That being so, wasn't it all right to be in the same place, together as his friends? In any case, shouldn't it be okay if he was working with friends, Two Dimensions, Yana-ssan or even Chinami? Wasn't it common sense to think that way? And he still had room left over for seconds.

"It's at the Daikanyama Café."

"Eh! A C-A-F-E!? That's super cool!"

"Well, it's something else. Incredible, in fact. Kinda feels like "T, T, T, TOKYO! S, S, S, SHIBUYA, KUU!" So cool the juice drips from it."

"Ah!? Like how the flower below does!?"

"Didn't I say I wasn't going to answer anymore to that topic!?"

"Wouldn't a fashionable place like not normally hire somebody like me?"

"Well, both of you come and check it out once anyway. I mean, aren't you free now? It you like, would you come with me? Like, a right now kinda thing. If you'd like, Kaga-san too..."

At being invited softly like that,

"What's this 'too'...!?"

Kouko snapped. Stepping up to Chinami,

"Am I going to be treated like just something along for the ride!? Tada-kun and I are two hearts beating as one! I mean, we're on a date after this! You may be the temptress here, but isn't Tada-kun avec moi!? B, O, T, H, O, F, U, S! Get it!? WE! You understand!? With a "W", "II"! Understood!? Have you got it!? Right away! In other words, stay away!"

Looming over the petite Chinami like that, her beautiful face was like a guardian diety.

"Yessir, then won't you come with me? Err, the two of you."

Laughing away as hard she could Chinami's amended invitation as if it were some sort of backdraft, Kouko stood beautifully, like a model, raising her chin haughtily.

"We, can, not. Go. We simply cannot. It's impossible. Could you think things through before you ask something ridiculous? I am not going to let you interfere with the time we have together."

Saying all that while plainly acting the part of the Evil Queen, she turned towards Banri's face and said "Right?"

"Ehh, let's go, Kaga-san."

This was a deliberate stab in the back. Naturally Kouko,

"Huh!?"

Yelped, but.

"Around here, or back where I live, we always just drink tea. I'd like to take Kaga-san once in a while to someplace stylish, for some stylish juice."

That wouldn't be bad, being a café employee. A little late, but Banri found himself feeling like that. Like he had the energy to race through the interview, get the job and then even get a paycheck all in one go. He suspected that even if he had set aside the time to do it, there'd be too much going on to get it done.

"I mean, I don't want to be a problem for you. Once we get there, I will instantly be in employee mode, and because I will be rather busy, I won't be able to just chat with the customers."

"Hey look, even Oka-chan is talking like this. Let's go, Kaga-san, and have some juice and be cool. We've only just started dating, and we can't be getting into a rut already."

Getting into a rut... Reacting as she had heard a curse, Kouko frowned darkly. Taking the opportunity to take off in pursuit, Banri,

"...But if Kaga-san won't come with me, then I could sneak on over on my own..."

"Eeehhh...!?"

It seemed to work better than he thought it would.

Kouko, a perfectly indecipherable expression on her face, stumbled two steps backwards, her disheveled bangs falling down to the tip of her nose.

A long time passed without her even clearing it away, when finally she let out a gloomy sigh. It seemed that even Kouko had finally given up.

"...Okay. It's all right if today's date be for a juice with style."

"Nyaha, that isn't what the place is called." Chinami cutely steered the topic around.

And so, Banri and Kouko found themselves in a sublimely stylish ambience.

Leaving the two of them in the customer seating, Chinami went into the back room through an entrance way in the back, hard to see from the street.

The light toned interior (stylish!) had a high ceiling (stylish!). Bossa-nova background music (stylish!) echoing in its bowels (cool!). As if cowering from it, Banri looked around the place. Completely overwhelmed, he was hunched over twice as much as usual.

Such was Daikanyama. Style!

The sense of stylish, cultured persons sharpened and magnified to where it reverberated, the café had become an outrageously stylish place. The rustling menu in his hands somehow felt like parchment (so chic!), and sucked up the sweat from Banri's hands.

From the very start, Chinami had been saying it was stylish, it was cool, but only now had the meaning of the word entered into their world.

"What is this... I feel really out of place here."

"You? Not just you, both of us."

All the same, even Kouko looking uncomfortable, squirming a little as she settled into the sofa. Even for the beautiful Kouko, she clearly wasn't adjusting to that stylish place. It was quite different from her taste.

Banri reflected that at their core, people come in different types. There was no universal language, of course. And he had a hunch that there was no universal definition of what constituted "basic culture". And yet already, we have no choice but to say what we think is stylish, and afterwards simply fall back in defeat.

"Aah, this interior design, it really feels nice. It's like my own house's living room."

"Really. In fact, this  sofa is just like the one we put in our studio."

He doubted if the two guys, stylish hats on their heads, chatting and smiling, ever disagreed. He had a hunch about it. They took their beer bottles in hand, looked each other in the eye and chugged them down with gusto, calling "Cheers!" like foreigners and that kind of stuff. It didn't seem they were joking, nor role-playing, but there they were.

Chinami was however, as incredible as expected.

Dressed stylishly in her uniform shirt and apron, as a stylish employee of a stylish café, she was working stylishly. She adapted to where she was. Or rather, he had a feeling that whatever environment you tossed Chinami into, her character was such that her cuteness showed through freely. To Banri, she seemed to possess that much capacity.

"...Tada-kun, could you really work here?"

"I don't think I could so much as be a customer here, as I am..."

Flustered by the stylish locale, quite embarrassed, his body lost its balance, and he sank into the sofa at an angle.

* * *


That night, past eight o'clock.

While thinking she might be away from home, Banri reached out his finger to his neighbor's intercom, but upon thinking about it, of course, he stopped. The unpredictable volume of the doorbell might put that difficult person in a bad mood.

For that reason, he tried knocking on her door in a reserved fashion. Shortly,

"...What?"

NANA-senpai suddenly stuck her head out the door, a cigarette in her mouth. In her usual colorless T-shirt and worn out jerseys, she looked strangely pale without her makeup.

From inside the open door, a smell mixed of incense and cigarette smoke slowly flowed towards him. Even though it was suppertime, there was no smell of food at all, Banri could hardly believe what a strange life this person seemed to live. In this regard, Banri's room right now was filled with a smell of stale yakisoba.

"Err, umm, thank you very much for yesterday."

"...What's with you? You reek of yakisoba."

"Oh, yakisoba. Because I ate some. You're right about that, but, well, for now I must return this to you..."

Looking towards the envelope Banri was holding out to her,

"Ah"

It looked like she remembered the money she had lent him for the clinic. She narrowed her eyes, lit the cigarette clenched in her lips, and gave it a strong pull while she took the envelope. Then suddenly twisting her body to face away from him, she blew the smoke out into the entrance to her own place. He wondered if perhaps she was concerned for his convalescence.

With just that little bit, feeling suddenly warm and fuzzy,

"...Oh man, even if I know it's a trick, it's one of those 'delinquent helps a stray dog in the rain' situations..."

As Banri muttered to himself, the door was shut in his face. Without so much as a good-bye.

When he realized he'd been left behind alone in the outer hallway,

"...Ah!? Hey, hold on NANA-senpai!! We still haven't finished talking!"

When he frantically knocked on the door,

"What's your problem? You're noisy!"

Clicking her tongue sharply at the same time, NANA-senpai deigned to open the door a little once more. There was a furrow on her brow like a lightning bolt.

"Yeah, I've got something to give you! If you'd like, then..."

In thanks for being helped, giving up on the matter of getting a job, he'd bought some stylish cookies and brought them as a gift. NANA-senpai watched Banri holding them out with that sullen look of hers.

Even though he knew she was basically a good person, he backed away a little. Well, his body wouldn't forget when she's knocked him down with a guitar, swung him around by his hair, kicked him in the rear and sent him flying.

"...Sweet stuff, somebody didn't eat them, perhaps?"

Snatching the cookies from the hand of the timidly inquiring Banri, NANA-senpai started examining the list of ingredients on the label closely. Saying "What the...", and then suspiciously, at Banri,

"Nuts"

That was all. Of course, he had no idea what she meant.

"...Huh? Is that something for flavor?"

"It's an allergy. Just to nuts in any case. I probably should be fine accepting this. It'll be my dinner."

"...Err, you're having only cookies for dinner?"

"Gotta problem with that?"

"...I could have brought you some yakisoba. I made too much for me to eat all by myself. It tasted rather good, but unfortunately you can tell I made it myself."

Still leaning against the door, NANA-senpai laughed softly. While she told him she didn't want to be fed by him. He realized it was the first time he had heard her laugh honestly, not in scorn or derision. When Banri automatically laughed in return,

"Is that already healed?"

Using her chin to point, NANA-senpai indicated the bandage near Banri's mouth. Banri nodded.

"It's fine. Though I still have to take my medicine."

"That so."

"Thank you very much, really. What would have happened if you hadn't helped me... it would have been a real disaster. Of my own blood."

Bowing his head once more, at that moment an image flashed through Banri's mind.

Of having escaped without his shoes on, among the mountains in early spring.

Of a light set against the darkness.

Of a voice calling his name.

Oh, that's what it was.

"...What I mean is, even Linda-senpai has rescued me from disaster. It's like my life is nothing but being rescued from disasters by women..."

"Linda. Yep."

She let out a sigh.

Muttering in a strange way, NANA-senpai roughly pulled the spent cigarette from her mouth and shoved it into an ashtray on top of the shoe rack. While that motion for some reason caught his eye, Banri swallowed the questions welling up inside him.

---He wondered how much NANA-senpai knew about himself and Linda.

It seemed to him that Linda and NANA-senpai got along incredibly well. It looked like they hung around together a lot, even staying overnight at NANA's place. He wondered if they talked about him.

The time he was avoiding Linda like crazy, it was NANA-senpai who forcibly arranged for them to talk, wasn't it?

He wondered how much this person knew, and what she was thinking now.

"...What's with the face? Are you feeling bad about something?"

Looking up at the completely silent Banri's face, NANA-senpai folded her arms. As if she were urging him to speak, she waited without lighting her next cigarette yet.

Involuntarily, complaints began to spill from his throat,

"I'm feeling... well... uncomfortable."

"Oh?"

But, he held his ground.

"...Mainly... well... it's money."

She laughed at his foolish expression. NANA-senpai stepped back for the space of a long breath, her head tilted to the side as if she were amazed. Then she held it out to him.

"You can pay me later."

The envelope with the money he owed her. Banri nearly jumped in panic,

"Eh!? Oh, no no no! That wasn't what I meant at all! Really, really, it would really bother me if you didn't accept that from me!"

Desperately refusing her,

"It would be impossible."

He retreated as if he had been pushed away. He escaped backwards like he was a crab while shaking his head from side to side and hiding both hands behind himself.

"No no no no! I mean, really, I'm okay! I about to look for a part-time job!"

"A part time job? ...Now?"

At last, NANA-senpai seemed to give up on returning the envelope to him. Her hand on her skinny hip, she asked him.

"I'm not working yet. Ah, if by chance you know somebody, or have some pull, please introduce me, I'm trying to find whatever I can quickly just so I can pay."

"...This weekend."

That ranked up there in speed with Chinami's stylish juices.

"There's a job where you could make a lot in one night, but would you do it? Though it's waiting on tables at a party event. You'd get a full day's pay, at once. ...But I'm telling you ahead of time, you may be given some responsibilities."

Banri sunk his teeth into NANA-senpai's words. Waitering at a party... he couldn't picture it, it would come to him one way or the other. At the very least, it would be better than that stylish café.

"Of course! I want to do it! There's money, so I'll be there! Will there be an interview?"

"I'll be introducing you, so I don't think you have anything to worry about. ...There's just one condition."

Her hand stuffed under her worn T-shirt's hem, scratching herself roughly in her rather flat chest region, NANA-senpai suddenly raised one thin eyebrow at him.

"That guy Yanagisawa. Though it's only what Linda said, he seems to be pretty handsome. Bring that guy along."