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That evening, a little after eight o'clock, Mitsuo knocked on Banri's door.
"Yo. Did you take a nap?"
"I thought it would be a waste of time, but laying still on the futon I eventually fell asleep. And you?"
"It was the same for me."
His body distinguished by his handsome looks more than anything else, his good friend came into the room in his stocking feet and handed Banri a plastic bag.
NANA-senpai had told them to get a nap beforehand, since they'd be working through to the morning. She also told them to bring something to eat, though she had no idea when they'd have their break time. And so, Banri had cooked white rice, and Mitsuo had bought some side dishes.
The always somewhat worried about money Mitsuo having no reason to refuse an invitation to work one day for good money, he had easily complied with NANA-senpai's requirement. Doing so, the two of them came today.
Handing over his portion of the change, split down to the penny, Banri set about preparing the easy dinner at once. Mitsuo, who had already come who knows how many times to visit, sat cross-legged as usual by the side of the low table, while Banri went about gathering the copies of "TV Bros" and sheets of report paper scattered about. And then, while fiddling with the remote control, he looked underneath the table.
"Isn't that your cell-phone making sounds?"
"Oh, it's e-mail. No big deal."
The incoming message light on Banri's charging cellphone continued blinking.
He served up the precooked white rice into suitable bowls and brought them to the table, returning once to the kitchen and bringing bottles and glasses of tea, he then looked at his e-mail.
"Yep. It'll wait until after we eat and have some tea. If I don't answer right away, she hangs up. While we're turning into Choushuu Koriki."
Mitsuo laughed, perhaps imagining Kouko, her head tilted to one side, a perfect smile glued to her face, asking him not hang up, but it wasn't really a laughing matter.
Kouko lately... from what Banri had seen since the part time job matter came up... was becoming a really restrictive character.
Worrying excessively, even neurotically over little things, like slow responses to her e-mails (usually because he just hadn't noticed them), why he arrived late for a lecture (because he'd gone to the bathroom), why he was so quiet right now (he hadn't realized he was quiet), which is the cutest? Eh? You can't tell the difference? ...Why? Are you ignoring me?
And so on.
After lectures, she clung to him tightly the whole time. He couldn't even hang out with the guys. As a human being, he wanted to have some time to himself, but couldn't have so much as that. Looking at it objectively, his days continued to be rather stressful.
Of course, he hadn't said a thing to Kouko about today's job.
Lying to her that he'd forgotten about a report in a class Kouko wasn't in, and that in order to hand it in tomorrow he was going to have to pull an all nighter, they parted after third hour and he headed home. When Kouko started to follow, saying "I want to see you working on your report; I can be quiet," he refused, saying "Sorry, but if I don't really concentrate this one time, I'll be in trouble!"
Because it was for the sake of taking Kouko to the sea, he wasn't worried about feeling guilty. Besides, he felt that from the very start, in saying that she didn't want Banri to take a job, Kouko was on the verge of leaving her proper course, straying towards her selfish side.
And most of all, number one,
"It must be annoying, how Kouko is restraining you so devilishly."
"No...? To be honest, it isn't all that bad."
...Because those were his true feelings, because he felt that way.
He wasn't keeping quiet and keeping his distance because it was annoying or troublesome. And so I guess I have no choice, thought Banri this evening, having no intention of blaming himself.
Messages from Kouko, as always, were silly things. Things like 'I'm drinking black tea ☆' That so~? Without any variation in reply. Every time, every time, it was like this. Good morning, good night, time to eat, I ate, I painted my nails, I cleaned my nails, I'm tired, I'm hungry, our cat, my little brother, it's hot, it's cold, it's fun, it's boring, where are you now? What are you doing? Do you love me? How much? Hey, hey, hey... Banri's cell-phone's predictive text algorithm already went like this: "So" becomes "That so?" "Me" becomes "Me too~", "Un" becomes "Understood" and "I" becomes "I love you too!" ...It was well on its way to becoming completely trained.
But, he didn't mind. Not at all.
Though it was not a laughing matter, it was off the beaten path and stressful, and while he had fallen into the situation, Banri was still enjoying himself aplenty, and was happy too. For a girl such as her to be so insistent over a guy such as himself... that was incredible.
At the end of the day, very simply, he felt that he was in love with Kouko.
Even if she caused him some undue trouble, it honestly seemed to him a joy. Passing through thirty pieces of empty mail per day was enough to make him smile. Even in pain, or depressed, or being a pain, she was so cute he couldn't help it. He was absolutely, completely happy with how Kouko loved him, how she obsessed over him, and he couldn't get enough of it.
If he entirely lost such days as these, or such times, he had no idea if he would be able to find happiness in this life. Life would become truly dull and meaningless, he thought. It would become completely empty.
Really, that was how he felt.
Those things... the feelings towards Linda that had been brought back to life, not saying anything, swallowing it to the best of his ability, it didn't seem that his emotions towards Kouko were any the less. In Banri's heart there should be only one of them; two people's worth of love could not exist together there. Apart from whether or not he would despise such a self as that.
He wondered if it was something people got good at, and recently even felt so. He wondered if everybody was like this. Or, with his problem they called amnesia, he wondered if he would become like them, given how his own personality had not yet entirely solidified.
Things could not remain like this indefinitely; he wondered if things would fall apart, that somebody would get hurt badly, and there would be a failure he could not bear to watch.
...He wondered, in this process, would his own heart change?
Which of his doubled selves would perish in the end?
He wondered if he was only at the very start of the adventure.
"I'm glad you met and are dating Kouko, really."
Mitsuo said that right after he'd started greedily eating his meal.
Once he'd sent a short reply to Kouko, Banri turned and look at that profile. He was indeed handsome, stuffing food into his wide open mouth as a young man would. With mixed feelings, part in wonder, part in guilt, Banri stared at him for several seconds.
Or something, he asked back, a little bit idiotically. Hm? Mitsuo looked back at him sidelong.
"What do you mean, 'How so?' Because you know, I don't think just any guy would accept that failure of a stalker. You tolerate that stuff very well."
"...Well, of course I do. I love her. Kouko, that is."
"But aren't there limits to that? I've been watching over how you and Kouko have gotten along from the start, and it seems to me that you guys long ago went past those limits. Two Dimensions was a bit attracted by her too. In the abstract. She's always all over you, isn't she?"
Setting down his cell-phone, Banri set himself by the table too. Taking his rice bowl and chopsticks in hand half pretending, he waited and laughed.
The wound under the bandage below his mouth was of course still there. Not even moistened, it hurt something fierce.
"In general no, but because there's an incredible love, it's all right."
"Whoa... it's been a while since I've heard Banri speaking fondly of her. Of course, it feels a little creepy."
While he ate up the side dishes to a good feeling cadence, Mitsuo laughed even more. Watching that handsome, healthy, smiling face, he wondered just how different it was from his own.
Healthy and unhealthy. Handsome and unattractive. An honest person and a lying lout. A person prospering, and one who has confessed. Like positive and negative, completely opposite beings.
For some reason his chopsticks not moving, Banri shut his mouth then and there. He wondered how one such as himself would appear in Mitsuo's eyes? And then in Kouko's eyes. In Linda's eyes...
Suddenly, he felt as if he were looking into a mirror.
(It's all right because you love her, right?)
Tada Banri, his appetite gone, sat still.
On his knees before his own table, in his own room, he held his chopsticks in his right hand, his rice bowl in his left.
With his injured lip still swollen, not yet receding, a bandage remained on his face. He wore his usual blue-jeans and oversized house-coat T-shirt. His unkempt hair was too long, and it seemed that Banri had not noticed how much it showed from behind.
(You have a guilty conscience, and are feeling sorry for thinking such things as 'I want to return to where Linda is', so if you could be put up with, if you could be forgiven, ...that would be nice.)
So close we could almost touch noses, I stared back at my former self, right next to his face in the flesh. I wanted to find the colors of honesty and of falsehood in his eyes.
He wondered who it was that was muttering.
From beside him, Mitsuo softly poked the motionless Banri, his eyes staring vacantly off into space still, on the elbow. Coming back to himself, he saw that face.
"What's wrong? Eat! Didn't senpai from next door said she's coming about nine o'clock?"
"Waiting tables, eh? It's the first time for me. I suppose the drinks will be prepared, of course. I don't like tending to drunkards and cleaning up after them..."
"...Ah, I wonder how it'll be? I didn't hear too many details about what we'll be doing."
"If it's like working as a host, what'll we do? We'll be forced to be chatty. Even though we are both rather quiet types."
Without any concerns, he had a refreshing smile.
Without Kouko next to him, he thought him handsome and without any inferiority. Easy to get along with, he was normally a really nice guy. He felt glad, from the bottom of his heart, that he had become his friend.
That Kouko had naturally fallen in love with the guy, even Banri could understand completely. If he were a girl, he probably would have fallen for him quickly.
Rather, he still didn't understand very well why she had clearly gone down a level from the cool-looking Yana-ssan, or so it seemed.
In Kouko's heart, Yanagisawa Mitsuo and Tada Banri were both present, but now only Tada Banri was left, and yet he wondered how in the world it had turned out that way. He wondered if it had been because he had confessed his feelings to her after she'd been clearly rejected by Yanagisawa Mitsuo. Had just that one thing really undone her ten years of unrequited love?
Clearly, Kouko had selected the one of lesser worth. When he thought it over again, that was the strange part he could not understand.
She hadn't lost her memories like he had.
In spite of this he wondered why this kind of thing could happen... how in the world?
Anyway, a woman would understand that way of doing things, surely.
Banri, who had once more become lost in thought, was brought back by a knock at the door. That rough noise. The ferocious style of knocking.
"Ah, that's probably NANA-senpai."
Banri set down aside his chopsticks, but,
"I'll get it."
Stuffing the last bite into his wide-open mouth, Mitsuo stood up. Banri turned himself around and looked over towards the doorway.
Outside the door, as he expected, was NANA-senpai standing there in her usual cosplay... no, in a punk outfit, not waiting for Mitsuo's reaction when he saw it,
"Hmph. You must be the guy they call Yana. Now I get it. You're sure a pretty one, aren't you?"
She suddenly lifted Mitsuo's T-shirt by the hem to verify his abs. She said just one word, "Allright!", and then, turning towards something Banri couldn't see in the outer hallway,
"Linda, well done!"
She said something like that.
Banri pulled out and dropped the hamburger he'd stuffed into his mouth.
This evening, he and Mitsuo were to go and be introduced for a part-time job by NANA-senpai. That was the plan.
But he hadn't heard that Linda was going to be there too. "Oh! Hello, good evening!" Mitsuo's voice lept from the entrance hallway, sounding happy.
* * *
The situation was confused from the very start.
Mitsuo was unable to choose between really tight silver boxer shorts and flesh-colored bikini briefs with gold lame.
He was just like Rodin's "The Thinker." Or perhaps, he was just a cool looking guy troubled by constipation.
Seated with the upper half of his body bare, he was running a cold sweat and comparing the two undershorts with a desperate look on his face.
"Hurry up and decide! And then put it on! Hey you, are you ready!?"
Openly irritated, he threw the two pair of undershorts at Mitsuo, and the mysterious person's gaze turned towards Banri. Suddenly standing up,
"Hey! I'm ready!"
He was showing off, and yet at the same time being spit upon and jeered. And yet,
"But kinda sexy too...!"
His hand, bedecked with rings, slid over suggestively, brushing gently against his inner thigh. Is that so? Me, sexy? The masked, heavyset, middle-aged man they called 'Boss', wearing a golden suit like Dandy Sakano, went off, leaving the strangely moved Banri and the half-naked Mitsuo behind. When a suited staffer called out "Oh Boss, today's the masquerade, isn't it!?" he flirtateously replied "I'm the Phantom! The Phantom of the Opera House!" He was Dandy Sakano, though he wasn't saying so.
"Well, Yana-ssan, you'd better make up your mind quick!"
"Oh, ooh... but I really am just a little lost... ah, what should I do!? Shoot, to think the day would come when I'd be worried about something like this!"
If he used the silver one in his right hand, it wouldn't show through. And then, in terms of cloth coverage, his butt would be safe.
The flesh-colored bikini clutched in his left hand was too sheer. It had a T-back too, and was curved in such a way that it wasn't going to house his nether regions nor his butt adequately. But he told The Boss, "You'll have to give me another ten thousand for me to wear this here."
One way or the other, in just this one layer of underwear, Mitsuo couldn't help but expose his swaying nudity to public gaze. That, in its entirety, was the job he had been given this evening.
Then in view before him, a handsome man, looking like a foreign model, who seemed to have been given the same duties as Mitsuo, went trotting by, beer in one hand, wearing flesh-colored bikini-style briefs. Speaking of a raw atmosphere, down there in his nether region heavy things were swaying. Without realizing it, he followed him the whole with with his eyes. That figure from behind, the bare behind better than Mitsuo's own, stole the words from his mouth.
In the wide, but warm and dark back room, there were twenty other workers this evening, every one of them gaudily costumed and moving about restlessly. An echoing, heavy bass background music was starting to come through a curtain that was struck over and over again, along with the murmur of a crowd. From the kitchen area there often came an unintelligible bellow. It seemed the event was already starting.
The place NANA-senpai brought them to by car was the same live show place he remembered taking Kouko to.
Today they were doing a party by reservation only. Along with their sponsor, the "boss", when they entered the locale there was already a line of guests outside, from young people to suspicious looking older folks, all of them extremely gaudy, and all of them of questionable gender. He wondered if whoever's birthday it was, was into cosplay parties. The crowd of people, dressed in beautiful dresses and suits, costumes, women's clothing, men's clothing, from cartoon characters to seriously enhanced drag queens here and there, everybody in original styles to suit themselves, like only on Halloween. They were being sucked into the secret underground room, received by Chemical Brothers playing loud enough to split their ears.
The moment he saw the crowd, even the slow-witted Banri realized it might be a pretty hard job. Mitsuo, upon seeing Banri's expression, went quiet too. But, with NANA-senpai and Linda on either side of them, their faces unconcerned, the two of them had no choice but to prepare themselves.
As soon as NANA-senpai introduced them to the boss, he stripped off Mitsuo's T-shirt, handed him the underwear and ordered him off to choose which one he would use. As it happened, the boss took the T-shirt, buried his face in it, sniffed it like crazy and finally announced, "What is this thing!? It's disgusting! Never wear it again! I'm confiscating it!" Because of that, Mitsuo had already decided to return home half-naked.
At that point, something seeming not quite right, with Banri and Mitsuo being given different roles,
"If you're that puzzled, what if I pick!?"
He was already completely ready. Having some extra time for the moment,
"Anyhow, either of them is embarrassing. That being the case, shouldn't you just go for it!? In for an inch, in for a mile!"
He had planned on making a considered judgement, but the very loud music that could be heard leaking through to them pushed him to speak, and Banri handed Mitsuo the flesh-colored bikini.
"Eeeh!? Seriously...!? Seriously...!"
Mitsuo was for a moment lost for words, the so-transparent lame briefs held tightly still in his hands, his breath held. Presently,
"Don't you mean... instead! You instead! Aren't I embarrassed enough!? Don't I have a little respect!?"
Slowly, he looked up at Banri. Banri looked down at himself once again.
"I'm already used to it! I've accepted how I look!"
Banri, of whom the opera-house Dandy Sakano had commented, "You may be an ugly girl, but you're sexy," was wearing a fluffy, bobbed, silver haired wig, a bustier in goth-loli style, and a black mini-skirt maid uniform.
He'd received some temporary makeup, but for now, even if he said so himself, he was really ugly. The exposed, rather bony chest, the feel of his arms where they came out of the puffy sleeves, the un-softness of his legs where they were exposed below the garters, wherever you looked, his body's build was that of a skinny young man. Indeed, his style as a cross-dresser was miserable. This was what Banri looked like this evening.
"Well, with this cut lip, you see, 'You look like a maid who's been abused by her master! And the reason you were abused is because you're ugly!' ...the Boss said that, and this is the result!"
A silver tray under his arm, an earphone he'd been handed stuck in one ear, a wireless receiver stuffed into pouch slung across his shoulder. When he saw what he looked like in the mirror, a dry chuckle escaped his lips.
"Well, you've changed too, even though there isn't space for a guy to change! Around here, everybody had the freedom to change nude."
"...I know what you mean. It stood a little. I hid mine."
Hiding Mitsuo by spreading the frilly miniskirt, like covering him with flowers, Banri fiddled with the ends of his wig with his fingertips. He felt the stiff lace around his chest, arranged the pleats in the cloth, applied gloss to his wound and made sure it was smooth and matched in color.
For some time now, the deafening bass rhythm had been sending him into a trance. This must be how a girl feels, he thought, as he was captured by the mysterious sensation. His high-heeled feet extended naturally straight forward, trying to breathe, strangely aware they were being watched. The high-heeled Kouko must live in a world like this every day of her life. Conscious of her hair, aware of her clothing, noticing her makeup, aware of her feet, and so on over and over again. He admired her great sense of aesthetics, one which aimed for perfection.
"I... got it on... but..."
Mitsuo groaned in a very thin voice. When Banri looked back at him, he was practically nude.
"...I wonder, will this, be okay...!?"
Tension showed on his handsome, manly face, and every time he moved the shadows of his muscles stood out mesmerizingly. His body was like a sculpture.
On the other hand, the center of the flesh-colored bikini's sparkling lame lewdly shouted to all the world, "Ev-er-y-body! Here is something obscene!"
"...You're, you're fine! You're super cool, Yana-ssan!"
The horribly embarrassed Mitsuo shoved his hair into order, and, looking desperate, held his head high. The jeans, underwear and socks he had removed were tossed into a chair.
A black guy dressed as a chinese girl... or maybe a really tall girl, in any case one of his fellow co-workers for this evening, zipped past him carrying a silver tray just like Banri's and whistled at him.
"Thanks! Jeez, it's no wonder I thought that was a lot of money! This isn't just an ordinary job, for that kind of money!"
"Nevertheless, Yana-ssan, with those see-through briefs you're up by 10,000 yen!"
"If Chinami were to see me like this, I'd probably die!"
"Nooo, wouldn't Oka-chan normally run with it? Laughing like crazy, and then waving her camera around!?"
"No, no way no way no way! I wouldn't be able to stand it! What if Kouko saw you like that?"
"Yeah! Kaga-san might even be good with this, and let me be seen as if it were normal!"
It wasn't about not wanting to be seen in women's clothing, but rather it was about lying and working a part time job, and yet...
"Really? But of course, you're pretty cool about it! I mean, the way things are right now, I wonder what those guys are dressed up like? NANA-senpai and Linda!"
"They said they had to change, and disappeared. I haven't seen them for a while now!"
"There's no way they're like this!"
Said Mitsuo, pointing at himself,
Banri laughed loudly, but at that moment,
"Ooh!? Ya, Yana-ssan... isn't it!? Eh, Tada Banri!? Wow, NANA-senpai, take a look!"
It was Linda and NANA-senpai's voices. Looking back at the two of them,
"No, aren't you two the fantastic ones!?"
Reflexively, Banri and Mitsuo pointed too, and both sets wound up pointing at each other.
Linda and NANA-senpai were dressed exactly alike, in precisely the same fashion.
Their wigs were like Banri's, cut to follow the jawline, but were purple. They wore devil horns attached to hairbands, an earphone in one ear, and a pouch with a wireless receiver in it.
The only thing covering any part of their upper bodies was a skimpy black bikini top.
Secured only by flimsy straps around the neck and around the back, their upper chest, back, stomach, armpits and navel, in the darkness everything seemed to be exposed, standing out pure white. And yet exposed as they were, it hardly felt erotic. NANA-senpai so stoic and so very gaunt, with Linda who was so poised and beyond pretty, he wondered if they were from the same planet. What's more, as a matching set of two, they had twice the character, so to speak.
The lower half of their bodies was dressed similarly, with short shorts, lame tights and knee-high boots, silver trays in one hand, the two of them alike.
"We're the 'Devil Twins'!"
According to NANA-senpai. As it happened, there was a lighter and three cigarettes stuffed into the bikini bra over her flat chest. The deep bass notes shook the painful looking piercings that extended from her earlobes to the cartilage, making them shake in the darkness, mysteriously glittering like a summons.
For her part, Linda, a little bit embarrassed, hiding her chest with her tray,
"But the Boss told us 'You guys have no sex appeal at all! Skin and bones like that, you're going to wither away and die!' I mean…"
She laughed with a nasal voice.
"Neither Yana-ssan and Tada Banri match each other at all!"
She looked up at Banri and gave him a sharp glance. The makeup on her face was much stronger than her usual.
NANA-senpai's face, with that makeup, was hardly any different from usual, but Linda's face, made up like that, was like that of a stranger.
Her eyelids painted over darkly by eyeshadow, her eyeliner was drawn sharply uplifted, giving a cat eye effect. She wore glossy, fake eyelashes. She had applied coloring to her narrow eyebrows, as if they were lips.
Whereas normally she was just lightly built, nicely arranged and easy on the eyes, with that makeup she was transformed into a truly different person. Her looks were so exotic, they felt beautiful. She had a small face, it's silhouette that of a very young girl, but with a cold gaze that seemed incredibly low and deliberately mean. Her abs were quite solid, for a woman, and he wondered how much attention their three-dimensional appearance attracted from those around her. How she acquired them, he had no idea, but made to dance by her bright, deft movements, they made the devil-Linda's looks all the more conspicuous.
Not putting on airs, treading lightly, naturally, simply... that was Linda's normal image, but this evening she was completely the opposite. Everything was backwards. She was a baleful demon, the thing itself, danger dripping thickly from her.
As if it were being drawn to it, Banri's mouth approached Linda's ear. But at that very moment, the volume of the music rising even more around them,
"...Senpai, this isn't the first time for you at this job!?"
His voice couldn't reach her anymore.
"Well, that's the word! Everybody to work! Move it!"
The staff in suits clapped their hands and sent the keyed-up part-timers out into the hall.
Mitsuo was too nervous to move, but the foreigner who was dressed the same as him came over, whispered something in his ear, and right away started rubbing Mitsuo's body down with oil. Banri was a little shocked at the undisguised gayness of his hand motions, but Mitsuo seemed rather determined, and took the oil in hand and started spreading more and more over his entire body. Combing up their hair as a finishing touch, the other handsome guys gathered there began to disappear behind the curtain. Incidentally, with all of them in flesh-colored bikini shorts, it seemed he'd made the right choice.
Pushing Banri from behind, NANA-senpai jerked her chin.
"Well, get moving! Do you know what you have to do!? First of all, go over to the bartenders with a tray and get sake. Move around amongst the customers as much you can, and no taking any for yourself! If you receive a request, pass it on! Likewise, when you go out with food, no taking any for yourself! The bartender's girls made them for us after all! Keep the glasses and trash collected for us! Read the mood well, become a part of the scenery, and be cool, calm and collected!"
"Un, understood! Oh yeah, cellphones..."
Banri's cellphone had been stuffed into the pocket of a bag and left behind on the back of a chair. He had intended to stuff it in the pouch with the wireless while he worked, but,
"Cell phone!? You can't, no way, that would make the Boss really mad!"
Reproved like that by Linda, he'd given up. Well, he supposed it couldn't be helped. It's a job.
While begging that it simply not be stolen and hiding the bag under a chair where it couldn't be seen, Banri followed after Linda and NANA-senpai, passing through the curtain too.
The stressful, hot, humid air, the retina-cooking laser beams, and the loud detonations of the breaking beats right in front of Banri's body all rushed in to assault him.
* * *
Winding his way between the ecstatically dancing people, age-inappropriate light sticks placed on their sweat covered bodies here and there, Banri strutted around on to the floor in high heels.
"Anything's good! Gimme a strong sake!"
When a forty-ish looking woman, dressed in a loose, one layer, one piece dress, a silver whistle stuck in her cleavage, shouted in his ear, Banri stopped.
When the party had just started, though every time somebody called him, he'd respond, "Ah, yes sir!" "Here's the menu!", the boss would shout at him "You're too hesitant!" and stuff three pieces of gum into his mouth all at once. He could handle the disgusting flavor, so whenever he was to chew it, Banri dutifully kept chewing on the now flavorless gum.
As he did so quietly, he would glance from side to side. With a simple nod, he would dodge.
From here and there arms would reach out to him on their own and place empty glasses on his silver tray. Once he had enough, he would walk over to the bar counter. They looked like glasses, but in reality they were light plastic tumblers, and however many were piled up, they weren't dangerous.
Selecting the appropriate drinks from those already prepared, he returned to where the person had been. He had to excuse himself twice, bumping into the wildly enthusiastic guests and spilling sake on them.
After he handed over the sake and collected the empty glasses, he received instructions over the wireless to pass out hors d'oeuvre. He thought it was certainly about time for them. Virtually everybody was dancing like crazy, non-stop. Without a doubt, they all needed the calories.
The party was getting terribly crowded.
Around midnight the birthday song rang out. It took some time to blow out all the candles on the huge cake for the female guest of honor (she looked young, but when he peeked in the kitchen, there were 45 candles there), but if you thought about it, it was a unique way of telling time.
Who knows how many hours went by after that? There were ever more guests, the sake kept flowing, there were famous guest DJs that Banri wasn't familiar with, and adults who should have known better fooling around non-stop.
In the middle of it all, when he turned to see what people were cheering at, he could see scattered here and there around the hall individual pedestals, with foreign models in flesh-colored bikinis showing off their wares (no touch!). All of a sudden, the Boss threw off his golden suit and sprang up to dance on one. His Calvin Kleins screamed out, stuck closely to his posterior. When it appeared that his disgusting belly was dashed against the other man, and the two of them were entangled as if they were pushing their hips together, the excitement of the older ladies looking on all at once went up. Shortly, however, the Boss, brandishing the splayed fingers of both hands, was shouting "Gets! Gets!" As you might expect, he had none of the presence of Dandy. At least take your socks off, he thought.
When he looked towards Mitsuo on his own pedestal, his face said clearly "I'm glad he didn't come over here!" It was so easy to see that when he met the laughing Banri's eyes, he showed a soft smile too. At being passed by that smile, the women stared and stared.
Amidst the boisterously flashing and dancing lights, Mitsuo's skin shone brightly. His supple, muscular body was young, and as beautiful as an animal. Even if he didn't draw the attention the foreign models did, lifting both his arms high, flexing his abs to the music, was he not rather splendid?
One time, while in the restroom during an intermission, he said "The foreigner guys told me it was okay to be a copy-cat, so that's what I'm doing!" sweat dripping quietly from his face as he was breathing heavily. Between this and that, it even looked like he was having fun. Swinging his shoulders as if to fan and cool them, he composed his expression as cool as he could, turned a hot gaze to just beyond touching distance, became one with the other beautiful things livening up the hall and for just one night anonymously channelled the wild enthusiasm of those around.
He's in a mental state where he doesn't even understand it, thought Banri.
This night was sliced out of Tada Banri's life, and as far as he was concerned, it was, unexpectedly, not bad.
In this unusual environment, he was changed into a another person entirely. Chewing on gum while feeling cool and creepy, he had become like a machine, simply doing his work. And so the time went passing by. The music and the deep rumbling was transmitted through his high-heels to his pelvis, spine and even his skull, continually providing a stimulus as if to numb him, and in the darkness, the garish lights danced wildly about, as if they'd gone mad.
His five senses were painted over by the overwhelming stimuli, his ego was painted over with the image of another person, his body was enslaved to the job: he himself had no room for choice in the matter. Strangely, it felt good for now.
Not possessing even his own body, he would ride through this brilliant night.
When he bent over to load up his silver tray with hors d'oeuvre, he seemed to feel somebody touching him, as if to catch him. He turned around.
It was the Devil... Linda, laughing.
She was looking at Banri, her bare skin moistened by sweat because of the heat, her cheeks, collarbones and shoulders gleamed damply, and as far as he could tell in the darkness, her face was red too. And then,
"Aren't you exhausted!? Are you okay!?"
While the heavy beat pushed her hip softly against him in time with the music, Linda shouted in his ear. Between this and that, his ears had already become completely dull.
"It's rather fun! Somehow, I seem to have gotten surprisingly addicted!"
Drawing her ear closer to Banri so he could shout back to her, her purple wig stuck to her cheeks by her sweat, Linda gave a big nod.
"It sure is that way! It's something fun for me too, and in fact this is the fourth time I've worked an event for the Boss!"
"Wow! Is that you how usually dress!?"
"Nope! It isn't fixed! I've done many kinds!"
Their bodies equally heated, both of them soaked with sweat, if they'd only realized, the two of them were stuck together at the shoulder. If they weren't so close, they wouldn't be able to hear each other.
"You two over there, you're super cute! Could we take pictures!?"
A group of completely drunk girls were shouting and pointing their cell phones toward them. The bewildered Banri stammered out,
In the mood for it, Linda pulled Banri's shoulder over and posed as if they were dancing close together. Kyaa! The girls got excited, and the other guests began to notice them. He felt Linda's tights against his inner thigh. Body heat. Getting the chills, he had goosebumps all the way up his spine.
But, if they drew attention to themselves here, it would be really uncool, and the mood would be broken. So that he could somehow match Linda's sharp, bouncing movements, Banri wrapped his hand around her firm waist.
Entwining her arms with Banri's, Linda bent her waist back and forth softly, in synch with the rhythm. Her gaze self-assured, she was clearly having fun. As if directing the people's gazes, she slowly fluttered her white fingertips.
This evening, in this place, they were not Tada Banri and Hayashida Nana, but a cool, gum-chewing cross-dressing maid and a cat-eyed devil.
They were two bodies, without past, present or future, with no relation to such things, for the moment only, limited to this place, existing only in this moment.
Thinking it funny, one of the guests stuck a glow-stick in Linda's mouth. Accepting it gracefully, Linda bit the point with her front teeth while she lifted the ends of her lips in a smile.
He was thinking, I want to do like that, right now.
Without any sort of reason, nor goal, nor even desire, Banri's body simply moved. Placing his arm behind Linda's back, he forced her back, supporting her with his legs. Leaning over her, he bit the other end of the light stick.
The cheering rose more and more hotly, deafening his ears. The pounding beat grew far away. Linda narrowed her cat-like eyes a bit, as if to see the color of Banri's eyes.
At that moment, at the edge of his vision, he glimpsed a pair of incredibly pretty shoes.
They were high-heeled sandals, of delicate make, but having a gorgeous profile.
It suddenly struck Banri: To wear such shoes, a woman must surely be suited to them. He, too, knew what it was to wear high heels, but he was not the sort to be forever standing on tip-toes while remaining conscious of his own body. He wondered, how in the world could one sacrifice, in pain, to sustain their own body weight on something so high and yet so tiny?
What's more, her ankles were so slender, her calves were tense. Her knees were slim too, and she had truly beautiful feet. A model, or a star? An actress? He wondered: when she walked, were her feet not completely exalted in beauty?
And then, halfway up her thighs, he saw the hem of her skirt. It had the appearance of a summer knit. When he looked beyond, he saw a sleeveless ruffled one-piece dress. At the base of her neck there was a necklace, and she had matching bracelets.
That's a woman with a rather ideal shape, thought Banri, strangely carefree. Her face could not be seen, but though he could not see up to the face, he felt an aura that shouted "There's a beauty here!"
He wondered, had he been born a woman, would he have done up his hair like that, so extravagantly? Would he hold a clutch-bag under his arm like that, expose his slender shoulders like that, and show off his perfect looks to the public like that?
Indeed, truly perfect...
Gum clogging his throat, Banri spat out the glow-stick he'd held in his mouth.
Flipping his body up, he looked at the perfect shape of that person.
Lost in this party, dressed in a brand-name one-piece dress, a perfect beauty with a beautiful face as frightened as could be. A perfect smile. A perfect standing figure.
The woman: the perfected Kaga Kouko.
Taking one step towards Banri, who was still holding the Devil's... no Linda's form, her perfect, beautiful face not moving a single millimeter yet,
She splashed the sake she had in her glass in Banri's face.
His eyes and nose. He threw his head back, coughing as if about to drown, unable to speak yet. How was Kouko here? How? Why?
"You're mistaken, Ko-ko-chan!"
Her voice echoed, as if she were screaming.
"You're mistaken! Look, it's me, Linda! Hayashida Nana!"
Picking herself up and out of Banri's arms, Linda frantically raised her voice.
He realized that Kouko's lips were moving, saying "I know that." And then,
Her open hand flew up and delivered a hard slap to Banri's cheek. And then, for some reason, there was applause from all around. The feverish, surging beat did not stop.
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