Chapter 22: Center of the World (9)
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.
The next day and the day after that, Kunieda-san came over to see Ushio. If he were to go see his parents because he had nothing else to do, it would make the situation more complicated, and having him close-by made things easier. His parents would surely notice how different their son had become, and if more people were brought into the situation, it could escalate quickly. Although Kei was on vacation, the accident had occurred while he was working, and there was the likelihood they’d have to report it to the company. Ushio knew that it wasn’t what Kei would want if he could help it. It was less trouble being able to keep an eye on him, but no matter how much Ushio told himself that it was for Kei’s own good, he hated having to hide his real intentions from him like this. Especially with how happy Kunieda-san looked.
Kunieda-san’s daily routine wasn’t very different from Kei’s. He read a lot of newspapers and watched a lot of TV news.
“Don’t you ever think to ignore the news when you’re on vacation?” Ushio asked as they ate dinner together.
“But if I’m unable to follow the stories that we’re working on after I get back from vacation, it would create more trouble for the staff. I find it easier to check on the news every day than to let it pile up.”
They were having stir-fried pork ribs with lettuce, a vinegared eggplant salad, and nyuumen noodles1 topped with a pickled plum. Unbelievably, Kunieda-san had cooked for the two of them. Kei never cooked (at least never when Ushio was around), but he prepared the meal with a precision and skill that Ushio couldn’t help but admire once again how Kei really could do just about anything.
“Doesn’t it get tiring, Kunieda-san?”
“Well, when you’re on TV, you have to be extremely careful about your behavior. So I thought that you might relax more, let loose a little during your personal time, but you don’t seem to behave any different from when you’re in front of the cameras. I guess I was wondering when you’re able to get some rest.”
Kunieda-san took some time to think and answered, “I rest at home.”
“But reading the papers is an extension of your job.”
“That may be true… I suppose it’s my stubbornness that doesn’t allow me to sit still until I’m satisfied that I’ve done all that I can for my work. That is probably why it doesn’t feel like work to me, because over half of it, I do for my own benefit.”
“I understand that.”
Ushio had seen with his own eyes how he would drive himself to the brink and back, and in the face of everything, refused to break or ever back down.
“I suppose you could call this moment right now a place to let loose.”
“I feel very much at ease when I’m here at your house, Tsuzuki-san. It’s somewhere I can let loose, I suppose. But I feel safe, like I can let my guard down, and everything will be all right… I apologize, this is your house and not mine.”
“No,” Ushio said, shaking his head, “I’m happy to hear it. Very happy.”
It was only a few seconds, but it felt like time had stopped as they looked into each other’s eyes. They both suddenly snapped out of it and hurried to keep eating.
“Is there too much vinegar in the eggplant?”
“No, it’s perfect.”
The conversation felt forced and unnatural, and so Ushio decided to stir up the stiff atmosphere between them.
“Kunieda-san, do you love your job?”
Ushio casually threw out those particular words thinking that it might stimulate his memory. It was what he had been worrying about before he hit his head, so maybe it was still there inside him.
“It’s not easy, but it’s a job worth doing.”
It was an answer that contained only Kunieda-san.
When they stood at the sink to wash the dishes together (also something Kei would never do), Kunieda-san whispered softly, “Am I really not in your way here?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I essentially spent my entire day at your house today, imposing on your hospitality. I wondered if I was being rude to the person whom you’re dating, Tsuzuki-san.”
“Huh, did I ever tell you that I was dating someone?”
“You didn’t, but…” His hand stopped in the middle of drying the dishes. “I imagined that you would have someone who thought that this place was as easy and comfortable to be in as I thought it was.”
Dammit, this was frustrating. Kei was definitely somewhere inside of him, but Ushio didn’t know how to call out to him to get him to respond. He didn’t know if his voice even reached him. Ushio wanted to shout, Give him back to me, but the one standing here next to him was also Kei, and he hadn’t done anything wrong. Ushio could never tell him, You’re not Kei, you’re not the one.
“There’s no one.”
“There’s no one I’m dating, so you don’t have to worry and just do as you like.”
“Is that really true? But I’m sure you’re very popular, Tsuzuki-san.”
He looked like he doubted Ushio’s words, but his eyes twinkled so brightly, it was as if he couldn’t suppress his happiness. Ushio felt that things were getting more complicated by the minute. But maybe it was better than having him fall in love with someone else? Ushio hadn’t believed a word of Tatsuki’s optimism when he said that Kunieda-san was essentially the same person, that he’d fall in love with Ushio again, but hearing him express his thoughts so frankly, Ushio couldn’t just ignore this possibility. What was he supposed to do? Ushio didn’t have the confidence that he could remain firm; the words had honestly made him feel happy and he didn’t know what to do.
“I’m sure you’re very popular yourself.”
“Hmmm, no, not really. I’m actually quite boring.”
“No, you’re really funny.”
Ushio had accidentally answered without thinking.
“You might not remember, but you’re super funny and interesting, Kunieda-san.”
“Umm… uh… umm…” It seemed as if Kunieda-san had detected something in Ushio’s voice and he timidly asked, “Umm, is that supposed to be a compliment?”
“Why did you pause for such a long time?”
“You just imagined it.”
“Huh…?” Kunieda-san stared suspiciously at Ushio for a while and suddenly burst into laughter.
“What’s that for?”
“I’m very sorry, but you looked so serious just now that it was very funny. I was also a little relieved.”
“Tsuzuki-san, you haven’t spoken much about what I was like before. I tried not to ask about it in case you wanted me to try to remember it on my own, but it made me very happy to hear about myself just now.”
Their arms brushed against each other as they stood side by side in the kitchen. Ushio was glad that they weren’t standing facing each other.
“I promise to remember everything,” he whispered. “I’ll do my best to remember everything as soon as I can… So please wait for me.”
If he was standing in front of him, Ushio would have probably reached out to wrap him in his arms.
It was Saturday night. Kunieda-san’s short summer vacation was nearly over, and Ushio had to start taking desperate measures. Because it was Kei, Ushio had watched over him wishfully thinking that he’d get his memory back with work looming on the horizon, but their time limit was fast approaching. If his memory loss continued even after he went back to work, Ushio would have to prepare himself to tell Kei’s parents and ask for their support on the matter.
“The rain doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon,” Kunieda-san said softly as he sat on the bed with his arms around his knees.
Ushio was at the dining table with his laptop doing some work.
It had been sunny during the day, but the downpour was so heavy that it struck and rattled the windows. Ushio had persuaded Kunieda-san to stay until there was a break in the rain—it didn’t seem like an umbrella would even help, but he didn’t think that it would continue to rain so hard for so long. Ushio didn’t mind having Kunieda-san spend the night, but he really wanted to go over to his apartment. There was something there that he wanted to try. If he were to take Tatsuki’s words seriously, there was only one item that came to mind that was particularly special for the two of them.
Just as Ushio thought, I have to go and show it to him, Kunieda-san started to speak.
“Oh, I just remembered. Before I came over, I was getting my things ready in my work bag… There was my accent dictionary.”
“I flipped through it and saw the drawings on the corners of the pages… And I wondered if you were the one who drew them. If they were drawings of me.”
Ushio couldn’t believe that Kunieda-san brought the topic up himself.
“You really are incredibly talented. I’m sure it must have taken a long time to draw. But then I transformed in the middle of the drawings. Was there a time when I had such an unkempt appearance?”
Kunieda-san smiled bashfully, embarrassed at himself, but to Ushio, it appeared to be a message that flashed, Too bad, didn’t work. It had been such a precious item for the two of them. It was a message, a shout-out, a love letter that said, I know who you are. And Kei had accepted it.
When Ushio jokingly said to put it in his coffin when he died, Kei had gotten so angry. It happened not so long ago, and yet how could he smile like nothing had happened, like it never existed in the first place?
If I can’t bring you home with that, then I don’t know what else I can do, Kei.
Kunieda-san saw that Ushio had fallen silent and watched him with a worried expression. “……Tsuzuki-san?”
Ushio didn’t know what he should do anymore. Finally his frustration and desperation came to a head.
“It wasn’t me,” he said.
“I didn’t draw it. It wasn’t me.”
The moment the words left his mouth, Ushio hated himself for saying it. He only ever wanted to treat him gently. He never wanted him to ever feel the need to cover his ears. But that was what Ushio had wanted for Kei, not Kunieda-san…but Kunieda-san was also Kei.
The more Ushio saw the face that looked exactly like his, the more lonely he felt and the more he wanted to see Kei. Why couldn’t he see him? Ushio could no longer suppress the feelings that stormed out of him almost like anger.
Kunieda-san’s face twisted in anguish. It hurt Ushio’s heart to see him like this, but Ushio could only open his mouth to say accusingly, “How would you know?”
He hadn’t realized that the fireworks were his.
“You don’t remember a thing.”
“I might not remember, but I know. There are things that even I can understand. Even that other time…” Kunieda-san wore an expression that was rarely seen on his face, a face of determination different from the gentle smiles that he normally wore. “…You said that you weren’t dating anyone. But that was a lie too, wasn’t it? You have someone you love.”
“What are you saying?”
“Tsuzuki-san, you’re always so gentle and nice towards me, but it’s always felt a little distant. Sometimes it feels like I can see that you have the same kind of haziness inside your head as mine… I came here because I was so lonely being by myself, but somehow after coming here, I feel even lonelier.”
Ushio couldn’t find any words for a response, and in the silence between them, the sound of the rain was like a cage. There was no door, no lock; no one could get out and no one could come in.
“Tsuzuki-san,” Kunieda-san said, “could you please come closer? Just for a moment please.”
Ushio had no means to refuse him. He sat down on the bed, and the creaking of the mattress rubbed on his conscience.
“Tsuzuki-san, you can laugh at me and tell me that I’m imagining things, but from the moment when I woke up and saw you, I thought that I wanted to be with you. I don’t know what our relationship was like before, and maybe you only consider me to be a friend, but I can say with all of my conviction—I’m sure I had only forgotten about you because you had occupied such a substantial proportion within my head.”
Kunieda-san had turned bright red as he spoke, stammering in a low whisper, that it almost seemed unbelievable that he was an announcer. He took a deep breath and exhaled before continuing, as if he had to let some of the heat in his body escape.
“It surprised myself that I could have such feelings towards a man. I thought about it over and over again, wondering if it was possibly a mistake. But Tsuzuki-san, I’m sure that I—even before I had lost my memory—that I lo—”
“Stop.” Ushio panicked as he pressed his finger against Kunieda-san’s lips.
He couldn’t let him say any more than this. Simply because his reason was failing him at this moment. Kunieda-san had unleashed line after line of devastation that would never leave Kei’s lips—it was an onslaught of arrows aimed directly at him, and Ushio was a defenseless target unable to resist. They went straight for his heart, piercing him one after the other. Tatsuki’s advice, Just hit the sheets and see what happens, was like a knife that sawed away at the threads of his restraint.
Let me hit my head and fall unconscious too please.
“Don’t say any more.”
“You won’t even let me say it?” His gaze, almost as if drenched with rain, was straight and unwavering as he stared directly at Ushio.
“Because I have someone I’m in love with. I’m sorry. You were right, Kunieda-san. I lied.”
“What kind of person are they?”
“I’m not sure I can describe them in a single sentence… Sorry, I’m not trying to dodge the question, I’m being serious.”
“Where are they now and what do they do?”
It was surprising to see Kunieda-san being so assertive in his questioning. Kei had far too much pride and was too much of a coward to ever attempt this. It hurt Ushio’s heart to see how similar they were, but it hurt just as much to see how different they were. And yet, it attracted Ushio to him all the same—that earnestness in those eyes that stared directly into his own, refusing to let his gaze pull away.
“…They’re away on a trip, I suppose.”
“When will they be back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll be happy with an arrangement until they return. I won’t get in your way.”
It was a warning for himself. He couldn’t feel for this person. He absolutely couldn’t feel for him— But then again, it sounded like he was only pretending that he hadn’t already done so.
“Do you hate me?”
“No, that’s not it.”
“If you don’t want this, then I’ll leave right now. I’ll never come here again.”
“You idiot.” Ushio pushed Kunieda-san up against the wall with both of his arms enclosing them in. His heart pounded so loudly that it almost hurt and he couldn’t hear the sound of the rain anymore. He was sure that it was the same for Kunieda-san. It was like his hands were glued to the wall, and he thought to himself, I’m at my limit here. Even though their impressions were different, he looked exactly like Kei on the outside, and no matter how Ushio tried to tell himself that they were different, he couldn’t take anymore.
Ushio took two, three deep breaths.
“…Why don’t you jump for me?”
“Huh?” Blanketed under Ushio’s shadow, Kunieda-san widened his eyes. “Jump…? Um, what do you mean?”
“It didn’t work…”
Their positions were reversed, but in this familiar situation, Ushio had recalled the words something memorably kinky. In the end, it only caused him embarrassment, and he had obviously hurt Kunieda-san in the process.
“So you were toying with me.”
“No, I wasn’t trying to—”
That was when an alarm went off, and Ushio could finally free his hands from the wall.
“I’m sorry, it’s mine that’s ringing.” Kunieda-san took out his cell phone self-consciously.
“You set an alarm for this late?”
“It appears that I had it set as a reminder… for Cinenight?”
“Oh, so that’s tonight.”
Kei had probably set the reminder beforehand so he could check how he did when it aired. It felt like it was a perfectly timed warning that screamed What the hell are you doing? and Ushio could finally cool his head.
“Let’s watch it.”
Ushio turned on the TV, and Kei appeared on the screen.
“Good evening. It’s time for Cinenight, where we bring you our best movie recommendations over the weekend. Recently, I had the opportunity to read a shoujo manga for the very first time. It had felt a little embarrassing at the beginning, but then I was drawn deeper and deeper into the story. It was truly riveting. Tonight, I would like to introduce to you the film based on that manga, called Caramel Days. I have the two leads from the film in-studio to talk about the behind-the-scenes stories that—”
With the movie posters as the backdrop, the interview was underway. Kunieda-san appeared to be watching it with his breath closed.
“Do you remember this?”
“Yes, now that you ask, it does sound familiar… but I don’t know what the words that come next are. It’s like I’m re-reading a mystery that I had only read once before a long, long time ago.”
Kei skillfully guided the conversation between the actors, listening to their stories and allowing them to speak. Ushio could clearly see the leads gradually relaxing and warming up to the interview. He was once again impressed at how good Kei was at his job. He wondered why Kei had panicked so much when he was so good.
“Caramel Days will be opening in theaters next month. We welcome all our viewers to please go see it!”
Kei wrapped up the interview, and the screen suddenly went black. Outlined white text popped up on the screen with accompanying sound effects: Announcer Kunieda’s Wall Slam Challenge! The screen cut to Kunieda-san facing the camera as he sat by himself in his chair.
“May I please have a moment to gather my nerves?”
There was the sound of laughter coming from the background of the set.
“All right, I’m ready.”
Kei stood up like he had made up his mind and approached the camera. Would it be the interchange line? The pudding line? Or something totally new? Ushio watched on like it was Kei’s final act on stage as Kei came up to the lens and propped his arm up outside of the frame.
He lowered his head and slowly raised it back up to look into the camera.
“When I’m with you, sometimes you spoil me so much that I become useless. But without you around, I can’t even become useless, let alone anything else.”
Dammit, he got me, Ushio thought to himself. He utterly decimated me. It’s not fair to use the public airwaves for this kind of thing.
Kunieda-san had been immersed in the TV screen, and he finally turned to face Ushio. Ushio saw a light in his eyes that was different from before. It steadily grew stronger, changing even the air that surrounded Kunieda-san.
Kunieda-san opened his mouth to speak. “…How many points?”
“How many points was that?”
“20,000 points,” Ushio answered. “20,000 points out of 10 points.”
“I know, right?”
It was Kei through and through, looking proud of himself as he stuck his chin in the air.
—–Translated by daydrop. Please read on the original site at daydrop.nowaki.net.