“Are you friggin’ serious, Haruki?!”
“You got Setsuna Ogiso to join your band? The Setsuna Ogiso?!”
“How the hell did that happen? I mean, how did you even convince her?”
“You know what this means, right? You can talk to Ogiso-san whenever you want, now!”
“I really respect you, man. The talent it took setting everything up perfectly so you wouldn’t lose out on a chance like this…”
“…Guys, please just let me eat lunch.”
It was lunchtime in class 3-E, and shouts of incredulity resounded through the room, not drowned out in the least by the rest of the clamor around them.
“Like, seriously, this is earth-shattering.”
“You got Ogiso. Miss Houjou High, three years running.”
“No, the voting for this year isn’t finished yet…”
“God, how did you trick her into it?”
“I told you, I… Hey, no, I didn’t trick her into anything. Don’t use confusion as an opportunity to start deriding people.”
The name of this young man, who never let the opportunity for a lecture slip by, even when he was stuck for words otherwise, who was constantly dealing with this kind of clangoring from the other male students around him, was Haruki Kitahara.
Incidentally, that word, “clangoring,” was one that a certain close friend of his came up with to describe his situation, and the improper word usage bothered Haruki a good deal more than what it described.
“Look, I just went out on a limb and asked her, and she agreed, and that’s all there was to it. You think maybe you guys just gave up too early?”
“Oh, no, no way.”
“Dude, do you have any idea how many brave souls have asked her out and been completely sunk?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yeah, me neither.”
“Wait, then why would you…”
“The list of casualties is so long that no one knows. But anyone can tell you how many heroes have survived. Zero.”
“I’m pretty sure the kinds of proposals you all make to her are completely different from the one I made…”
Setting that aside, the name of the “The Setsuna Ogiso” currently dominating their conversation was… Setsuna Ogiso, obviously.
Certain circumstances had led Haruki to exchange words with her for the first time now, in his third year of high school, and it seemed quite possible that they would become more deeply involved…
To sum it up, she was the newest member of the Light Music Club to which Haruki belonged.
An impromptu vocalist, for an impromptu school festival band. The festival was only a month away.
And, as those all around them said, she was a perfect beauty, bearing various flashy titles—Miss Houjou High for two years running, the number-one idol on campus, the conquering queen.
“Anyway, we don’t wanna hear whatever kinda fantasy about Ogiso just smiling and nodding for you. That just wouldn’t happen.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? She agreed to it, no hesitation.”
That was a lie, of course.
Setsuna had nodded to Haruki’s proposal eventually, but the time leading up to it had been teeming with various troubles, twists and turns, and unexpected developments.
But, given just how distant all those details were likely to be from the details his classmates imagined, there wasn’t much point in trying to explain…
Because the Setsuna that Haruki knew was completely different from the Ogiso everybody else knew—a hard worker, sympathetic, prevented by the various ties and obligations jerking her around from living the modest life that she might have preferred.
“Anyway, calm down. It’s not time to get all stoked up yet.”
“Why not? You’ve got Ogiso to sing for you!”
“I mean, you’ve basically already won! It’s gonna be standing room only when you guys are on, no question.”
“Yeah, I guess everything’s good for the vocals, but then there’s also…”
With this last remark, Haruki threw a glance to one side, landing on the form of a girl slumped over onto a desk by the window.
The name of this girl, who slept like a log from the start of class to the end, who was treated by all of her classmates—save for one—as though she simply didn’t exist… was, indeed, Kazusa Touma.
A simply burdensome beauty, who was kept at a distance by absolutely everyone because of the various less-than-flattering titles she bore—weirdo, black sheep, aloof lone wolf.
Even now, in accordance with her reputation, she was snoozing peacefully, evidently unbothered by the clamor around her, uninterested in anything.
…The fact that everyone else believed this so firmly was also thanks to the delinquent-like way in which she always conducted herself.
In actuality, she hadn’t been sleeping at all, this entire time. Rather, she couldn’t sleep.
Because every single time the boys next to her said that name—“Setsuna Ogiso”—it grated against her nerves.
Certain circumstances had led Kazusa, in her third year, et cetera…
That said, it would have been difficult for Kazusa… or for anyone in their same school, really, not to know her name.
Through the window in the other school building, on the way to and from school… Really, if there was a ring of people anywhere, she was usually in the middle of it.
Kazusa could try to look away, but everybody else around was always looking in the same direction, so it was impossible for her own eyes not to be drawn, too.
Her smile that inspired goodwill in anyone who saw it.
Her positive presence, that calmed her surroundings and then made them more brilliant.
And her gentle loveliness, exemplified in her wide, softly sloping eyes.
Anyone in her class year—no, in her same school at all—who failed to have an interest in her… would have to be a pessimistic truant, like Kazusa.
No, that wasn’t true.
—What the hell is her deal?
In fact, right now, Kazusa was stuck in a situation that all but forced her to take an extraordinary interest in Setsuna Ogiso.
She recalled the first few words she’d exchanged with Setsuna a few days before, hardly even enough to consider a conversation.
Setsuna Ogiso… was exactly the idol everybody said she was.
Just as her reputation claimed, and perfectly in line with her image, she dealt with Kazusa and her bandmate with a bright, refreshing attitude, drawn from her charming face, voice, and mannerisms.
The one thing that differed just slightly from her reputation was a certain sense of distance.
Not between her and Kazusa, naturally, but between her and her bandmate…
At that time, Kazusa realized instinctively that she and Setsuna were of types that just didn’t match.
Setsuna was like the sun, a figure of light and purity, different from her in every possible way.
A truly strong hero, who had always been given special treatment, in a good way.
Her honest heart, showing her feelings for whomever she was speaking with right there in her face.
All of it made her the second difficult person Kazusa had had to deal with this year.
Kazusa never took any interest in anyone. She shouldn’t have had any reason to find someone “difficult.” And yet…
“Hey, Touma, where are you going?”
He spoke to her the moment she stood, planning to go and cool off her irritation somewhere, as though he had been watching her the whole time—the one who had been at the heart of all the noise just now, the first difficulty she’d faced this year.
“Lunch break is almost over. Aren’t you going to eat anything?”
“…What, does being the committee chair mean you have to keep an eye on the whole class’s nutrition, too? That’s rough.”
“No, it doesn’t, but you’ll get tired if you don’t take in three proper meals a day.”
“Exactly. I’m tired. Quit talking to me. You’re pissing me off.”
And Kazusa faced him, receiving him with an even colder glare and tone of voice than usual.
There was no doubt that this was an unreasonable attitude to take—very much like her—but, with the state of mind she was in, she had to distract herself somehow.
Because he, himself, was the root of every part of her present rotten mood.
He had brought Setsuna to her, when they were plainly like oil and water.
He had spoken enthusiastically of Setsuna, in weirdly excited tones.
Said that Setsuna had saved the band, saved him.
Said that Setsuna was his only ally.
“…? You look pale. Touma, are you sick, or…”
“…N-No, I’m fine! Back off!”
Shaking off the hand that Haruki had reached out to her in worry, Kazusa rushed out of the room, making her escape.
Her own thoughts were giving her a strange, itchy feeling, and it disgusted her.
She was used to feeling inferior, but the target of that inferiority complex was so completely divergent from the usual one this time.
The moment she made it out into the hallway, shutting the door somewhat forcefully behind her, Kazusa swallowed the sigh that she had nearly just heaved.
Right before her destination, class 3-E, Setsuna caught her breath and froze in place.
They stood ten steps apart, eyes rooted to one another.
Even though each of them was vividly aware that the other one was looking at her, neither of them realized that her own gaze was fixed on the other.
So, each of them, believing that she was acting perfectly casual, slowly—and now, awkwardly—began walking again.
Toward the other.
—She really is good-looking, huh…
Without really meaning to, Setsuna compared herself against Kazusa.
She’d always thought she had about three centimeters left to grow, but the classmate standing before her was easily five centimeters taller than she was.
As for her hair, she’d assumed hers was just about as long as it was going to get, but the sleek black hair fluttering before her was easily ten centimeters longer than hers.
And there was the matter of cup size, too. Setsuna had been hoping to go up just one more, at least, but here…
—I guess she’s what they would call “cute.”
Kazusa found something indescribably unreasonable in Setsuna’s bearing.
Compared with her own overall large physique, Setsuna’s build was exquisitely balanced, as though figured according to the golden ratio.
Compared with her eyes, which had no merit except in frightening people off, Setsuna’s eyes were large and clear, slightly upturned, guaranteed to attract attention.
And more than anything, there was her true appeal, which couldn’t be surmised from her looks alone, as Kazusa had heard any number of times from a certain source…
And so, even with their blunt, blatant mutual stares, they still mutually feigned indifference.
Those ten steps passed by, taking less than ten seconds, though it felt like ten hours.
And for some reason, at the moment that they passed one another, each of them showed a faint sense of defeat in her face.
And, as Kazusa climbed the stairs at the end of the hallway…
As Setsuna placed her hand on the door to class E…
In one brief instant, the two of them disappeared from the hallway.
As each of them turned over her shoulder one last time, the other wasn’t looking at her.
But, in fact, that was just because of a small time lag.
Which of them turned first, which of them was looking at the other at the final moment, was a chicken race that meant one win and one loss for each of them.
However, because there was no referee present to judge the outcome, that meaningless sense of defeat, that unaccountable fatigue, leaned all the more heavily on both of them at once.
Even so, unwilling to let these inexplicable murky feelings hang around forever, they muttered to themselves, almost simultaneously:
Setsuna tightened her small fist.
Kazusa looked out the window, up at the sky.
—I should try talking to her!
—I should avoid letting this involvement get any deeper.
Each of them stashed away a small resolution in her heart.