“The sun really does set early around this time of year, huh…”
“…Why are you bringing this up now?
The shortest day of the year in Tokyo was a month ago.”
“Oh, well, aren’t you smart. In that case,
that means the sunset should be moving later and later now, right?
…And yet, look how dark it already is.”
“…Quit sniping at me.”
“Huh? Did it sound like I was criticizing you?
Of course, I can’t say that waking up after three in the afternoon
is the sort of thing a responsible adult would do…”
It was the 31st of December, New Year’s Eve.
It was the last commemorative day of the year,
and yet we had already lost eight of the hours left to us.
Kazusa had made a lot of big talk about “early in the morning,”
but by the time she woke up, the sun was already heading west.
“I mean, you really seem to have fully enjoyed playing the baby.”
“I told you, shut up!”
When I woke up, around the usual time,
Kazusa and Youko-san were in the living room,
fast asleep in each other’s arms.
Unable to bring myself to disrupt this charming scene,
I ordered breakfast at a nearby café
and waited for them to wake up.
…Of course, I hadn’t imagined
that I would end up having to order lunch, too.
“A lot happened.
Try to sympathize a little.”
“Like I said, I’m not blaming you.”
“It sure doesn’t seem that way, from your attitude.”
“Oh, that’s… just how I am by default.”
It was true—I wasn’t blaming her.
I was just envious.
I want you and your mother to keep getting along like this.”
I wanted Youko-san to keep up her stubborn will to survive.
And I wanted Kazusa to keep loving her.
“That’s… kind of a random thing to say.”
“Ahaha… I guess so.”
And well, a part of me was hoping…
that the two of them could share a bit of that deep, familial sentiment with me,
even if it was just a small percentage.
That was my wish, as someone who had newly joined the family.
“Now, where are we going next?
Should we get ourselves some soba, watch the Red and White singing context,
listen to the New Year’s bell, and go visit the shrine?”
“That is certainly a tempting suggestion,
but, before that, I’d just like you to come with me for a bit.”
“But, you said…”
There was a place
that we absolutely had to visit before the day was over.
“I knew it…”
The place we attended for three years.”
The attached school at Houjou University.
“Well, I technically only spent two and a half years here, I guess, but…”
“You delinquent, you.”
“Oh, god, I just thought about about that pushy committee chair who was in our class
and now I’m pissed off.
I’m gonna vent it by kicking you. Hold still.”
This place was our holy ground—the place we had both been thinking of since we arrived,
but hadn’t been able to set foot in until now.
The place where we first met…
“There’s no one around here, though, huh.”
“Well, it’s New Year’s Eve.”
Even though it was a holiday, the main gates of the university campus,
and those of the school that shared its grounds, were open.
But there was not a soul to be seen,
and the school buildings stood desolate
by the light of the setting sun.
“Let’s get going, Kazusa.”
“What, we’re leaving already?”
“What are you talking about? We’ve come all this way to see our alma mater, right?”
Kazusa sounded uncertain,
as though she were feeling hesitant about my decision to set foot inside.
“Come on, why don’t we drop in, just for a bit?”
“No, wait. That’s trespassing.”
“It’s fine, there’s nobody here.
Don’t tell me a delinquent like you is spooked by something this minor?”
You’re the committee chair!
Why are you being so lackadaisical about this?!”
But, in the end, whether it was about her pride as a delinquent,
or about rebelling against the committee chair,
she made up her mind and strode on ahead of me…
Into the attached school.
“Wow, really? 3-E, of all places?”
“Better than 1-H.”
The shoe cupboard was unlocked,
and there was no resistance or restraint
preventing us from walking right into the building.
…Maybe there was a part of us
that felt like we were being careless,
but today was special.
“This place really hasn’t changed, huh.”
As Kazusa had just muttered before,
the plate above the classroom read “3-E.”
“This is where I sat,
and this was your seat…”
“Yeah, that’s right…
The view out of the window here is familiar.”
And, if my recollections were correct, this was unquestionably
the same 3-E as it was when we were enrolled.
“I wonder whether there’s any graffiti left over?
Musical scores, gripes about the teacher…”
“There’s probably still something that says, “Kitahara is a dumbass.””
“…Seriously? You wrote something like that?”
There, in the dusky classroom, with nobody else except us,
our faint memories, long forgotten and sealed away,
were exposed in a white light, brighter than that of the sunset.
“Oh, yeah, countless times.
Back then, you annoyed the hell out of me,
and I hated you more than anything in the world.”
“I… I actually liked you a lot, back then.”
“I know that.
You’re the kind of superficial jackass who falls in love with a girl by face alone.”
“Well, yeah. That’s why…
I liked watching you while you dozed off by the window.”
“That’s rich. You always woke me up.”
“I guess I did.
Because if I woke you up, that meant I got to see your face.
…There was no greater reward than that.”
“…Ugh. You’re so annoying and creepy that I can’t even stand listening to you.
You’ve turned into such an embarrassment.”
As she said all of these ruthless things,
Kazusa steadily closed the distance between us,
and knocked her forehead against my chest.
“Well, maybe that’s because I’m living with someone
who constantly makes me say embarrassing things.”
“Still creepy. Knock it off.”
Normally, these conversations of ours led to at least one of us laughing really hard,
and we lost track of whatever we were talking about.
But the quiet, reddening, chilly, dim, melancholy twilight
froze us as we were
with our sour, shameful memories.
“This place hasn’t changed, either.”
For some reason, the attached school at Houjou University
had three music classrooms.
One of them, Music Room #1, was used by general education students.
In the newer school building, on the opposite side,
was the enormous Music Room #3, for the exclusive use of the music department.
That left Music Room #2.
It was a private practice room,
only available to top-tier music students.
until a few years ago, it had been used exclusively by a certain delinquent girl.
This was our last destination for the day…
No, our final destination in Japan.
“Whoa, it’s chilly…”
When I opened the window, a slightly strong wind
blew into the classroom and lowered the temperature.
It’s New Year’s Eve.”
“Yeah, it’s cold.
Colder than the day of the school festival.”
I leaned out of the window,
peering into the classroom directly to the right.
Naturally, the window was shut tightly,
and there was no guitar music floating out from within it.
“N-ngh… Cough, cough…
“Hey, you’re gonna catch a cold.
Why don’t you close the window already?”
“N-no, this isn’t a cold…”
“What the hell is it, then?”
It was nerves, nothing more.
“What is the matter with you right now?”
Even I was aware that my behavior was strange.
We had finally come all this way,
but my plan was starting to lose its shape.
“U-um… What’s that over there?”
“Seriously, what the hell?”
“…I want to… listen to you play the piano.”
“…Here, you mean?”
Although, well, what was there to be done about that?
There was a correct order for things like this.
As usual, she grumbled and complained,
about things like how I heard her play all the time,
or how her fingers wouldn’t be able to move in cold weather like this…
But, also as usual,
in the end, she said, “Okay, but just this once,”
and quietly began to play.
The piano that I had heard the whole three years that I attended this school.
That blessed and cursed piano,
that kept Kazusa company throughout those three years,
but also distanced her from her friends.
“When did you figure out
that I was the one playing guitar next door?”
“I don’t remember anything that far back.”
The piano that, eight years ago, guided my clumsy guitar playing,
guided our amateur band,
guided us to success in the school festival concert.
And, that night, after the show was finished…
the piano that rang out even as Kazusa and I had that slight brush with one another,
and when we had our disagreements.
“Were you playing along because it was me playing the guitar?
Or did you poke your nose in with other people, as well?”
“I told you, I don’t remember.
And I don’t really care.
When I realized has nothing to do with anything.”
“Nothing to do with it, huh?”
Kazusa still regretted the betrayal from three years ago.
…But, when it came to our disagreement eight years ago,
she didn’t show any sign of regret.
She accepted all consequences that were reaching her now,
both the pains and joys,
with an easy smile.
Which was exactly why I…
I’m playing for you like you asked,
so quit interrupting me…”
“Why don’t we…
start again, from here?”
I never wanted to let go of that smile again.
On top of the piano…
there was a small box, set right in front of Kazusa.
“And why don’t we keep on with it, forever?”
That gently sparkling, silver light.
What are you doing, seriously?”
that Kazusa’s left ring finger still lacked.
The truth is, I’ve been going behind your back a little bit.
…I was in league with Youko-san.”
“Then, you mean…”
“This is our ceremonial hall.
Today is that day.”
In Music Room #2…?”
That is where the reception for the Kitahara and Touma families will take place.”
“On New Year’s Eve, in a school…
It must have been hard to get permission.”
“Well, it’s give-and-take with Houjou University,
so, what with this and that, we made it work.”
“Well, because that room
is a special place for her.
…For better or worse.”
“No, that’s not what I meant…
Why on New Year’s Eve?”
Maybe it’s my own way of getting revenge?”
“Revenge? What do you…”
“It’s so that I can recreate my strategy from that day, just one more time.
…Maybe it’s just about my pride.”
In the end, Youko-san never did explain to me
what that “pride” was…
“You two are terrible…”
Nevertheless, in this ceremony, in this place, at this time,
Youko-san’s love, tenacity,
and desire for mischief were perfectly mixed together.
“Did you imagine I would be moved, having this happen here?
Did you think I would cry?”
“What, you aren’t going to cry?”
“Why would I cry, stupid?!
I’m the one who said in the first place
that I didn’t care about having a ceremony!”
“Is that what you said…?”
I seemed to recall that what I heard when we were in bed
had just a little more nuance than that.
“Trying to make a tearjerker out of some clever little surprise…
What, were you going to take footage of me crying
and laugh about it later?”
“No, that’s not what I…”
“Look, I’m not going to cry for you right now, and that’s that!
I’ll listen to your vows, and nod my head like I’m bored of it all,
and say, “All right, all right,” and that’s it!”
“It’s fine. I don’t really care whether you cry.”
That said, was she really going to try to respond to my vows
while remaining this riled up?
“This is a matter of self-satisfaction for me and Youko-san.
All I need is for you to go along with it, even grudgingly.”
At any rate, I had secured Kazusa’s agreement.
So, I took my phone out of my pocket,
and pressed the “send” button.
“Who did you just text?”
“It was a group message, to my bride’s relatives and friends.”
They had been waiting outside since a short while before.
…Bearing clothing for the bride.
“…Um, excuse me.
Is she still not…?”
“Ah, I’m sorry, Kitahara-san.
Actually, she finished changing a while ago.”
Kudos-san’s voice, coming from Music Room #1 next door,
sounded slightly troubled.
Since Kazusa had been dragged out to get changed,
an hour had crept by.
is making a fuss in the hallway…”
“Of course she is…”
“Will you please just get over yourself and do it?
I know you want him to see this, more than anything.”
“L-like hell I do!
That’s the last thing I want! I’m not doing it!”
“Why are you being so vehemently bashful about this?
How old are you, exactly?
You’re embarrassing your mother.”
“But, but… Mooom…!”
“Argh, I’ve had enough of this!
Hurry up and go!”
“I hate all of you…”
I knew that, seeing Kazusa looking like this,
I could probably be knocked out cold with one blow.
I’m not… good with…”
I knew that I would find myself at a loss for words.
“…When we started talking about having a ceremony,
you must have predicted to some extent that this would happen.”
N-not… not like…”
But, well, how do I put this…
I was the sort whose mouth would keep moving, even when I was completely awestruck.
Or maybe, because my partner was even more shaken up than I was,
I felt a sense of obligation to keep talking.
“You’re beautiful, Kazusa.”
“Don’t say that!”
…Really, I wanted to yell “Holy shit, you’re gorgeous!” at the top of my lungs.
I wanted to fling my arms around Kazusa, standing there all in white.
But Kazusa still wasn’t ready.
“B-because, I… I…!”
Even though we had been living together for three years…
Even though we had entered the family register long ago…
It seemed that, somehow, this ceremony, with her playing the part of the bride,
had never crossed her mind as a possibility.
“I wanted to be your wife,
but that didn’t necessarily mean I wanted to be your bride…”
You can be my bride.”
Was there still some sense of guilt lingering in her…?
Up until now, apart from her on-stage outfits,
Kazusa was never the sort to get dressed up.
Well, her own fundamental laziness
may have had something to do with that.
“You really are beautiful…
It looks ridiculously good on you.”
“Oh? Are you sure you want to cry?
You know Youko-san will get a big thrill out of capturing that on video.”
Shut up, shut up…!”
“Looks like our little surprise was a big success…”
The two of us…
If, you know, we had done something like this back then,
I’m sure there wouldn’t… have been that sort of regret.
We definitely wouldn’t deny the two of us, standing here now.
But that was exactly why
we were affirming ourselves now.
In this place that we had enjoyed the most,
and the place that had caused us the most pain,
we were starting again.
And so, belated as it was…
Today, we began our wedding ceremony.
I swear I’ll stay with you forever.”
“I’ve told you the same thing a million times already.”
“I guess so…”
“…Well, I suppose a million times
isn’t really all that many.”
“Ah! Now, just a minute!
You said you would do that with me as your witness!”
“…Everything is ready, they said.”
“Should we get going, then?”