After slipping slowly out of the station, the train began rocking very slightly back and forth as it entered the rural branch line. The PA system, which had been more or less audible, was drowned out by the clamor that arose as the train crossed the seam between the two rails.
But, even with all of this happening around her, her pretty form stayed just as it was, her elbow braced on the right-side window frame, face propped up in her hand, staring at the scenery outside.
And, gazing at her profile and at the view through the window in turn, Haruki took out his camera, suddenly seized with the impulse to capture what he saw…
It was now the second year since Setsuna Ogiso had taken “Kitahara” as her surname, and a few months had passed since the two of them moved. Today was a Saturday, midway through March.
Having somehow shaken free of the burden that most working adults dreaded to hear of—the end of the fiscal year—Setsuna and Haruki had taken a short trip, just a one-night stay, to a hot spring inn in the northern Kanto region.
With Spring Break having begun, the high school students that normally came part-and-parcel with local lines like this one were scant, and on this train, here in the early afternoon, there were few people to be seen. As a result, Setsuna and Haruki were the only two occupants of the face-to-face four-seater where they sat.
“Hey, Haruki-kun, do you think that’s a castle?”
Sharp-eyed Setsuna, evidently having spotted something, pointed out the window at the mountains, which were still in their winter garb. Following her fingertip, he spotted the white walls of a castle towering quietly above one of the less-lofty mountains.
“That’s probably… XX Castle. According to the map, it should be right around here.”
As he flipped through the open guidebook on his knee to check, Haruki nodded. Between the two of them, he was naturally the one who always took on more prosaic duties like this.
“Ah, okay. I think that was the one I mentioned wanting to see…”
“Yeah. Sorry I fell back asleep…”
“It’s understandable. You got home even later than usual last night.”
Yes, amid the extreme business of this time of the year, the two of them had somehow managed to line up their schedules, get lodging and train tickets, and escape the clutches of vacation days spent at work. That much had gone fine…
Then, Haruki, who even on Saturdays always woke up on time, actually dozed back off for once, and with Setsuna’s natural low blood pressure also exhibiting itself, they both overslept by a mile and missed the limited express train they had been planning to take—at the time that it was supposed to depart, they had barely left the house, and now they were stuck with taking the slow train to their inn.
“But I know you were looking forward to it. We knew that if we let this opportunity slip, we wouldn’t be able to take any trips at all for a while…”
Haruki shook his head, throwing a glance at Setsuna’s stomach. She wasn’t showing much yet.
Ever since the day they moved at the end of last year, when Setsuna had given him the big news, all of their days off had been a chaos of various preparations and processes, and last month things had finally started to calm down.
As Haruki had said, the approaching birth of their child was going to make travel more difficult with each passing month, which was precisely why they had planned to make use of this particular off-season.
At this point, they probably wouldn’t reach the inn until evening, and as soon as they’d had a moment to catch their breath it would be time for dinner. Their itinerary was to return home on the early side, taking Monday into consideration, so there wasn’t a lot of time for simply looking around… In other words, this weekend would be a simple jaunt to and from a hot spring.
“Don’t worry about it, I mean it. All I really need is to have a nice long soak in the spring.”
She smiled, trying to lighten the load Haruki was feeling by a bit, but there was no bringing back the plans and time they’d lost. Even if Haruki paid for the waste of their specially reserved limited express tickets himself.
While Haruki was all but tearing at his hair over his uncharacteristic blunder, Setsuna had leaned her shoulder against him, and was looking up at him.
With the spontaneous narrowing of the distance between them, the pleasant smell of Setsuna’s hair tickled his nose.
“We’re on vacation, okay? Don’t let this weigh you down so much. If you don’t loosen up and let yourself relax at a time like this, then what good is it?”
As she spoke sweetly to him, her head tilted to the side, Haruki gazed at her face for a while—then, he nodded a couple of times, convinced.
“Yeah… Yeah, you’re right.”
All that time ago, just a little before Setsuna changed her name…
With a firm vow, he had tried to bind himself and her—to give both of them ease. And his guilty conscience from being unable to hold to that vow threatened to set him down a bad path. Even then, she had accepted him, and supported him…
And so, after everything had been resolved, they had determined that they would try to live more peacefully, comfortably, and stop dragging around everything that had happened between them, beholden to it…
Now, looking past Setsuna’s words and face and thinking back upon that new rule of theirs, their new promise, Haruki nodded a third time, and revised his own expression.
They had worked hard to carve out this time—this moment, for the two of them—so he had no reason to keep letting things bog him down.
Setsuna nodded as well, with a grin at his change of attitude.
As they were speaking, the train had approached an unmanned station in the middle of the woods, and now pulled up and stopped alongside the small, gravel-covered platform with a shrill shriek from the brakes.
In contrast with the cacophony of moments before, the train now fell instantly into silence, and the two of them held their breath—then, a young couple, hand in hand, clearly high school students from their uniforms, opened the door and lit on the platform.
Their intimacy could be read even through the window, and Haruki couldn’t help following them with his eyes. Evidently unconcerned about any onlookers, the two of them stood on the spot and each wrapped one end of a shared scarf around their necks, before descending the platform stairs together, still hand in hand.
Watching them go, even Haruki, self-avowed contrarian, allowed his lips to loosen just a little… no, he felt himself beaming at how charming it was.
He knew that he himself wasn’t… old, exactly, but he did feel that he was no longer young enough to do that sort of thing.
At his side, just like him, Setsuna had watched them leave, had gazed at them through the window, and she muttered to herself.
While the train started off again, with a single large clunk, she once again propped up her elbow on the window frame with her face in her hand, her bearing suggesting something deeper.
“I wish I’d had something like that in school.”
Her face was calm, with one of her characteristic smiles, but when it came to her left hand, gripping his right, she was slowly wrapping one finger at a time around his, almost peevishly—just like when it was the two of them.
This seeming contradiction between what was happening above and below her neck made it difficult to judge immediately how much of what she was saying was true, and Haruki just stared at her face.
And, whether or not she knew what was happening internally with him, she spoke again, an impish smile coming to her lips.
“If only a certain class representative had chatted me up sooner, hm?”
“No, I get it…”
Unable to find any clever way of responding to that argument, Haruki gave a comparatively strained smile of his own. If anything, it belonged to the “unreasonable” family of statements; however, at this point, even Haruki had gained enough experience to understand that pointing such a thing out to a woman would serve no purpose whatsoever.
“If I had, though, as you were back then, I don’t think you would have taken any notice of me.”
“Really? You think?”
It probably wasn’t entirely on purpose, but the response that came to him was in the “conventional” category. An all-too-common guy like him, who had no merits beyond the academic, trying to speak to the girl who stood upon the highest peak.
“Probably. I mean, you were the idol of the school. Everyone knew you. Before I started playing the guitar, I had no point of contact with you, and nobody looking at the two of us would have thought we were likely to mesh.”
To be perfectly honest, that thought still hadn’t been completely swept out of Haruki’s head.
But it was long past the time for that kind of whining and cringing. It had been several years ago, in fact.
“Huh… Hee hee, maybe.”
With a surprising lack of further retort, she smiled slightly, covering her mouth with her hand.
That suppressed chuckle reminded him vividly of the old image of Setsuna Ogiso—the one before their new bond had formed, the one he bore on his own, the perfect young lady, the princess, and he felt his heartbeat quickening in spite of himself.
“But that’s not the case now, all right? Not at all.”
“Yeah… Thank you.”
Her lovely left hand gently wrapped around his right, as if to say, “I mean it.”
And Haruki smiled back at her, nodding firmly, with nothing perfunctory about it.
So many unexpected twists and turns had brought them to this point, even if their tie wasn’t the most inscrutable… But that was exactly why they treasured each other so much now.
Of course, in a similar vein to Setsuna’s joke of a few moments earlier, there were times when he thought, ‘What if we’d done this back then?’ But this moment, here and now, was the most important.
Not that he could voice all of this aloud—mainly because of just how much rust there was—but supposing Setsuna could feel it, to the same extent that he was thinking it to himself, there would be no greater happiness to him.
The train approached a long tunnel, which then consumed the view of the outside, and Setsuna’s profile was reflected in the window glass.
And, naturally, spontaneously, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, Haruki’s gaze turned to her.
Haruki squeezed her left hand more tightly, certain that he would never allow the smile on her face to wither.