Chapter 1: The Song, One Year Later
“S-Sorry, I’m in a hurry right now.”
“C’mon, don’t say that. Just think it over, okay, Ogiso-chan?”
The fourth-block lecture had just ended, and the classroom was filled with the noise of the students who had finally been freed of their business for the day.
Amid the atmosphere of relief, Setsuna had pushed through the crowd of people in an attempt to leave the classroom quickly, but now she was stuck, unable to escape the male student who had stopped her.
“But there’s only a week left until the festival…”
“Like I said, just one song! You’d only have to rehearse, like, what, two or three times for that?”
“I’m not capable enough to get ready in that short of a time.”
She responded with the same smile she always gave when a guy got pushy with her—head tilted, slightly troubled, and yet putting off a certain glamorous air.
…Really, she was frantically impatient, having caught sight of him heading out of the classroom immediately, but she didn’t show one shred of that.
“It’s fine. If you’ll pick the song, then we can put it together.”
“No, I don’t want to make anyone have to deal with that. I’m sorry…”
And, once more, she took a pose of humbly declining, smiling meekly while lightly shaking both hands.
It was approaching half a year since she had entered college, but Setsuna had almost never let this expression drop.
Which was proof that the stream of guys who came after her at all times, in all sorts of places, for countless reasons, had yet to cease; but, additionally, it was proof that she had gone the past half a year without ever showing what she was actually like.
“Hey, what about ‘White Album,’ like you did at the festival last year?”
But, right after this was said…
Setsuna’s voice cracked, and it was as though a split had formed in her usual friendly, modest manner.
“Or ‘Sound of Destiny’ would be fine, too. We could play either of those.”
“I saw that show, actually. I skipped out on our booth here and walked over to the high school.”
“O-Oh, I see…”
The fissure was spreading to her vague smile as well, not just her voice, but the guy talking to her, engrossed as he was in trying to win her over, didn’t notice.
“…Though, personally, I’d want you to sing that song.”
“Yeah, the last one you did. The original one…”
Which is why, at that moment, he similarly failed to notice that her entire mask had split in two and clattered to the ground…
“All right, all right, that’s enough.”
“Acting that friendly with a girl you don’t even know is just gonna make her hate you, senpai.”
“I’m not interested in hearing that from you, Iizuka!”
“Yep, yep, I know how you feel. I was just thinking the same thing.”
“…I’m not interested in hearing that from you, Io.”
But, in that instant, a pair who knew her very well stepped in to intervene, so that, in the end, he never noticed the complete change that had come over her.
“Takeya-kun, Io, I’m sorry you keep having to do this for me…”
A few minutes later, at a table in a café near the Politics and Economics department, the very first thing Setsuna did was thank her two friends for stopping the guy—and Setsuna herself—from doing anything rash.
“God, though, your popularity hasn’t gone down at all. I mean, not that I envy you. What a drag…”
As she let her iced coffee slip easily down her throat, Io Mizusawa let Setsuna’s apology slip easily past her ears in her usual way.
Her blunt, open manner, which put most guys to shame and perfectly suited her short hair and high-spirited appearance, had not changed one bit since their high school days.
“Sheesh, this is the fifth one, right? Half the bands participating have come to you with offers now.”
As he added milk to his black tea, Takeya Iizuka remarked in admiration and amazement upon Setsuna Ogiso’s still-growing legend, with a much more natural look on his face than he ever showed any other girls.
His usual infamy, which perfectly suited his flashy appearance—a slender build that put most girls to shame, unruly light-brown hair—had only become more polished since their high school days.
“…What is going on, seriously?”
For Setsuna, whose popularity knew no distinctions between genders or class years, they were two members of the “group of four” that made up Setsuna’s smallest, and most precious, community.
“Your draw as three-time Miss Houjou High champion doesn’t seem to be declining any. I mean, the same goes for how you are on the inside, of course.”
“I mean, you could easily take Miss Houjou University this year… if you entered.”
“Oh, no, I would never…”
“Huh? Oh, um… I mean, I wouldn’t be entering with the intention to win, so I wouldn’t…”
“Yeah, I guess that’s permissible.”
“Don’t hassle her, Io. She thinks she’s being considerate. From any other girl, that sort of modesty might come off badly, but Setsuna at least half-believes it’s true. Tasteless as it is.”
“Um… I feel like you’re hassling me, too, Takeya-kun… I don’t know.”
There was really nothing she could do about the two of them teasing her, since the fact was that, even as she had become a college student, Setsuna’s popularity had known no ebb.
Shortly after she had entered, a ceaseless stream of solicitations from various clubs began visiting the new student orientation classroom, and within mere days, her name was well-known even among the staff.
Immediately following Golden Week, when that particular uproar had died down a little, she had been fending off petitions almost daily from the committee for the Miss Houjou University contest happening in June, begging her to participate in the preliminary round.
She finally managed to escape participating in the contest preliminaries, but she was only allowed a brief moment to breathe; now, a struggle was unfolding between the bands that would be participating in the outdoor concert on the first day of summer break, attempting to secure her as a vocalist.
And, now, the battlefield had shifted to the university festival concert next week, a last-minute scramble to get her to sing.
…At the same time, rumors were flourishing that the lack of excitement around the Miss Houjou contest finals, which were happening at the same time, were because of Setsuna Ogiso’s “declaration of abstention.”
“Well, the fact that the other girls don’t hate her is because it’s Setsuna. Not like a certain junior of ours.”
“By the way, what’s happening with the Taisho Teahouse that the Politics and Economics department was planning to put together? It doesn’t sound like the maiko have given up on pulling you two in.”
That their booth had taken this as its theme was because everyone in the department acknowledged her (or their) achievements, good or bad, at the high school festival last year.
“Well, her guard is strong enough to avoid being misunderstood. Not like a certain singer who led every one of her band members by the nose.”
“Oh, I see. As soon as you get involved, you look the other way. Nice.”
“I feel like the band members were the ones who looked the other way, twice, for that matter…”
“Ahaha, I’m so glad you two haven’t changed.”
At their exchange, more outright than would normally be expected between a guy and a girl, Setsuna let out a chuckle.
To Setsuna, whose network of people had increased since she entered college, these two were still the only ones she allowed to see her like this.
Yes, including her own family…
“And neither have I… Yeah, nothing’s changed at all. Even if… I wanted it to…”
…As a result, it was only around them that this sort of bleak honesty would slip out.
“Oh, uh, apparently he’s started another new part-time job.”
“Yeah, as a cram school teacher, for students aiming to go to Houjou University.”
So, Takeya changed the topic, somewhat abruptly.
“Wow. I mean, I never would have passed the general exam for this place.”
“Always has to raise the bar, even in his jobs…”
“Why does he love work that much? I know he’s gotta be spending every spare second preparing for his classes, too.”
But Io knew—it wasn’t a simple subject change, but Takeya’s way of helping.
“You know how he always leaves right after the lecture ends these days? Apparently he always gets to the classroom before his students do.”
“Huh… Yes, that does sound like Haruki-kun.”
Because they both knew, even without seeing the relief on Setsuna’s face, how starved she had been for conversation concerning him.
“How many jobs does he have now? There’s also the diner and the corner store, right?”
“There’s the net café, too, so four. Just nonstop from the evening to the middle of the night.”
“And he still never skips a lecture or a report, and passes every test… When does he even sleep?”
“See, he’s legit just crazy busy, constantly. It’s not like he’s avoiding you, Setsuna-chan…”
“I know. I know, okay…”
Because they knew that, only a short time earlier, she had been desperately trying to chase after Haruki as he hurried out of the classroom.
“Have you talked recently?”
“No, not for the past month.”
“Have you called him? Messaged him? Has he sent you anything?”
“No… I mean, neither of us can.”
As they were in the same year in the same department, the two of them could have met face-to-face and talked every day—no need for phone calls or messages.
That said, as Setsuna couldn’t even touch Haruki’s address in her phone right now, supposing she were to sit next to him, and start talking to him, she honestly didn’t know whether she would be able to figure out where to go after that.
“So, nothing is going anywhere, Setsuna. Are you good with that?”
“Hey, you can’t rush her like that. You know that, Io.”
What Haruki had done, half a year ago…
What he, supposedly the strait-laced chairman, had done then, had smashed her heart—this girl who looked like an idol, but really was family-oriented and mischievous.
“Why not stop, then? Stop chasing after him.”
“I just said…”
“Haruki’s only redeeming feature was his honesty, and he threw that away. What good is he?”
As his friend, as her friend… and as the friend of another, who wasn’t here, there was no way, no possible way, that they could forgive that betrayal.
“This is my fault.”
Setsuna would not allow them to blame Haruki.
“I cornered Haruki-kun. I pushed Kazusa too far.”
She couldn’t allow the one who wasn’t here to be treated like she didn’t exist.
“I tore the two of them apart.”
And she couldn’t allow herself to be forgiven.
She lamented the fact that things hadn’t changed, but she couldn’t allow them to be forgotten.
Setsuna was still wandering this labyrinth, with no hope of ever breaking out of it.
“Really, though, you two, thank you. For worrying about me while I’m being all indecisive…”
“Well… you’re our best friend.”
Their kindness actually hurt a tiny bit.
Because Setsuna had only ever sworn to be “best friends” with one person.
Until last year, Io and Takeya had both been set one step below “the three of them.”
But they were still here with her, wrapping her up, even in her arrogance.
They were still here with her, even now that two people were missing from “the three of them.”
“You guys are all I have.”
They were surpassing friends to Setsuna.
“W-Well, I guess I’m happy to hear that, but maybe you could see about making some more friends you could be honest with?”
“Yeah, having Io be your only female friend must be a nightmare. There’s no telling when you might get infected by her nastiness.”
And, because they were surpassing friends, they knew.
“What I mean is, your actual personality is great… It’s just a waste if you keep faking it.”
“Yeah, there’s no telling when you might get infected by her habit of talking to someone with a smile on her face while kicking them under the desk.”
They knew that Setsuna wasn’t happy.
They knew that, in order to support her, they had to surpass themselves.
“If you really opened your heart, Setsuna… you could find more friends you could laugh with, and fight with, for real.”
“Oh, yeah, totally. There are loads of girls who want to be friends with you, Setsuna-chan…”
“No. I couldn’t.”
“Not when I hate myself this much…”
They knew that, even with all their efforts, they wouldn’t be able to bring Setsuna’s true smile back to her face.
“What does everybody like so much about me, anyway?
“I just force a smile all the time. I never go beyond surface-level with anyone.
“I’m a coward and a liar, who can’t laugh or get angry seriously.
“I’m like a salesperson.”
Setsuna had changed.
Half a year ago, at that snowy airport, she had been changed to a tragic degree.
“If I’d known things would turn out like this, I never would have done that show.”
And it had meant nothing but unhappiness…
To Setsuna, and to those in her life.
“I never would have gone up to the roof.”
And yet, as a result of it…
“Never would have listened to ‘White Album.’”
She had become chillingly beautiful.
Setsuna had changed.
This look that flickered into her face now and then, tinged with sorrow, held an immense allure, enough to captivate not only Takeya as a guy, but Io, a girl, as well.
These days, she shifted frequently between the idol-like girl and the actress-like woman, toying with others in a way that she herself couldn’t control.
If people who didn’t know what she was actually like were to come into close contact with her in this state…
This was the real reason that Setsuna drew even more attention now than she had in high school, in spite of her attempts to blend in, to be forgotten.
“Hey! You’re kinda late.”
When Setsuna opened the living room door, she was greeted by the now-familiar sounds of her younger brother Takahiro’s laid-back voice, and the loud, flashy sound effects of the fighting game he was playing.
Earlier this year, he had managed with a mere two-month spurt to slip easily into the Houjou University Attached High School; now, as he spent all his time goofing off, that sparkle of effort and talent was nowhere to be seen.
“Did Mom and Dad go to bed?”
“Mm, I think they just headed for bed, yeah…”
“I’ll take a bath, then…”
Just as Setsuna had started to let herself relax, the dark kitchen suddenly became bright, and the pajama-clad figures of her parents appeared.
As she had feared before reaching the house, their eyes held a mix of worry, reproach, and relief, and that look was very difficult for her to handle right now…
“You’re awfully late.”
“A bit. Io and Takeya-kun and I went out drinking for the first time in a while.”
“Ah, you were with those two. Well, that’s…”
The relief in her mother’s face was directed not at Setsuna, but behind herself.
It seemed like a gesture that was meant to put someone else at ease, rather than a sign that she was at ease herself…
But Setsuna’s father kept his stern gaze on her, as though her mother’s intention had missed the mark.
“I called, didn’t I? I said I wouldn’t need any dinner.”
Under the pressure of that gaze, Setsuna began rattling off her excuses before the questions even came.
It was her way of acknowledging that she had made a mistake…
“What time is it?”
In other words, she was well aware that it was past midnight.
“When you called your mother this evening, you said you would be home by nine, did you not?”
“I was planning on coming straight home after dinner, but we got really caught up in the conversation… and then we started talking about going to get drinks afterward…”
There was no lie in her excuses.
After lectures were over, they moved from the university café to a diner; then, at Io and Takeya’s invitation, they wandered from bar to bar, until they realized it was time for the last trains.
“You should have called us when your plans changed. We’ve all been very worried.”
“I… just forgot, that’s all.”
That excuse wasn’t a lie, either.
It was the most fun she’d had in a long time. So much that she’d genuinely forgotten what time it was.
Maybe Io and Takeya had only invited Setsuna along because they saw how depressed she was, and were worried about her.
But she believed that they, too, had truly enjoyed the few hours they’d all just spent together.
…After all, Setsuna had been genuinely enjoying herself.
It must have passed to them.
“I’ll be more careful next time. Okay?”
“Wait, Setsuna. We’re not finished talking.”
Now was the time. Setsuna was determined to end this talk.
Partly because she didn’t want to deal with the lecture that was inevitably about to unfold, but more than that, she wanted to preserve the pleasant mood she was in.
“You’re so insensitive, Dad. Try to sympathize a little.”
As Setsuna cut off the conversation herself and fled down the hall, her brother began his belated efforts to back her up.
“That thing about all going for drinks together was obviously just a cover. You know the two of them snuck off to mess around in the middle of it.”
But it was support in name only—more like a landmine, catching Setsuna equally in its blast.
“I mean, mentioning Mizusawa-san and Iizuka-san… She’s clearly using them to hide Kitahara-san’s name.”
“You’re the one hiding crucial information, sis. What are you so embarrassed about?”
Takahiro, who had not even set down his game controller, was probably less than half-focused on this conversation.
The way he spoke, however, mixed with careless speculation, set Setsuna’s teeth on edge in agitation, and she lost her composure in a flash.
“Is that true, Setsuna?”
It couldn’t possibly be true.
She hadn’t so much as talked to Haruki for almost a month now.
“I had thought Kitahara-kun was a bit more upright than that.”
It wasn’t true, so she couldn’t allow Haruki to be blamed.
Upright? He hadn’t so much as laid a finger on her.
He never asked her to spend time alone together…
“I suppose I can’t really say, since we haven’t seen him lately, but maybe he’s changed since starting college.”
That much was not a lie.
He had changed…
Haruki had changed.
“Dragging a young woman around until all hours of the night…”
“I told Haruki-kun not to call.”
Yes, he had changed… with Setsuna.
“He wanted to call you because he was worried, but I knew you would object…”
“Setsuna, what does that…”
“Dad! I’m in college now! I can’t keep having to ask my parents for permission to stay out late!”
What am I doing?
Seriously, what am I…
“What are you talking about? This is normal.”
“No, it’s not. I asked the other girls, and none of them have nagging parents like you.”
“Well, maybe things are different for them. We are how we are.”
“You’re contradicting yourself! First you say it’s normal, then you start making distinctions! How is this normal?!”
There’s no point in this.
I have no reason to oppose Dad. I have no reason to get this stubborn.
“Setsuna! Stop trying to derail this with petty arguments and…”
“We’re both adults. We can take responsibility for ourselves!”
I mean, I’m lying.
I wasn’t with him. We weren’t alone. We couldn’t have been.
“So, uh, does that mean you’re in an ‘adult relationship’?”
At some point, Takahiro had torn his eyes away from his game, and was now watching Setsuna, looking vaguely shaken.
“Yes, it does! But what’s wrong with that? It’s not like we’re just messing around, we’re both serious about it! There’s no reason for you to worry about me, and you have no right to object!”
“…To be totally honest, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react to that, as your brother…”
Why do they believe this?
It’s just an impossible dream that I tossed out without thinking.
A delusion that I, a disobedient girl, conjured up half a year ago.
Why would they believe it…?
“I was in such a nice mood when I got home, and now you’ve ruined it… I’m going to take a bath!”
She had reached her limit.
Setsuna hurriedly turned her back, maintaining her character as the headstrong, unreasonably angry girl, and took refuge in the bathroom.
“Man, she’s got a lot of guts now…”
The sound of her angry steps storming down the hallway, followed by the slam of the bathroom door, finally called the Ogiso household back into reality.
“Y’know, this might just be what happens when you come down on someone that hard for a whole year… It might be time to prepare yourself, Dad.”
At the look on his father’s face, indignant and yet desolate, Takahiro sighed with a strained laugh.
“What’s up, Mom? You’re just staring.”
“Oh… No, I’m not really…”
And his mother, who had simply been following Setsuna’s expressions, wordlessly, this entire time…
“Nothing… We’ll say it’s nothing.”
It was still difficult to gauge the meaning behind the droplets that had seemed to be on the verge of spilling from her eyes, at the last moment.
“…Ah. Aha, ahaha…”
Setsuna blasted herself with a shower that was cold enough to freeze both her body and her heart, and amid the din, she finally released the despair that she was feeling.
Her head was full of nothing but self-loathing, running around and around.
Because she had ruined her own good mood.
Because she had become the sort of person who could lie, easily, to her own family.
And because of the substance of the lie itself.
Because hurting herself was the only way she had of protecting her identity.
Setsuna had returned to the Setsuna of a year before.
“Ogiso-san,” always in the middle of everyone, always alone.
“Liar… I’m a liar!”
No, actually, she was just a little bit different from a year before.
Because the Setsuna of right now, unable to stand being like her old self, was wearing out, hurting, steadily losing her heart.
One week later…
“What’s going on?”
“Apparently, a bunch of impossible mistakes piled up to an impossible degree…”
“…Sounds pretty impossible.”
When Io called, seconds after Setsuna woke up, her voice was suddenly energetic, excessively urgent, and she wasn’t quite getting to the point.
“Our Taisho Teahouse is nowhere near being prepared, as of this morning, and it’s pretty much guaranteed we aren’t gonna be able to make it in time to open at ten.”
“…What time is it?”
“How many minutes?”
“How many seconds?”
“…Are you actually awake?”
Today was the first day of the Houjou Festival.
As it was a festival day, which meant a day off from classwork, Setsuna meant to spend this cold morning in her warm bed; but, with her still-groggy head and her suddenly shivering body, she responded in a way that wasn’t really to the point either.
“Anyway, we’ve mobilized. We’re using anyone we can get our hands on. I mean, all of us.”
“Obviously, people who have their own clubs to deal with are exempt, but people who aren’t here for personal reasons are being called in, depending.”
“People who were just planning on sleeping until noon don’t get to argue.”
“Don’t sigh like that. You think I’m happy to be calling you like this?”
“Sorry. Thanks, Io. I don’t want to be a hostess, though…”
“Right. Neither of us wants to repeat that nightmare, I know.”
The two of them had been the stars of the first and second day of the high school festival the year before, and met with all sorts of ordeals; they knew painfully well what sorts of looks they would have to endure, from what sorts of people, in their period-appropriate outfits.
“We’ll be making sweets in the kitchen, behind the scenes! I know you’re good for that, too. The representative came to me and begged me…”
“I guess… Well, okay.”
“Thanks, Setsuna! I owe you one!”
Friends of hers from the same department had come to her three times now, courteously asking for help, and she had disappointed them every time; now, determined to clear up that feeling of debt, she agreed, reluctant as she was.
“Just to reiterate, I’m not hosting.”
“I know, I know!”
“No sneak attacks.”
“Swear to God. You won’t have to wear any costumes!”
“…Okay. What time should I come in?”
“Well, the food prep team are getting started at 9:30, so we’re gonna meet up in front of Building 6 then.”
“Got it. See you later.”
“I’ll be waiting!”
After the restless, energetic phone call was over, Setsuna once again heaved a sigh of displeasure.
It was partly resentment at the outrage of being suddenly woken up and called in early in the morning on her day off, but even more than that, she was lamenting how suffocating the festival hubbub was going to be.
Really, she didn’t want to show up at the university festival at all, not even for one day.
She could already imagine it.
How people would be even more openly over-familiar with her than usual, touched by the bright, noisy, no-holds-barred atmosphere of the festival.
How awkward it would be, running into band and club members on site, whom she had told she was too busy and therefore couldn’t participate.
And… all the memories that the school festival—no, the university festival—would recall.
Memories both dreamlike and nightmarish…
In an attempt to cut off those painful memories’ journey upstream, Setsuna glanced at her alarm clock once more.
Then, confirming that she still had three hours to spare, she sluggishly got out of bed and walked to the door, having decided to eat some breakfast first…
After putting her hand against her head for a few moments, in an attitude of pondering, she suddenly began rummaging around violently in her dresser.
And, three further hours later…
“Well, all those impossible mistakes were resolved impossibly easily.”
When Setsuna met up with Io at 9:30 precisely, Io’s voice was quite mellow, reasonably calm, and she still wasn’t getting to the point.
As Setsuna digested her words, it seemed clear that the business about being “nowhere near prepared” and “not making it in time to open at ten” had been greatly exaggerated, and in actuality, their trouble was only of a degree that required one or two people to help out.
And, given that the work was such that Io and one other person could handle it, all of the other people who had been called in were now going to be happily let off.
“I’m reeeally sorry, Setsuna. Anyway, you’re all dismissed. Thanks!”
“…Don’t glare at me like that. I apologized!”
It wasn’t that Setsuna was angry about the slipup, born of Io’s irresponsible assumptions.
It was just that she didn’t believe Io’s smooth explanation, at all.
“Hey! What the hell is going on here, Takeya?!”
“Now, now, don’t get mad, Haruki. There’s no trouble at all. That’s good, right?”
There were only two people, including herself, who had ultimately been called in on account of their misunderstanding.
“That’s not the problem and you know it. You tricked…”
“No, I didn’t! I didn’t trick you! This is just an unfortunate misunderstanding.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
From behind her, she heard a familiar voice.
An inflexible voice, which had no problem arguing with a teacher.
A voice that never balked at any favor that was asked, though it never shied away from complaining, either.
A voice that had always expressed its feelings outright, even if its owner were embarrassed, looking away.
That was why Setsuna had been unable to look in that direction this whole time.
“…I’m sorry, Setsuna, really, but this was the only way.”
Io leaned in right next to Setsuna’s ear and whispered, so that the guys couldn’t hear.
“I know that today is a double-edged sword for you.”
As Io looked straight at her. Setsuna gazed straight back.
To be more precise, she was staring at herself, reflected in Io’s eyes.
“But this is a road you have to go down, y’know? If you keep running away, you’ll never be able to get over it, or go back to how things were.”
In her own face, she saw intense anxiety, uneasiness, loneliness, and fear.
“…This is your chance to take that risk, so take it.”
All that, plus a tiny bit of hope…
“Anyway, you two can do whatever you like now.”
“Yeah, exactly. You can go to work, or go home and sleep…”
“Of course, since you’re here, you could also walk around a little. The festival only comes once a year.”
“Oh, yeah, they’re having that outdoor concert today, in the main area.”
Takeya and Io slowly backed away from them, escaping into the building.
They were always a perfect duo when it came to shady schemes like this.
…You could barely tell that they, similar to a certain other pair, had their own complicated circumstances, boasting an even longer history than the latter.
“Anyway, we’ll leave the rest up to your decision. C’mon, Io.”
“Yeah… See you, Setsuna. You too, Haruki.”
And that certain other pair, helpless against that extraordinarily in-sync duo, was left alone in front of the building.
Four people had become two, and the moment the noise had died down, it came home to them that this place was not theirs alone, but a public one.
With the general opening time only half an hour away, students were rushing frantically in and out to finish their preparations, and these two, standing frozen so close to the entrance, couldn’t help but draw some attention.
“Hey. It’s… been a while.”
Even so, for a short while, the boy who always lectured others not to inconvenience people, and the girl who was always trying to bury herself so as not to stand out, occupied the gazes of the people passing by, full of curiosity and somewhat annoyed.
After that, they spent about ten minutes walking slowly around the campus, which was swelling with pre-festival exaltation. It was completely wasted time for both of them.
“It’s… been a little while, huh.”
As proof, their words to each other were practically identical to those of ten minutes before.
The fact that Setsuna wasn’t saying anything wasn’t that big a deal.
She was busy trying to look at the side of his face, without him picking up on it.
But there was probably more than that going on from his side of things, too.
As proof, they kept repeating an embarrassing cycle of meeting eyes, hastily looking away, and then meeting eyes again.
“Are you… doing well, Haruki-kun?”
“Yeah… I mean, I’ve been okay.”
“He” was Haruki Kitahara.
She had met him a little more than a year ago, declared her feelings for him about a year ago, slipped out of sync with him a little more than six months ago, parted ways with him about six months ago…
But he was still a special boy to her.
“I heard you have a bunch of different jobs now. You aren’t working too hard?”
“No, I don’t think so… I mean, I’m coming to school every day.”
“Oh… Yeah, I guess so.”
It was such a bland, standard answer, but Setsuna still savored it thoroughly.
It had been forever, after all.
Even though they had been in the same classroom every day, listening to the same lectures, they had become so disconnected from each other that this passed for conversation.
She had wanted to talk to him for so long.
That was why she always tried so frantically to chase after him as he left the classroom.
Even so, the fact that their conversation now had broken off so soon came as no surprise to her.
She had known things would go like this, which is why, the moment it seemed like she was about to catch up to him, she always slackened her pace.
Those eleven minutes may have been a waste—but the very last moment pressed the two of them to a decision.
Walking through the familiar campus, following the same route they always walked, they found themselves at the place where it inevitably led.
The main gate, which today was crowded with signs in various colors.
If they took a single step beyond this point, they would return to their ordinary routine.
Their individual after-class routines, where nothing happened, nothing changed.
“Well, um… I guess this is…”
Today was not an ordinary class day, however.
She couldn’t let it go the same way yesterday had.
“What do you want to do after this?”
After all, there was a three-hundred-sixty-four-day gap between “All right, tomorrow’s my chance” and “All right, next year is my chance.”
Having finally lit the fuse, Setsuna followed through on her own momentum and looked Haruki straight in the face.
There, she found anxiety, uneasiness, loneliness, fear…
And she knew that his feelings were exactly identical to those she bore.
She gripped her fist tightly behind her back, having made up her mind.
“Um, well… I know what Takeya-kun and Io said, but…”
“You really don’t have anything else to do?”
What about you, Haruki-kun?
You must be busy with work, right?
You don’t have the time to go wandering around some festival.
“…No, I’m free.”
She had forgotten now how to lean on Haruki, in the way that she’d done so naturally a year ago.
However, she knew how to handle herself.
All she had to do was find the range within which she could make an excuse.
It was particularly certain to bring about immediate results in someone who thought of her affectionately.
“We’re here, aren’t we?”
See? Like that.
“Where should we go first, then? I think celebrities tend to show up on the first day.”
“I’m starving. I skipped breakfast today.”
The simulation was over.
Everything was going according to the strategy that had been set up two hours earlier.
“Do you want to get a candy apple or something?”
“I think I’d like some ramen.”
She had realized to a certain extent at the time of Io’s phone call.
Hazily, she had sensed Io’s deception, and her concern.
She felt certain that Haruki would be brought to the scene.
“At a festival? It’s not going to be very good ramen.”
“I know that.”
So, she took her time putting her outfit together.
Not too flashy, not too plain.
Not likely to draw too much attention from anyone else.
“…It was pretty lousy last year, too.”
But him… She wanted him to say she looked cute.
She had put so much fervent thought and effort into picking out her clothes and accessories…
“Any toppings for you, miss? We’ve got sesame seeds, pickled ginger, and grated garlic!”
“Oh, no… No, thank you.”
“C’mon, at least just try the garlic! It takes the flavor to a whole new level!”
“Hey, Asai, quit trying to push garlic on a girl this early in the day.”
They entered the Wandervogel Club ramen stand right as it opened, and were hailed by the spirited, resonant voice of the well-built vendor, which would have been more suitable for a far greater number of customers. It wasn’t especially comfortable.
However, at the moment, that level of discomfort was actually pleasant for Setsuna.
With other things grabbing their attention, they wouldn’t be able to focus solely on each other. It was perfect.
As Haruki had so aptly pointed out, the pork ramen they were served, within three minutes of ordering, was of a quality that could really only belong to university festival ramen.
They each took their first bites, and exchanged strained smiles with each other.
However, their sharing in this mistake seemed to relieve some of their mutual tension, and as they ate their ramen in silence, the atmosphere between them was as warm as the steam drifting around them.
“Hey, welcome, welcome! Wan-Gel ramen is open for business!”
“You can have a seat right now, if you like! How about it, guy? All right, seeya!”
The woodsman’s bellowing continued to sound out, in complete disregard for the comfort of the customers.
In the midst of that din, Setsuna took advantage of the fact that attention wouldn’t be drawn to her behavior or conversation, and sat by his side, slurping her ramen, sipping the soup, and…
“Oh, uh… Nothing.”
She questioned his gaze.
“C’mon, just tell me.”
Because her feelings were now as warm as her body.
Because she had gained the stamina to take one little step further.
“No, I was about to say something, but it might come off rude.”
“Oh, you mean… This?”
“Yeah… You’re still doing it.”
When she realized that Haruki was looking a bit behind her face, Setsuna’s left hand impulsively moved.
And the back of her hair, which that hand was holding, jumped with it.
“You always do that when you’re eating ramen.”
“Always do…? Oh, you mean holding my hair behind?”
“Yeah, um… You don’t hold it back with your hand the entire time, do you?”
“I know it would be easier to tie it back, but that wouldn’t look good on me.”
“I mean, I always have my hair tied up in pigtails already. It’s not like I can tie it up again.”
“I hadn’t thought about that…”
“Yep. Of course, if I had straight hair like Touma-san, I’d look cute with a ponytail…”
“You’re plenty cute, Setsuna.”
“I mean… The way you put all this effort into fussing over little things like that is so… snooty. It’s cute.”
“I can’t really tell whether you’re complimenting me or insulting me.”
“…Not that I really care. I’m happy either way.”
“Hee hee… Come on, eat your ramen before it gets soggy!”
In that instance, he had similarly prefaced his remark by warning that it would be “insensitive and rude.”
“You can’t get rid of a habit like this that easily.”
In that instance, they were also at a school festival ramen stand.
It was the day of their public debut as boyfriend and girlfriend.
“Nothing’s gonna change that much in a year…”
At Setsuna’s slightly pouty scolding, Haruki fell silent again.
But the silence this time was more relaxing, not like the awkward silence of before.
Because she knew that the current Haruki had accepted the current Setsuna.
Because she knew it wasn’t that their conversation was failing to connect—it was just that there wasn’t any need to connect.
So Setsuna had her fill of that easy silence, slowly draining the last drop of her soup… and, immediately thereafter, she started to panic over the excess of salt and calories she had consumed that day.
Haruki gave a small roll of his eyes, and a slight smile, at her reaction.
Setsuna smiled as well, enduring the pain that shot through the back of her nose.
“Here, Haruki-kun. They gave me two for free.”
“Yep! It just smelled so good that I couldn’t help myself.”
“…You’re not regretting all the ramen you ate earlier?”
“I am! That’s why I’m only having two. You can have the rest.”
“Wait, wait… I had ramen, too, you might remember.”
“But I can’t eat any more than this…”
“Then what was the point of getting the freebies?”
“What? I mean, it’s a bargain!”
“Something needs to be done about that housewife impulse of yours…”
And what happened in the next few hours, until the sunset…
Setsuna could not clearly fix in her memory.
“Th-The class E haunted house is seriously scary…”
“Sorry, Setsuna. That’s probably my fault.”
“Really… So, the fact that it seemed like they were actually trying to threaten us was by your instructions, too.”
“Oh, no, that…”
“Yep, once a chairman, always a chairman. You may have retired, but you’ve still got lots of influence.”
“No, that’s not what I… There’s some other reason for them being so belligerent in their attacks…”
“Kyaaaah! Haruki-kun, I’m scared!”
“Groooar! Getting all flirty with Ogiso-san in public, are we?!”
“Gwaaar! And just calling her ‘Setsuna,’ too! You traitooor!”
“Zombies don’t get to bring personal feelings into this! You’re all supposed to be dead, remember!”
She had longed to spend time like this.
She was spending it with the person she’d always wanted.
“S-Setsuna… You’re really planning on going to the Taisho Teahouse?”
“Well, it’s the last day! You haven’t gone yet, right? It’s our class’s booth.”
“Hey, on the first day, before everything opened…”
“But Io’s gonna be there today. Why don’t we just stop in?”
“I’m not interested in getting teased…”
“…Oh, wow… Just look at that line! Even though it’s the last day…!”
“See? Wouldn’t you feel ridiculous waiting in line for your own class? Let’s…”
“Oh, it’s fine! We won’t get bored if we chat while we wait. Let’s go.”
“Wait! Think about my safety! I can’t get caught in that crowd!”
But Setsuna’s memories, her awareness, her knowledge that she was right here in this moment, blended together with her memories of the past, leaving her feeling as though she were walking somewhere above the clouds.
“Why don’t we go to the Politics and Economics booth? Takeya-kun and Io might be there.”
“No, thanks. Not there.”
“…Setsuna, you’re never going to change, are you?”
“Do you ever think about how other people are looking at you, or whether they might misunderstand…”
“I’m aware of all that.”
“Really. Almost excessively. I’m constantly thinking about how other people see me.”
“Then think about it right now… if the two of us were to show up there.”
Past and present, dream and reality, recollection and hope.
All of this information, from scattered places and times, ate into Setsuna one by one, disturbing her emotions.
“The gate’s going to be closed soon…”
“Yeah, it’s a quarter to seven.”
“Right. There’s no closing event tonight.”
“I mean, it is only the first day.”
“And… no folk dance.”
“Right… I see.”
“Should I… walk you home?”
“I mean… may I walk you home? Please.”
“Wait, no, I…”
“Sorry, forget what I just said…”
“Why don’t we… rest for a bit?”
Before she realized it, it had gotten dark out.
Night had fallen.
“…My foot got stepped on.”
“Ack, sorry. I haven’t done any folk dancing since elementary school…”
“Oh, no, it wasn’t you, it was one of the other guys.”
“See those guys over there, who aren’t dancing? They’ve actually done it a few times now.”
“It’s not funny! You know you’re the reason for it.”
“Ah, ahaha… but…”
“I knew people would get jealous, but this goes way beyond what I expected… You’re way too popular, Setsuna.”
“But, Haruki-kun, you promised to take on that burden, didn’t you?”
“And I will. It’s my duty, and my privilege, as… um… your boyfriend.”
“…Could you say something? I just embarrassed myself completely saying that…”
“Oh, sorry… I was just basking in it.”
“Honestly… You’re so easy.”
“Hee hee… hee hee hee!”
“Why don’t we… rest for a bit?”
“Good idea. Should we head for the vending machines?”
“No, under that tree over there.”
“Aren’t you thirsty?”
“But, it isn’t my throat that’s dry…”
“It’s my lips.”
“That tree is perfect…”
“We have to go under that tree.”
“…All right, all right.”
In Music Room #2, and under the tree in the schoolyard…
That night at the festival, when the two of them confirmed their feelings for one another.
“So, how was the first day of the Houjou Festival, everyone?”
“According to the action committee’s report, our first-day general entrance count topped last year’s by about five hundred, which is easily a record high…”
In the empty classroom, its lights already turned off, the only sounds to be heard were the bustle from outside—not as great as it was during the day—and, from somewhere, voices on a radio.
“Incidentally, our own staff were busying themselves with recording the outdoor shows.”
“I wish I could’ve seen it! The Watos Troupe’s summer performance! Someone, give us your impressions, at least!”
“…Anyway, there’s no point in grumbling here, so let’s hear the results of an entire day spent with nothing for fuel but convenience store onigiri… Whoops, I’m grumbling again! Anyway, our first song…”
It was the live broadcast from Houjou FM, which held the only broadcasting station in the university.
These days, it was simple enough to transmit to the whole world through the internet; but this station, sponsored by a somewhat old-fashioned group that was bent on having the broadcasts be limited to within the school, actually drew a fair bit of popularity among the students, with its sense of exclusivity and its equally old-fashioned, straightforward programming.
“You’re not cold, Setsuna?”
“No, I’m fine.”
Amid the sound of enthusiastic shouts and cheers from the radio, the two of them stood perfectly still, staring at the festival scenery outside.
A late autumn wind blew in through the open window, chilled by the dim night.
“That was fun.”
Setsuna murmured from the heart, holding her hair back as the cold wind fluttered it.
A murmur full of happiness—whether with regard to now or to a year before was unclear, but it was a happiness she had not expressed recently.
“Yeah… it was.”
And Haruki’s reply carried meaning and resonance enough to satisfy Setsuna’s overflowing emotions.
It might not have been as outright bursting with sentiment as a year before, but there was a clear, positive volition behind it.
“We ate ramen, takoyaki, candy apples, crepes…”
“My stomach still feels heavy.”
“I’d never visited the manga club before, so that was neat. Though I wasn’t quiiite sold on the portraits they were drawing.”
“I thought their super-deformed style was pretty good.”
“The flea market was great, too. I had so much trouble deciding what to buy!”
“You just haggled and haggled and haggled…”
“Though I didn’t get to visit the Taisho Teahouse, because a certain someone didn’t want to go, but…”
“Will you please just imagine what a disaster it would have been?”
“But, but… I really, really enjoyed myself!”
“Yeah… me too.”
Unable to contain her surging emotions, she took in a big breath, turned her gaze from outside the window to the inside of the classroom…
And swallowed that breath, hard.
Not because her expectation was betrayed, but because it was fulfilled…
“I enjoyed it, Setsuna.”
I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t…!
Setsuna’s heart sounded furious alarm bells.
At some point, her eyes had become accustomed to the dark.
She remembered why she had been looking outside until now.
…As a result, the look on Haruki’s face at that moment was burned into her eyes.
“Thank you so much for today…”
A look of shy gladness.
A look she hadn’t seen for the past half a year.
…A look she had seen constantly, until the end of that winter.
She shouldn’t do it.
She was on the verge of departing from simple swept-up emotions.
She would become a figure that troubled Haruki, made him suffer.
“I haven’t enjoyed myself this much since I started college!”
And yet, Setsuna couldn’t keep a sob from finding its way into her voice.
“I had so much fun… I was so happy today…!”
The exact situation she had feared occurred immediately.
The look that came into Haruki’s face was unbearable, full of guilt, regret, and sorrow.
“Why are you talking like that again…?”
Probably changing to the same expression she held.
“This can’t have been that big a deal for you, Setsuna…”
“But you said it was fun, Haruki-kun! You thanked me!”
“I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about you!”
The results had surpassed her expectations.
They’d done so much talking. Walked together. Laughed together.
She genuinely hadn’t imagined that things would go this well.
Today should have been more than enough to satisfy her, even if they parted now.
“There’s nothing good about staying stuck on me…”
“That’s up to me. You don’t get to decide that.”
But she couldn’t keep a hold on her greed, seeking something more when things were already going well.
“Everyone in your department, and people outside of it, guys and girls, they’re interested in you, Setsuna. They want to get to know you.”
“So… if you’ll just look somewhere outside, someone else will…”
“I can’t do that.”
“Because, I… Because I’m selfish! I’m an expensive woman!”
“That’s not true… You’re not really the way you look at all. You’re ordinary, family-oriented, a little bit mean… but kind at your depths. Anyone would fall for you…”
“I’m… I’m only like that with the boy I like…!”
She could only keep going forward.
“Yes, like you said, a lot of people have come up and talked to me, and invited me to do stuff.”
With no preparation or strategy, all she could do was leave things up to chance.
“Join our club, enter the Miss Houjou contest, sing for our band… It was disgusting. They wouldn’t leave me alone.”
“I came after you to join the contest, too… I was pretty disgustingly persistent about it.”
“But none of them cared about my own circumstances! They had no concern for me! They didn’t try to get to my core!”
“There’s only ever been one person who pushed his way into my life with no ulterior motives whatsoever…”
So, she felt no more shame over her real self.
“I’m the girl they call ‘that Setsuna Ogiso’!”
The expensive princess that she was.
“I’m a fake idol, that everyone put up on a pedestal!”
The bothersome princess, not expensive in worth, but in difficulty, in effort required to ascertain her true nature.
“I can’t go along with invitations from people who are after something! I can’t be swayed by nosiness from people with a reason behind it!”
What this princess wanted wasn’t a kiss from a prince.
What she truly wanted was a scolding from the minister.
A lecture with sincerity behind it.
Setsuna’s left hand twined around Haruki’s right.
“Remember how much I hurt you?”
Pressing finger by finger, wrapping them all up in her soft palm.
“I’ve left you alone for half a year.”
“You can make up for it… over the next half a year, and beyond.”
And now, they intertwined—
Setsuna’s right hand, and Haruki’s left hand…
“Even if we did yield to our loneliness and go back to how we were, I could end up hurting you again.”
“We won’t know that unless we try.”
There in the darkness…
Setsuna’s hot breaths, and her eyes, sparkling in the faint bit of light, were all that reached Haruki.
“I don’t deserve your forgiveness.”
“That’s up to me to decide!”
And Setsuna made up her mind to take one more step.
Bringing their hands to her chest.
Bumping her forehead against Haruki’s chest.
“Because, I… I…!”
I love you… I still love you, and I always have, Haruki-kun.
Their bodies were touching.
Now, all that remained was for their hearts to touch.
And that was only a matter of time, surely.
Haruki couldn’t leave Setsuna alone, not when they were both on the verge of tears.
He would compare the sin of hurting Setsuna back then, with the sin of hurting her now…
And would realize how ridiculous it would be, to add a new sin on top of it.
“Setsuna, I-I… I…!”
The romance between the noble and her servant…
The design of destiny, twisted in so many complicated ways…
Couldn’t be broken that easily.
“Now, our last song of the day… I wonder how many of our listeners will know this one?”
“Actually, this one is from last year’s concert, not today’s.”
“From the high school concert, for that matter… An original, performed by a few kids a couple years below us.”
“Yeah, that concert is the stuff of legend. People still talk about how it drew everyone away from the university festival, and there were people just spilling out of the gym…”
“It just so happens that the track found its way into our hands the other day, so without further ado, we give you its revival, one year later.”
“This is the Houjou High School Light Music Club, with ‘Unreaching Love.’”
Everything was rewinding.
“Ah… ah… ah…!”
Her body stiffened as she embraced him, her hands weakened as she held his…
And what was left was the true Setsuna, whom no one had ever seen.
The true, changed Setsuna, unknown even by Haruki, with despair painted across her face.
She had almost made it.
She should have been able to follow through on the emotions that she had been stashing away for so long.
“Unreaching Love” resounded through the dark, silent classroom.
But Setsuna’s ears didn’t catch her own singing voice.
She didn’t hear Haruki’s guitar playing.
Only the keyboard that gently wrapped up their melody, guiding them…
Only the name, “Kazusa Touma”…
The wounds carved into Setsuna’s heart throbbed hotly.