The idol who forgot how to sing – II

Chapter 2: The Snow, Two Years Later

“So, we’re going skiing, right? I mean, we gotta.”
“Hey, why don’t we go a little crazy and see about going diving in Okinawa or something?
“You can’t swim in Okinawa until April at least. It won’t work for spring break.”
“Then how about Guam, or Saipan, or…”
“…Remember what the seniors said about our budget limits?”
“Man, this is hard. Start to make one thing work, then it turns out not to work for some other reason…”
“Well, like I said, if we go skiing, we’ll fall within the budget just fine.”
“Hey, Setsuna-chan, where do you wanna go?”
“Huh? What?”
“We’re deciding on the destination for our seminar trip… That’s the whole reason we got together today, remember?”
“Oh, sorry… Um… Let me think about it for a second.”

At the furthest-back table in the Building 6 café—the accustomed table for the Politics and Economics students—there was what might be called a “youthful noise” echoing out.

“We aren’t even in the seminar yet, though. Why have we been put in charge of organizing this?”
“I heard it was because the seniors are busy with their second-term exams…”
“We’re on the same schedule as they are, though.”

It was dim enough outside that it seemed like snow could start falling any minute, cloudy, bleak, and cold, but their lively conversation was full of a brightness suggesting that winter was long since over, and spring break had arrived.

“The second-years didn’t even participate until last year, did they?”
“I think we pretty much have to this year, though. The seniors have been in a big uproar ever since it was decided which seminar we would be attached to.”
“…So, that’s what this is about.”
“What they’re really after is… yeah, of course it is.”
“…”
“…”

In a single instant, their voices froze, cutting off the flow of the conversation, and the gazes of all but one person were fixed on that last person.

“Huh? What? Oh, um… Maybe, like… a hot spring?”
“…”
“…”
“O-Or maybe that’s just something old ladies do…”
“…”
“…”
“Huh? Wh-What…?”

And when she, fated always to draw everyone’s attention, reacted in an uncharacteristically hysterical way…

“Ugh, fine, fine, you win.”
“What the hell was that perfect time lag? You did that on purpose, didn’t you? You totally did that on purpose.”
“God, Setsuna-chan is just devastatingly cute! I know she’s sitting right here, and she turned me down ages ago, but I just gotta say it!”
“Hang on, you can’t just toss something like that out!”
“It’s fine, Setsuna. You don’t have to be all modest, you just have to be here.”
“Yeah, that’s enough to change how the seniors and professors act, even to us.”

Just as the dusky café had finally begun to regain some peace, that unwelcome tumult returned fully.

“…Sorry.”

But, none of them knew.

That Setsuna’s moment of perfect spaciness was neither the result of natural airheaded charm, nor a calculated scheme.

That she had just been focusing so hard that she couldn’t hear anything.

Just for as long as “Unreaching Love” played from the café speakers…

Setsuna had entered Houjou University almost two years ago…

And a little more than a year had passed since that signature song, a hidden gem to hundreds of people, had transformed into a winter staple for thousands of people.

After “Unreaching Love” had played on the Houjou University campus for the first time, that festival night a year and a half ago, it had continued to receive an enormous push from the campus radio station, bringing in more and more support from those who had known the song since high school and those who had just come into contact with it for the first time alike; and its popularity was now at the point that not a single Houjou University student didn’t know about it.

However, in accordance with the strong wishes of the band’s representatives, and consideration by her high school classmates, the identity of the mystery vocalist who sang of that heartache was still highly exclusive information.

That said, the level of aggression from those who were privy to said information was unchanged, and there seemed to be no end in sight to the propositions to join bands, pressure to enter the Miss Houjou competition, and love confessions thrown into the mix.

And Setsuna, the crucial element herself, continued simply smiling vaguely at these incessant solicitations, showing absolutely no sign of going along with anything so shallow.

Even so, if one thing could be said to have changed about her…

“So, that’s what each of us will be in charge of. Setsuna, were you listening this time?”
“Yep! I’m handling correspondence with the seniors, right? No problem.”

It was that she had begun accepting friends outside of the “group of four,” in this way.

Concerts, contests, and dates were all off the table.

But she showed up at just enough get-togethers and tea parties to avoid being seen as standoffish, carried out all the duties that were asked of her, and never forgot to make the coordinators and her classmates look good.

Just friendly enough, just courteous enough, never haughty, never coarse—and absolutely never getting emotional.

“A charming flower, out of reach.”

She had come to polish that temporary facet of herself once again, which had been her pride since high school.

But even Setsuna herself didn’t know whether this was a step forward or a step back.

Because…

“Oh, yeah, Tomochika-kun… What’s the final word from Kitahara-kun? Is he in or not?”
“He was still keeping the question on hold as of yesterday… He’s a tough one, huh.”

Hearing new information about Haruki for the first time, from other people…

Hearing people who weren’t her, confirming new information about Haruki…

Told Setsuna what she had lost in the past year, in exchange for what she had gained.

“If Kitahara-kun had taken charge from the start, we wouldn’t even have to be getting together like this…”
“You can’t shove everything on Haruki like that. He’s working almost every day over spring break.”

On that day, just over a year ago, Setsuna had halted.

She had wanted to take Haruki’s hand, lean into his chest, make up for all of the loneliness and pain she had felt with new heights of love and sweetness.

But that single song, nothing more than radio waves, had easily nipped off her overflowing feelings and the nerve she had mustered up.

“But, his duty as a student…”
“Is studying. You know his grades. You think he’s gonna skimp on that?”
“That’s not all, though…”
“Don’t give working students like us such a hard time. I was planning on working through the whole break myself, but I talked to Haruki about it, and we decided one of us needed to be part of this…”

Ever since then, the two of them had been stuck with a close physical distance and a great psychological distance.

But Setsuna, bearing the responsibility for a mistake that no amount of lamenting could ever erase, had come to accept that irresolute distance, almost as though she had given up.

Almost as though her heart had finally, completely worn out…

“…Tomochika, I have to wonder, why do you get so worked up defending Kitahara?”
“There’s something weird about you two…”
“Yeah, don’t you two work at the same place? Or two of the same places, actually.”
“…Are you, like, a thing?”
“They act similar, neither of them seems interested in girls… Sure seems possible to me.”

It was that very winter that Setsuna had expanded her social network to include other friends.

Perhaps it was in an attempt to use something else to cancel out the loneliness she felt in Haruki’s absence from her life.

Perhaps Setsuna’s heart had simply automatically sought out a balance, so that she could continue living as herself.

…But that “escape” had thrown her into a vicious cycle, stirring up the guilt she felt over things with Haruki more and more.

“Don’t be stupid. Maybe you guys didn’t know, but Kitahara’s pretty damn popular outside of school.”
“Whoa, really?”
“I mean, just recently there’s been this really pushy girl at work going after him…”
“What…?!”
“No friggin’ way! Mr. Chairman? That guy?!”

Setsuna’s gasp at that moment was fortunately drowned out by the shouting that immediately followed.

“We’re in college now, you don’t have to keep calling him that nickname any more… I mean, yeah, it’s accurate, but…”
“Wh-What’s the deal, though? I thought Kitahara-kun was dating her.”
“What the hell, Tomochika-kun?!”
“If you’re that interested, ask him yourself…”
“Well, I’m not that interested…”
“Yeah, he’s smart, and dependable, and makes decent money, and he’s not bad-looking, so I guess he wouldn’t be a bad investment for the future.”
“If he were just a little more aware of how people were looking at him, I think he’d be on the right track.”
“What are you talking about? Kitahara’s pretty hot stock.”
“I dunno, sometimes it kinda feels like he doesn’t wanna let anybody get too close.”
“Oh, yeah. Kinda unbalanced, like he’ll help you but then he’ll shove you away.”
“…Let’s quit talking about this. Anyway, I’m not interested in trying to sell my best friend… You know what, I’ve said too much already. Forget it.”

After muttering these last few words, Haruki’s self-proclaimed “best friend” kept his mouth firmly shut on the matter.

“Tomochika-kun…”
“Huh? Ogiso? Are you leaving?”

As the solitary male student hurried through the main gate, following the breakup of their meeting, a voice reached his ears, somewhat quiet but still clear.

“Something came up at home… Are you heading to work now?”
“Yeah, at Goodies.”

The fact that Setsuna had approached a guy of her own accord might have come as a devastating shock to the boys who perceived her as “the idol of Houjou University.”

But the one she spoke to simply saw her as a female friend in his same department, and interacted with her in an unaffected, natural way.

“Really? That’s pretty close.”
“It does mean I end up running into a lot of people I know, which isn’t always great.”
“Hee hee… I’ll have to stop in now and then.”

His response—normal, though not what she usually met with—was a pleasant thing for Setsuna, but unfortunately, she didn’t have the capacity to be aware of that right now.

“Aren’t the girls’ uniforms pretty cute there?
“Well, there are definitely guys who come in just to see them, and… guys who come and work there just to see them, too.”
“Ahaha! …Don’t tell me you’re one of them, Tomochika-kun?”

She already knew that this guy—Hiroki Tomochika—was on his way to work, and where he was headed. The fact that she spotted him and called out to him wasn’t coincidence in the least.

“Give me a break… I just got a referral there.”
“A referral?”
“Yeah, apparently someone heard that I was struggling a little with living expenses, and took it upon himself to pass that along to the restaurant…”
“Sounds like… a pretty nosy person.”

Setsuna knew that his “struggle with living expenses” was no lie.

Hiroki Tomochika was a classmate of hers, older than Setsuna, who had entered through the general entrance exam after taking a gap year.

He had been a fairly talented student in high school, and had actually passed the exam when he first took it, but unfortunately, his home environment had not allowed him to enter the university that year.

Because, the winter before graduation, his mother—his only family—had fallen ill.

He spent a year nursing his mother and saving up for his matriculation fee, and two years ago, he had finally passed beneath the gates of Houjou University as a scholarship student, in the same year as Setsuna and the others.

…She had heard about this from Takeya, with some grumbling.

Io had teased him—“You really aren’t happy about Haruki being taken away by some other guy, huh?”—but, really, the closeness of Tomochika’s relationship with Haruki this past year was noticeable enough for Setsuna to feel it, too.

“Was it Haru—Kitahara-kun?”
“Wow, good guess.”

So, Setsuna’s reason for talking to him at the moment wasn’t because she wanted to know about him, hardworking though he was.

“Well, you were just talking about how you work at the same place…”

It was to learn more about the “nosy someone” who had stepped into his life and supported him.

“That guy may be a part-timer, but he talks like a manager… I mean, he works more than hard enough to correspond with that, though, so no one complains.”
“W-Wow, really?”
“We leave everything to Haruki. Shift scheduling, training newbies, everything. Anyone who didn’t know him would think he was a candidate for top manager.”
“So, I guess that’s why…”
“Hm?”
“Why that girl who worked there… asked him out?”

She was doing her utmost to act casual.

But she was also doing her utmost to hide the racing of her heart, and the sweat threatening to come out on her forehead.

“Oh, that… Like I said earlier, I don’t really wanna talk about that.”
“Oh, shoot, sorry. Did I just make things awkward?”
“No, no, nothing like that.”
“I’m sorry, seriously. That was a rude thing to ask, just out of curiosity…”
“I mean it, don’t worry about it.”

Feeling shameful and apologetic.

Beating herself up.

“I’m so tactless… God, what’s wrong with me?”
“Ogiso…”

…But, unable to drop it, Setsuna continued to push the topic.

She had learned this tactic after experiencing at the hands of other people countless times.

She knew that it always ticked her off when other people did it, but right now, this was the only thing she could think of.

That was how far she had been driven.

That was how starved she was for information about Haruki…

“…Well, okay.”
“Tomochika-kun?”

Then—maybe because he felt pity for Setsuna, seeing her act this way, or maybe because he was just tired of it—Tomochika let some of the tension out of his shoulders and smiled weakly at her.

“I guess you’ve got a right to ask, anyway.”
“Huh…?”

At the same time, dropping a hint.

“Now, all of this is gossip that I heard from the girls at work…”

And, as though he hadn’t dropped it at all, he headed straight into the question at hand.

“She did ask him out, but he turned her down.”
“He did…?”
“Pretty harshly, too.”
“Ah…”

The look on Setsuna’s face at that moment must have been pretty strange.

Bitterness, tension, relief, doubt… all of these elements, shifting from one to the next, mixing together, and yet none of these emotions showed in her face.

“The girl hasn’t shown up since… It’s turned into a bit of a problem at work.”

Haruki had harshly rejected a girl who felt affection for him.

As her desire not to believe that Haruki would do something like that, and the part of her that could almost believe that he would, battled against each other, the pain and heaviness in her heart increased.

Because if Haruki had indeed turned into this sort of person, that would be an extremely painful, heart-wrenching thing for the one—the ones—who had pushed him to it.

“…Do you think he’s going to be fired?”
“Why?”
“Well, when someone causes a problem at work, that’s generally…”
“Nah, he’s not gonna get fired. He didn’t cause any problems with his actual job, and the attitude there toward workplace romances is pretty negative.”
“But…”
“Also, I don’t believe that rumor. Now, this is just what I think…”
“Tomochika-kun…?”

But Haruki’s new “best friend” laughed off Setsuna’s worries.

“Haruki’s not like that. Sure, he’s nosy, and he likes to be in control, and nags a lot, and can be a bit of a tyrant sometimes…”

His expression and words exuded confidence in this inflexible, serious, single-minded person.

“In spite of that, he’s good at looking after people, and he was made for leadership. I’m just gonna say it… I don’t know anyone as hard-working and legitimately good-natured as he is.”
“Th-Thank you…”
“Why are you thanking me?”
“Oh. I, um…”

This older classmate of hers seemed to have taken over the role that she herself used to play, and she stared at him, just slightly dazzled.

“…Oh, yeah, weren’t you a student at the attached high school with him? Do you know him particularly well?”
“Oh, um… No, we… We were never even in the same class…”
“…Kidding. Sorry, I shouldn’t tease you like that.”
“Huh?”
“You two were dating, right?”
“…Ah.”
Suddenly, an old memory layered itself mist-like over Tomochika’s face.

His smile was a bit embarrassed, apologetic, troubled.

“Just so you know, I didn’t hear about it from him. He always clams up when it comes to you.”

This boy who had finally seen through to her secret, which she had kept hidden even though she didn’t want to.

“…I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for you, but…”

This boy who acted insensitive, but was actually capable of greater kindness and consideration than a lot of people…

“Hey, Ogiso.”
“Huh?”
“You still can’t forget about him, can you?”
“…”

Hearing this question from him, with that smile, was painful.

Even though she knew.

She knew that this smile, not fake but genuine, would likely never be turned her way again.

“Well, I’m splitting off here…”
“Ah… T-Tomochika-kun…”
“You should stop in at the diner sometime. You never know, Haruki might be happy to see you.”
“Ah…”

And, closing the conversation in a way that clearly was embarrassed, apologetic, and troubled, Tomochika vanished from Setsuna’s field of view.

As he grew steadily more distant, all Setsuna could do was watch him in a daze.
 

“You really… want to touch me?”
“I want to memorize you. The way you feel.”
“Then… you can. Touch me.”
“…Setsuna…”
 

“Ah…”

There in the darkness.

With the lights out, burrowed under the covers, light and sound both cut off.

“Mph… hah…”

But these faint breaths still spilled out, making the still air in the room tremble slightly.

It was after three in the morning.

In the middle of the night, when everyone in the Ogiso household ought to have been fast asleep…

“Hah, ah, ahh…”

From the daughter of the house, who had been raised soundly and with love, came a voice that was seductive, carnal—indecent.

The first time had been about a year ago.

After that night of the festival, when she and Haruki had conclusively fallen out of each other’s lives, and she had gone for days, weeks, without being able to spend time with him, or exchange words with him…

She clung to memories of the past, trying to keep Haruki’s form from vanishing entirely.

“Haah, ah, mph…”

In her room, in the bathroom.

With her fingers, with the shower.

That memory, from two years ago…

Haruki’s voice, panting, aroused, completely lacking in composure.

The feeling of him massaging her breasts through her clothes, pinching her nipples.

It had hurt, but she’d loved it.

It had felt weird, but also turned her on a bit.

She had drummed his inept caresses, his fervent kisses, into her body, so that she would never forget them.

These are Haruki’s hands.

These are Haruki’s fingers.

These are Haruki’s lips.

This is Haruki’s tongue.

She murmured this in her mind, even knowing that she would never be able to trick herself.

“Haaaaah… ahh!”

After she’d touched herself once, she couldn’t stop.

At first, it was every day.

Comforting herself every day, drowning herself in pleasure, regret, and tears.

So, she had desperately tried to repress it.

Once every three days, once a week, once a month, waiting for the desire to pass…

“Ah, ah, ah… aaaah…”

But, today…

Having had a brush with Haruki’s current status for the first time in ages, she found herself flaring up again.

Her left hand, with which she had been touching herself through her pajamas, had now moved into direct contact.

As if to synchronize with it, her right hand had started to slip inside her panties.

Her fingers quickly found a slippery sensation.

…Her body was already open.

“N-No, I can’t… No… ahh…!”

Setsuna’s fingers no longer obeyed her instructions.

They crept over her whole body on their own, stroking her sides, squeezing her breasts, clawing at her nipples.

Fingering her entrance, pinching the bump there, moving in.

“Haruki-kun…!”

The name of the one she loved spilled out of her mouth.

“Haruki…ku… ah, aaaaaah!”

The name of the one she couldn’t move forward with, and yet couldn’t part from, whom she couldn’t call her lover, but didn’t want to call a stranger, either.

Rationally, she knew that remaining in limbo like this was no good for either of them.

Really, she would have to erupt at some point.

To get everything out, and reach a conclusion.

But, when she thought about what would happen to her heart if things reached the worst possible outcome, she always hesitated.

So, she made plenty of ostensible friends.

Ran about in a way that wasn’t entirely fair, trying to avoid being crushed by loneliness.

…Buying time, in a way that Kazusa hadn’t been able to.

          This is why I can’t win against Kazusa.

          I can’t sacrifice everything, just for his sake.

          I can’t be indifferent to everything apart from him.

          To look only at him, to focus every feeling I have on him…

          I can’t love him in such an elementary-school way.

          I can’t love him more strongly than Kazusa.

“Ah, ah, ah…”

          That’s why he… why Haruki-kun… chose Kazusa…

“Aaaaaaaah!”

At that moment, Setsuna reached her climax.

She knew it was the worst possible timing, but she couldn’t keep it from coming.

“Ah, ah… ah… aaah…”

As she spasmed, she let all the tension out of her body.

“Ah… aaaah…”

Her first masturbation in a month had felt so incredible that her head went blank.

With languor overcoming her, it seemed like she should be able to sleep deeply for the first time in a long while.

“…Gh…”

But, even in the midst of the act…

She couldn’t forget everything.

“Ggh, ah… Hweeeeeh…!”

So, just as always, as the waves receded, Setsuna slowly began to cry.

Taking care not to let any of the sound escape, just as she had with her more carnal sounds before.

“Haaah… n-no… aaaaaah…”

Quietly, sincerely, cursing herself for being so pitiful…

A short while after that, a rumor began spreading among the Politics and Economics students.

If one listened in on their whispers, it was purely, utterly shallow gossip material—apparently, “The” Setsuna Ogiso, idol of the department and of the university at large, had finally found a particular guy to be with.

But, because it was so shallow, the speed of its transmission and the ambiguity of its substance were remarkable…

“They were walking around campus with their arms around each other.”
“She looked completely in love with him.”
“I saw them disappearing into a hotel at the station front.”
“The guy didn’t really look like anything special.”
“She was crying, and he looked like he didn’t know what to do, like they were talking about breaking up or something.”

And, when it came to the biggest part of this rumor, which had spread in only a week…

“How fickle can you even be? I mean, this isn’t you we’re talking about.”
“Are you seriously incapable of complaining about anything without dragging me in as an example?”

To people like Takeya and Io, who didn’t even remotely believe in the accuracy of this information, it was nothing more than a dull appetizer.

At a bar in the station underground, near the university…

These two, who had known each other for eight years and could easily drink the night away together, discussed the matter openly.

…Granted, they also never missed the last train, and never drank coffee at dawn.

“So what’s the deal? How do things actually stand?”
“Ninety-nine percent exaggeration and lies.”
“But, that one percent of truth… Then, the guy must be…”
“Yep, Tomochika.”
“Oh, God…”

As a matter of fact, Takeya had witnessed it firsthand.

In the lounge, where a line had formed in front of the copy machine, making preparations for second-term exams.

There, at a round table, he saw the two of them, laptops out, carrying on a conversation that did not seem especially flirtatious.

To Takeya, who knew that Setsuna and Hiroki Tomochika belonged to the same seminar, that they were both organizers for the seminar trip, and that they were in fact in charge of the same thing, common sense dictated that it must be nothing more than a simple meeting.

Even so, to the guys who had been perfectly repelled by her guard up to this point, the sheer fact of the “impregnable” Setsuna Ogiso being seen in public with a guy might have been a major scandal.

But…

“Setsuna has actually started calling me again, lately.”
“Oh, that’s good to hear. It seemed like she was kind of avoiding it for a little while there.”
“Yeah, I guess it’s a good thing…”
“You don’t sound all that excited. Has she been down?”
“No, she’s definitely a lot peppier than before. Almost like she’s starting to act like her old self again.”
“…You think Setsuna-chan and Tomochika really…”
“Nope, Haruki is all she ever talks about. Apparently he got a commendation from the cram school where he works.”
“…Huh?”
“The exam pass rates for all his classes are up at the top, even compared with the full-time employees.”
“Uh-huh.”
“And he’s pretty popular with his students. Setsuna was like, ‘Oh, I just know Haruki-kun would be a great teacher!’”
“…”
“She seemed genuinely happy.”
“…Hey, so I assume the source of that information is…”
“…Tomochika-kun, poor guy.”

To these two, who knew deepest, darkest background circumstances, this seemed like nothing more than fake information, extremely small, and cruel to one particular group of people.

“W-Well, we’re talking about someone who’s easily as stiff as Haruki here. It’s totally possible that he’s just doing it out of kindness, rather than any romantic interest…”
“Maybe, but even so…”

Io, holding the remaining ice from her glass in her mouth, looked up at the ceiling with a somber expression.

“I’ve been thinking lately. Maybe it would be a good thing for Setsuna to find someone else right now.”
“…What does that mean?”

Takeya slouched sullenly, as though to match Io’s manner.

“I think both of them would be happy. They’re already involved this far.”
“…”

In fact, his mood genuinely had gone sour.

“What do you think, Takeya? You’re not satisfied with the idea of those two breaking up?”
“It’s not up to us to decide.”
“But can’t we have an opinion, as her friends? I’d like to think we have that kind of relationship.”

Because, of course, these two had had this discussion before.

And, of course, he remembered the conclusion that they had reached every single time.

…Or rather, the fact that they had never once reached a conclusion.

“And you’re saying Tomochika should be this new guy? Haruki Unit-00?”
“Sure would be a lot better than Takeya Unit-01.”
“What, because he looks like her last boyfriend? He’d be the perfect substitute for Setsuna-chan?”

Takeya swallowed the riposte he’d been about to make for being brought in as an example yet again.

“That’s not what I mean. If we just think about it calmly…”
“Sorry, but I can’t make that decision calmly, and I don’t want to.”
“I knew you would say that, but what about Haruki’s feelings?”
“I…”

…But, of course, that didn’t mean he could escape this fruitless discussion.

“Setsuna’s not hiding it. She’s not making any secret of the fact that she’s still crazy over Haruki.”

Since they entered college, the frequency with which they met up alone had actually dramatically increased.

“But, Haruki… Does he really still have feelings for Setsuna?”
“I… don’t know that.”
“Really? Not even you?”

But his recollections of actually talking about themselves when they saw each other were too few to count.

“He’s too fixated on his own guilt over what he did.”
“Well, I mean… what he did really was that bad.”
“He knows that better than anyone.”

Always starting without so much as a toast, bogging themselves down in topics with no satisfactory resolution, then finally splitting off with a mutual acknowledgement that even wheel-spinning had its limits.

“So even if he does still have feelings for Setsuna-chan, there’s no way he’s letting it slip, and no way he’ll show it, either.”
“God, pain in the ass…”
“We’re no better.”

Really, that was all that could be said. They were no better.

Not bothered by this utterly barren relationship.

Accepting that they would remain by this person they’d known for so long as a matter of course.

…And, yet again, these two people, equal pains in the ass, drank together.

“Tests are finally done…”
“Yeah, they were really rough this time.”

A Saturday in mid-February, the last day of second-term exams.

Blithely unaware of the rumors that continued to proliferate, the two people concerned sat in the familiar café next to Building 6.

Amid the atmosphere of relief enveloping the whole university, the two of them chattered on with a greater sense of freedom than usual.

“Really? I thought you always made A’s.”
“Yeah, because I studied my ass off. This time, I had to keep going to work while the tests were going on.”
“Huh? Why… Oh.”
“If I manage to advance here, I’ll still need the money to do it…”
“Right…”

Setsuna realized, from his slightly clouded expression and self-deprecating words, that she was the only one who had actually been set free.

Realized that Tomochika’s struggle right now was not with the Houjou University Politics and Economics department, but with his family’s economic conditions.

“I… guess I can’t sympathize with that, exactly. But I’ll pray that you can advance without any problems.”
“Ogiso, you…”
“Hm?”
“There’s something comfortable about you.”
“Huh? What do you mean?”

At this slightly askew praise, so utterly different from what other guys would say, and reminding her vividly of a certain someone, Setsuna forgot to keep her face on, and stared at him in puzzlement.

“Most people jump straight to the sympathy when I talk about stuff like this, which makes the mood get all weird and sorry and kind of suffocating. It never goes in a good direction.”

Immediately after this, Tomochika reflected, in deadly earnest, that he was really the one in the wrong for bringing up a topic that no one would enjoy.

“There’s nothing special about this.”

Now absolutely reminded of a certain someone, Setsuna gave a light smile in reply, still not adorning her face in any way.

“The fact that you genuinely think that way is one of the best things about you, Ogiso.”
“Well, I know the fact that I can’t sympathize with you means I can’t butt in, either.”
“What do you mean?”
“The only people who can fully sympathize with others are people who will make a serious effort to fix the other person’s problems.”
“Oh, yeah, I guess so… There are definitely people like that around.”
“Yeah, for sure… Hee hee.”

And she revealed her true feelings, without dressing up her words or manner.

Everyone here would acknowledge the feelings she bore for Haruki, and no one would deny them.

Furthermore, everyone would affirm Haruki’s actions. This was the ideal space for Setsuna.

In the past few days, Setsuna had heard word of Haruki numerous times from Tomochika.

The way he worked, acted, spoke at the workplace they shared.

The way he strove, his ability, his opinions, when they were put together to work as a pair.

And his consideration, lecturing, kindness, in private.

Haruki’s own feelings for Setsuna never came into the discussion, but it was more than enough to soothe Setsuna’s loneliness anyhow.

On top of that, Tomochika clearly also adored Haruki, and couldn’t help but feel sympathy.

“Well, spring break starts tomorrow. It’s finally time for that trip.”
“Looks like we’re still going to be pretty busy… All right, let’s start today’s meeting.”

As a result, Setsuna was able to find peace of mind in this alliance.

After all, this was nothing more than a meeting between two organizers for the seminar trip.

They were just gossiping, the way normal friends did.

“Though, I think all we have left to do is follow up with the people who haven’t told us whether they’re attending or not.”
“How many are there?”
“We’ve got twenty-five people who confirmed they’re participating, and three who said they aren’t, so that leaves sixteen…”

And Setsuna, regardless of the fact that most people would see this as a different sort of relationship, felt no guilt where Tomochika was concerned.

After all, he was different from most male students, with no ulterior motives or secrets.

Talking on and on about Haruki must be pleasant for him, as well.

Above all, Setsuna held at her very core a theory that would have stunned most people—“Anyone who likes Haruki-kun can’t be a bad person.”

“Huh? That’s not the total I got. Isn’t it seventeen?”
“What? I don’t think…”
“Look, if we include the second-years, there are forty-five people in our seminar, see? And we’ve gotten responses from twenty-eight of them?”
“Ah…”
“So, there are seventeen left. Let me see the roster.”
“No, wait, Ogiso…”

As a result, Setsuna completely failed to notice how Tomochika’s expression wavered at that moment.

“There’s one person missing. Think about how bad they would feel, not even being contacted.”
“…”

After all, she had complete confidence.

That they were friends.

That there were no feelings other than friendship.

That, with their relationship as it was, there should be no secrets kept from each other…

“…Huh?”

As Setsuna checked over the list of names on the screen, her eyes stopped.

Not because she had found the line she was looking for, but rather the opposite…

“…He’s not here.”
“…”

The fact that the roster of seminar students, which should have had forty-five people, ended at line 44…

“Haruki-kun’s name…”

And the fact that the name of the person Setsuna wanted to confirm first of all had disappeared from the list.

“Oh, yeah… About that…”
“Huh?! About what?”
“W-Well, actually…”
“What? What’s going on?”

Her voice cracked.

Her tongue was tied.

The space between her heartbeats was painfully constricted.

“Haruki isn’t in our seminar.”
“Wh-Why?!”

She could tell by sensation…

That all the pores in her body were open, and a cold sweat running out.

“He’s… transferring in April. To the Literature department.”
“…Huh?”

In that instant, Setsuna’s face froze.

She detached all emotion from her expression.

…If she hadn’t, she would have made a face that no one ought to see.

“You have one new message. 2:32 p.m.”
“…”

“Setsuna? It’s me, Io.”
“I just got back from where Haruki works. I talked to him for a second.”
“…I’m sorry. We didn’t even know until today that he was transferring departments.”
“We got into a bit of… no, we got into a decent argument.”
“Actually, Takeya was pretty seriously pissed off…”
“It must have been a pretty big shock that Haruki didn’t come and talk to him about this.”
“He was still in a bad mood the whole way back… It was a real pain in the ass trying to calm him down.”
“Anyway, never mind about us…”
“The point is, we told Haruki to talk to you again.”
“He said you told him something like, ‘Keep it up, I know you’ll do great’?”
“For crying out loud, why do you do this to yourself? Can’t you just get mad at him for once?”
“You can’t let him off that easy for being that selfish.”
“All right? Have a real conversation with him.”
“More than one, actually. Have as many real conversations as you need, until you’re happy with things.”
“If you want, Takeya and I will come with you.”
“I’ll call you back later. Bye for now.”
“…Oh, also…”
“Happy twentieth.”

“…!”

The moment the answering machine playback ended, Setsuna almost flung her phone away… then stopped at the last moment, and tossed it on the bed.

Perhaps some of her presence of mind was returning, just enough for her to realize that taking it out on the phone, or on Io, would be wrong.

She had spent almost the entire day like this.

Shut away in her room, with the door locked, hugging her knees on the floor, giving no answer to the calls of her family, who had put together a party for her…

“…”

As she considered her circumstances, her stomach suddenly started to hurt.

The last thing she had consumed was a single coffee from the café she had visited on the way home.

Because she had seen him, and he had robbed her of all her energy…

After Tomochika told her about Haruki’s transfer, she started wandering the campus in search of him.

She knew all she really had to do was call him, but when she thought about the possibility that he might not pick up, she couldn’t find the nerve.

He could be busy, he could be feeling awkward because of the transfer thing, or he could have blocked her number, with no desire to talk to her any more…

As she imagined all these trivial possibilities, her heart was worn down further and further.

After she had finally started to find some emotional balance again, she was afraid of it all going down the drain.

Thirty minutes later, she finally found Haruki.

…At the front gate, waiting for her.

He, too, seemed to have prepared himself.

But, apparently, he had also lost the courage to call Setsuna on the phone.

After that, she had come back to the café, and had a talk with Haruki.

At the same table where she had sat with Tomochika, thirty minutes before.

Her classmates, who had been sitting at the next table over for the past half hour, had dubious looks on their faces, but she didn’t have the capacity to care about that right now.

She had gone to all this trouble, and finally found an opportunity to speak to him again, but…

“Y-Yeah. I want to go into publishing, so…”

Setsuna hadn’t been able to convey anything to him—not the questions she needed to ask, not the way she had been feeling, not the extremity of her emotions at that very moment.

“Huh? Oh, no, I think it’s perfect for you, literature. You were always good at writing.”

Just listened as Haruki spoke matter-of-factly about his reasons for transferring, working desperately to maintain a look of composure.

“Wow… So you’ve already thought that far ahead. Still topping the rest of us, I see.”

Smiling all the while…

“…Will we be able to see each other?”

How?

They never saw each other as it was.

“H-Hey… Can I keep calling you?”

How?

She couldn’t even call him as it was.

How was she supposed to connect to him, now that they were separated?

“We’ll be okay, right?”

Okay how?

“Wh-What am I even talking about? Aha, ahaha…”

What was she talking about…?

Fragments of what she had said earlier came and went through her head.

But she couldn’t remember any more whether such shallow flattery had actually come out of her mouth.

All she remembered was the strained smile she gave when they parted.

She turned and left the café, attempting to hold fast to her expression, which she knew would crumble completely given a few more seconds.

          Why?

          Why do things always end up like this…?

She had lost track of how many times she had asked herself this question.

A test with no answer. A labyrinth with no exit.

          Why now?

          I hate this.

          I hate things being this way.

          I mean, it’s…

          My birthday.

February fourteenth.

To the world, Valentine’s Day; to the Ogiso family, Setsuna’s birthday.

And, this year, it had an even more special significance than that…

“!”

Snow had begun to fall.

As she looked out of the window of her freezing-cold room, there it was—the same as this day two years ago, that white emblem of betrayal, out of the sky…

…No, that was an illusion.

Haruki hadn’t come then, either.

He had betrayed Setsuna then, too.

A flake of an afterimage of the past, shown to her by memories that she couldn’t erase.

Right now, Setsuna didn’t see anything.

With her face buried in the darkness of her knees, she didn’t see outside the window, or the clouds, or the snow, or reality, or anything at all…

“Setsuna! Get down here!”
“…”

Her mother’s voice, taking on a stern edge, reached her from the bottom of the stairs.

But, it was no use.

She didn’t want to eat anything.

She didn’t want to see her family’s faces. She didn’t want to talk.

Because, if anybody spoke kindly to her now…

She couldn’t even imagine how shamefully temperamental she would become, how she would explode, and then break down, and need to be comforted.

“At least show your face! You have a guest!”
“…Huh?”

“We told Haruki to talk to you again.”

These words, uttered by someone just a short while before, alighted in her mind.

“Haruki-kun…!”

So, Setsuna hurriedly stood up…

And struggled to gain control over her body, which was stiff from having barely moved for the past day.

She mustered up all the energy she could find, but could only move clumsily.

Her heart was in a rush, but she could only descend the stairs slowly.
“Ogiso…”
“…Huh?”

Beneath the clear, dark winter sky, Setsuna stiffened up again.

A visitor she had never anticipated stood before her.

“Sorry to show up so late at night.”
“Tomochika-kun…? Why?”
“Why? Well, um…”

The way her reaction came out, anyone would have seen it as cold enough to warrant anger.

Normally, he should have been plenty predictable as a visitor.

After all, he was the person she had seen the most of lately, even more than her female friends…

“You seemed really upset before… I was wondering how you were doing.”
“O-Oh.”

Nevertheless, Setsuna couldn’t dispel the unease coiling around her body.

Because he didn’t satisfy the “rule” for who ought to be here with her right now.

“Sorry, Ogiso…”
“For… what?”

This was the arrogant, selfish way in which Setsuna thought now, what she held in the innermost depths of her heart, now that she had changed in the way she had.

But these thoughts didn’t negatively impact her popularity or reputation.

Because Setsuna was an adult.

She never showed those innermost depths of her heart in her face.

…In sharp contrast with a certain someone who, years ago, was just on the brink of being her best friend.

“For not bringing up Haruki’s transfer sooner. I just…”
“That’s… not your fault, though, Tomochika-kun.”
“Still, I want to apologize… I’m sorry.”
“Really, it’s okay…”

It seriously didn’t bother her.

There wouldn’t have been any room for him to factor into the decision Haruki had made.

“Anyway… What are you going to do now, Ogiso?”
“What am I… What does that mean?”

She just wanted him to leave her be.

She wanted to be alone.

She didn’t have the capacity to care about other people right now.

“I mean, I want to keep going as we are, even though he’s transferring.”
“As… you are?”
“To stay best friends… that’s what I mean.”
“…”

He was radiant as he used that phrase, “best friends,” again, and it made her envious, too.

She envied him deeply…

“We’ll still see each other at work every day… Well, I guess we won’t be able to work together on test prep any more, since we’ll be taking different exams, but…”

As she heard him speak so positively, Setsuna found herself imprisoned by jealousy…

“Anyway, what I mean is, you can keep using me, like you have been.”
“…Huh?”

For a moment, she couldn’t understand the meaning of the slightly more negative words that followed.

“Oh, no, I don’t want you to take that in a bad way or anything…”
“U-Um…?”
“I guess, like… It makes me really happy that you like Haruki.”
“Y-Yes…?”
“And I think your personality is really nice, the way you’re so stuck on him.”

Setsuna pinned down part of the weird feeling she was experiencing.

Something different in the way he said, “You”…

“What drew me to you wasn’t your prettiness, or your glamorous aura, or anything… Well, I mean, I like those things about you, too, but…”
“?”

Elements of the way other guys talked to her were starting to sneak in.

Sooner or later, he would probably start calling her “Setsuna”…

“The big thing for me was the way you look at the way people actually are, instead of just their surface.”

          He said it!

          He said he was “drawn to me.”

          He said… “like.”

          …He tricked me!

Tomochika hadn’t made a single mistake.

It was certainly Setusna’s own unjustified resentment…

Something due to Setsuna’s own real nature.

“You realized how good Haruki really is, before anyone else.”

          No, I didn’t…

          Not before anyone else.

          I was the second one.

Tomochika’s words slid off the surface of Setsuna’s skin, and soaked into the ground.

As they slid, they left a trail of goosebumps in their wake.

“You ignored the guys who approached you, started liking him by your own will, actively made your own move…”

          No, I didn’t…

          I didn’t only do it out of my own will.

          I just had to do it myself, because the “first” was too strong.

“That’s why Haruki fell for you, too, even though you don’t seem like you would normally be a match for him.”

          What? What’s going on?

          Why is he talking about me and Haruki-kun? He doesn’t know anything.

          He doesn’t know about the three of us. Why is he talking about two?

“So, I’d like things to stay the way they are with you.”

There were no lies, no traps, no schemes in what Tomochika said.

“You can keep using me as long as you want.”

It was a true confession—earnest, sincere, facing his heart toward hers.

“I’m going to be a friend to you, someone you can talk to anything about, not hiding anything about Haruki.”

…If he had made one error, it was in not knowing that his words and feelings, honest as they were, had no chance of reaching Setsuna in the first place.

Whether they were earnest, or half-hearted.

Whether they were sincere, or superficial.

None of that had any meaning to Setsuna right now.

“Also, um, if…”

          Stop.

“If you two can’t go back to the way you were…”

          Stop.

          Stop stop stop!

“I can be your replacement for Haruki…”
“Ah…”

He said it.

“Happy birthday, Ogiso…”
“…”

          He confessed his feelings for me.

          He showed his weakness.

“This is for you.”

          I’m sorry, Haruki-kun.

Two years ago, she had been betrayed.

She had been kept at a distance since a year ago.

And, now, she had been prevented from even being near to him…

          I’m sorry.

And yet, that traitor was all that filled Setsuna’s head.
 

“I can understand why Haruki would try to run away from you, too.”
“He’s a good guy, he’s serious, he’s honest.”
“He can’t forgive himself for betraying you.”
“I do want to support you two.”
“But, at the same time, I feel like this can only go so far.”
“I really think you should forget about him at this point.”
“You know what I mean, don’t you?”
“The fact that you can’t let Haruki go is making him suffer more.”
“Yes, Haruki’s suffering. And so are you.”
“I just want to know whether I could ease your suffering at all. For both of you.”
 

“…”

After Tomochika left, Setsuna didn’t move from that spot for a while.

In fact, she hadn’t moved at all while Tomochika was there.

She hadn’t been able to give her standard, forced smile as he confessed to her.

She couldn’t do anything… refuse him, accept him, smile, cry.

The wrapped gift he had given her sat on the ground in front of her.

She hadn’t been able to thank him.

Though it was Valentine’s Day, she hadn’t been able to give anything back to him.

In fact, she couldn’t even take it from him.

Just stared blankly, somewhere that wasn’t at him or at the sky.

Tomochika was a bit at a loss at her lack of response when he offered it to her.

…No, he must have been hurt.

“…”

But Setsuna didn’t have the capacity to worry about Tomochika.

Because she was in too much chaos to think about anything.

Because she was hurt even worse than he was.

Because she didn’t have the self-awareness to grasp her own wrongdoing… the poor way she had treated him.

And, for one more reason…

“You’re here, aren’t you…”

Because she had noticed.

“…Haruki-kun.”

As Tomochika was leaving, when he reached the street corner, he looked surprised for a moment…

And Setsuna had spotted the figure of another person, reflected in the curve mirror.

“Setsuna…”

Three deep breaths after Setsuna spoke his name, he finally appeared from around the corner.

Haruki, as she had seen him yesterday.

Haruki, as she had parted from him yesterday.

Haruki, as he had been when he told her about his transfer.

“You… saw that, didn’t you?”
“Setsuna… I—“
“Don’t.”

She knew just from looking at his face—

How much of that conversation he had just heard.

“That’s enough…”

Really, for the past year, this was the only look she had seen on his face.

Though he always lectured people to look others in the eye when talking to them, he always looked down with Setsuna, never meeting her eyes.

All she saw there were the same old sentiments—awkwardness, remorse, guilt.

“Why didn’t you come out?”
“I…”

For that matter, Haruki had probably only seen Setsuna’s current expression on her face for the past while.

Her impish smile as she looked into Haruki’s face with round, up-turned eyes had submerged itself—this was faint, fleeting, something that didn’t look like a smile, but said that she was smiling to herself.

“Were you waiting for Tomochika-kun to finish?”

It hurt.

It was uncomfortable.

She had been seen.

Caught at the worst possible moment to be witnessed, by the last person she wanted to witness it.

“I… think he’s genuinely worried. About you, and about me.”
“Oh… I guess.”

She wanted to apologize.

For making one of Haruki’s best friends, someone so important to him, feel something unpleasant.

For giving him the wrong idea without being aware of it. For hurting him.

And… though she had sort of been hoping for this…

For making Haruki feel something unpleasant, too.

For maybe, just maybe, making him jealous.

“You and Tomochika-kun… are really close, huh?”

If that were the case, she would have to apologize sincerely.

Cling to him desperately, lay everything down, shed tears.

“He’s… working really hard. A lot harder than I am, really. So…”
“Yeah, he is. I agree. I have a lot of respect for him.”
“Setsuna…”

And, that would be their chance to excise all the rot from their hearts.

This could be their chance to make up…

“Is that why you gave me to him? You handed me over?”

But, it was too late.

The surface of Setsuna’s heart had already completely worn off.

“You feel safe with him? You know he’ll take care of me? He’ll keep his eyes on me? He’ll stay with me forever?”

The dark substance of it, accumulated like sediment, began violently overflowing.

“The weight is off your shoulders now? You’re free to forget about me? You don’t have to suffer any more?”

Polluting and covering everything—Haruki, Setsuna, their history, the trio’s past.

“That’s great… That’s wonderful…!”

Though she tried desperately to cover her heart with her hands, it boiled over through the gaps between her fingers.

“Gave you? Handed you over? You belong to yourself, Setsuna. You’re not anyone else’s.”
“You think that’s what I want to hear right now?! Something that obvious?!”
“Setsuna…”
“…”

Haruki finally faced her straight-on.

“I’m sorry…”

But the despair etched into his face was even deeper than when he was looking down.

          N-No, this is wrong…

          I just wanted to apologize.

“For everything… I’m sorry.”

By the time she realized, it was too late.

Haruki was even more deeply hurt than she imagined, and that hurt her even more than she imagined.

She had fallen into the same downward spiral.

“I know how badly I’ve hurt you…”

          No, that’s not it. Listen to me.

          I’m the one in the wrong!

“But I was never able to do anything…”

          I’m sorry for the pain I caused you.

          I’m sorry for showing weakness around you.

“Couldn’t move forward, couldn’t move back…”

          You’re all I have, and I still… I’m sorry…!

“Let me just say it again.”

          Yell at me.

“I’m sorry, Setsuna…”

          Explode. Scream at me.

          …You can even hit me.

“I’ve done so many things that I know can’t be forgiven, but still, I’m sorry.”

          Use this opportunity.

          An opportunity for us to clash again.

“But, I…”

          If you do that, then this time, I’ll…

          This time…

“Whatever may happen, I’ll settle it.”
“Ah, aha…”

Snow had begun to fall.

In this place, with nobody but Setsuna.

“Ahaha… ha ha…”

As she looked up into the freezing-cold air…

There it was—the same as this day two years ago, that why emblem of betrayal, out of the sky…

…This time, it was real.

Haruki hadn’t come then.

And now, Haruki had left.

He had betrayed Setsuna then.

And now, he had run away, leaving her still betrayed.

“Ahaha… hahaha… aaaaaaah…!”

There wasn’t the strength left in Setsuna’s frayed heart to hold that reality back any more.

          This time, I’m forgetting him.

          If it hurts this bad, I don’t want to be anywhere near him.

          He thought the same thing about me. That’s why he distanced himself.

          So, I’ll just forget.

          Pile up everything I hate about him, and put him out of my head.

          I’ll hate him. I’ll loathe him.

          I’ve already found the first thing I hate.

          I hate that he didn’t say anything to me, and tried to keep me away…

          Hey, Haruki-kun, we’re finished now.

          This is for the best… Goodbye.


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