The idol who forgot how to sing – III

Chapter 3: The Sentiment, Three Years Later

April.

At last, the third year since Setsuna had entered Houjou University.

The season when “Unreaching Love,” the winter staple, had ceased to play on the school radio station…

“Setsuna! You’re coming to the welcome party next weekend, right?”
“The grad students said we have to bring you this time!”
“Yes, yes, okay, I’ll go!”

Even in a new term, in a new year, Setsuna was placed at the center of attention, just like always.

“Don’t schedule anything else, got it? You’d better come to fourth period. We’re kidnapping you as soon as the lecture is over.”
“I’m gonna keep an eye on you the whole day. Don’t make any suspicious moves!”
“You’ve told me that five times now. Don’t you trust me at all?”
“Uh, no…”
“Yeah, like, coming from the girl who cancelled on the seminar trip last-minute…”
“I-I told you, I had the flu! I told you a million times…”

A month and a half since her twentieth birthday…

Before the new college term started, Setsuna had spent her spring break as what might generously be termed “a shut-in.”

Not because she had actually had the flu, of course—she just didn’t attend the planned seminar trip, didn’t do anything at all from morning to night, and the whole time avoided seeing anyone.
 

“You didn’t even get any invitations from Kitahara-san? That sounds like the end, sis.”
“Haruki-kun is basically living at work throughout the whole spring break. He’s not like a certain little brother who just stays at home and plays video games all day.”
“So, he’s not like a certain older sister, either… actually, never mind. There’s no way for either of us to win this.”
 

This state of things persisted at home…

In other words, she hadn’t even told her family yet that she had broken up with Haruki.

At that moment, Setsuna had found yet another thing she hated about Haruki.

She hated that he had forced her to tell such a pathetic lie.

“God, that wasn’t fun.”
“No kidding. Two of the organizers dropping out…”

Even now, as she was immersed in these unpleasant recollections, the hassling from her two-person “pressure group” didn’t let up.

Although, the leading edge in their tones was one of deep curiosity, rather than resentment…

“Setsuna, I’m really sorry to keep asking you this, but I need you to answer honestly.”
“…Did something happen with Tomochika-kun?”
“Like I’ve told you, over and over, no.”

As proof of that, the conversation had suddenly turned in this direction.

“I was just wondering, since you both cancelled on the same day and all.”
“We thought maybe you’d, you know, eloped… No we didn’t, but people were wondering whether you’d gotten a head start on us.”
“That’s gossip. Literally just gossip… Don’t pull me into stupid stuff like that.”

As with Haruki, Setsuna hadn’t seen Tomochika since the night of her birthday.

As a result, not a single answer, from a single person, had come forth concerning that night.

…Except within Setsuna’s heart.

“Well, right, but you two got super close. I legit thought you might get together.”
“Also, we haven’t seen him since third year started…”
“Yeah, I thought something might have happened… Like, did you get in a fight?”
“A fight? No, why would we?”

She would never fight someone she couldn’t seriously clash against.

That was what she meant.

“Can we quit talking about this, please?”
“Well, the fact remains that you left us hanging.”
“Yeah, though we managed to scrape by thanks to the late Mr. Chairman…”
“God, I don’t even wanna think about what would have happened without Kitahara-kun…”
“I’m not going to skip out this time, okay! Please stop talking about this! Drop it! I’m done!”

The seminar trip, in which neither Setsuna nor Tomochika had participated, had apparently taken a bit of a strange turn.

The two unexpected cancellations left the remaining organizers in a fix, lacking the full information concerning those attending, when suddenly, a savior appeared to stand in for them.

…That is to say, Haruki Kitahara himself, the one who had withdrawn from the seminar because he was transferring in spring.

Making full use of his inherent coordinating abilities, diligence, and the forwardness that allowed him to shy away neither from professors nor from upperclassmen, he recompiled the list of attendants entirely.

And he didn’t stop there—he went along on the trip itself, keeping an eye not only on what was supposed to be Setsuna and Tomochika’s work, but on the other organizers’ task assignments as well, mercilessly speaking up and stepping in wherever thoroughness was lacking, and ultimately came to manage the entire body of organizers.

Room assignments at the boardinghouse, travel to and from the ski resort, running the parties, buying supplies, and so on… He never showed himself up front, but pulled all the strings from behind the scenes.

And, last of all, he returned to Tokyo early, accompanying a senior who had been injured while skiing.

When Setsuna learned of this slightly bewildering legend from the organizers after the fact, she was seized with the impulse to get angry, to ask, “Why didn’t you tell me?!” But it occurred to her that she had no right to talk that way, as someone who had supposedly been stricken down with the flu, and remained silent.

And, after a little while, she realized that she had been wrong to feel excited over this intervention of unclear motivation, and started to see it as a defect of Haruki’s, rather than a virtue.

At that moment, Setsuna found yet another thing to hate about Haruki.

She hated this pointed officiousness of his, which threatened to make her feel guilty.

It was almost halfway through April.

The lectures, which had been tied up in personal introductions and overviews at the start, were beginning to touch upon their actual material.

“I guess… he’s not here.”

Setsuna stood near the entrance of Dining Hall #2 in the north part of campus, seemingly waiting for someone.

She loitered there alone, hugging her shoulders and shivering just slightly. The weather had gotten a good bit warmer, but it was still chilly in the evenings, after fourth period was over.

Her eyes were on the front door of Building 3, which was right next to the dining hall.

Students were trickling out and melting back into the campus, their lectures and seminars over.

Incidentally, Dining Hall #2 and Building 3 were situated almost exactly opposite to Building 6, the Politics and Economics building, on the south side of campus.

The grounds of Houjou University were long from north to south, and it took more than ten minutes to walk between the two places.

And the reason that Setsuna, who was generally a homebody, would take the trouble to walk such a long distance…

“What’s going on, Haruki-kun…?”

Was, of course, because this was the Literature department’s territory.

The day before, she had received some interesting information over the phone from Io.

Although Haruki had transferred into the Literature department for their third year, his attendance percentage had been poor so far this term.

The source of this information was a “friend” of Takeya’s in the Lit department, who had seen Haruki in Building 3 all of three times in the past two weeks.

This might be understood from an average humanities student, but from Haruki, who had a reputation as the “credit king” in Politics and Economics, such an attendance rate sounded like disaster.

…Also, as background for the fact that Io was still passing on gossip about Haruki to Setsuna, there was, of course, a small discrepancy in information…

In other words, Setsuna hadn’t even told her best friends that she had broken up with Haruki.

She had been so thorough in hiding it that whether she actually had the desire to break up was questionable.

“…”

As she reflected upon the state of affairs up to this point, she sighed at how embarrassing she was, as she had proven over and over and over.

What did she expect to accomplish, waiting for Haruki like this?

Even if he were at school today, that didn’t mean she would be able to go up and talk to him.

She would just release the breath she was holding, feeling indignant over being made to worry.

And if he weren’t at school today, that didn’t mean she would be able to call him and check on him.

Her anxiety would just increase, and her curiosity would grow greater.

She was forced to acknowledge that what she was doing was extraordinarily nonsensical, pitiful, almost stalker-like.

But, from Setsuna’s point of view, even that much was Haruki’s fault.

Not to come to school, when he was so quick to scold other people for skipping lectures…

He’d said he was transferring out of interest in his future career, but his actions didn’t line up.

Anyone who told her not to worry over something like this would have something wrong with them.

She hated him a little bit for making her choose to walk all this way.

She hated him a little bit for making her do something this embarrassing.

She hated him a little bit for the selfish conduct that made her worry this much.

And these three “little” hatreds combined to form one more complete thing she hated about him.

“Ah…!”

She made a strenuous effort to soften her expression, which had turned grim on its own…

But she also couldn’t miss that familiar jacket leaving Building 3.

“…Huh?”

Nor could she miss the girl leaving Building 3, right next to that familiar jacket, clinging to its arm.

“C’mon, Haruki, you came all the way to school today, you gotta have a drink with me!”
“After last week’s hangover? No. Let go of me.”
“Don’t talk to me like that, I’m welcoming you! Jerkass.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ve been the one treating you, every time.”
“W-Well, uh, things have been a little tight for me this month…”
“What a coincidence, it’s the same for me. Which means I’m busy with work this month. Bye.”
“God, you’re completely heartless! What, am I just supposed to abstain?!”
“Well, it couldn’t hurt your health. Let go, I don’t want you stretching my sleeve!”

“…”

She couldn’t approach, and couldn’t run away, either.

Just waited as Haruki and the girl clinging to his arm passed in front of her.

Letting them pass from her hiding place, trembling from an unreasonable emotion, the humiliation of not being found.

She couldn’t see the girl’s face, and she didn’t want to.

She just knew, from her voice and manner, that the girl was a completely different type from herself.

Assertiveness that allowed her to just start talking to him. Carefree brightness.

And, above all, the fact that he had accepted her.

…All were things that she had had in the past, and had now lost.

At that moment, Setsuna found one more thing she hated about Haruki.

She detested that he had made her worry, and then done something this horrible to her in return.

“Have you… lost some weight?”

Setsuna remained where she was for a while, staring openly now that they had moved far enough away from her, and feeling a new worry sprouting.

“All right, I’ll go next… Here’s to the coming year. Cheers!”
“Ah, yes… I hope everything goes well… glug…”
“Wooow, nice, nice. You can really drink, Ogiso-chan!”
“Guys, don’t make her drink that much. She usually only has one sip.”
“I dunno, from what I’m seeing, she’s used to this.”
“Maybe she’s just hiding it usually?”
“Oh, no, I… Thank you.”
“S-Setsuna…?”
“That’s the way! All right, my turn next…”

The weekend welcome party was moving too fast for Setsuna.

Her usual moderate, reserved behavior was taking a backseat, and she drank everything that was poured, answered everything that was asked, but didn’t smile back at any of the trivial talk.

To her friends in her class, who always tried to drag her to parties and were consistently disappointed in their attempts, this was a somewhat bewildering sight.

And none of them could have imagined the origin—her former classmate, the male student who had changed departments just recently—or the reason, a jealousy far too petty for the idol of the university…

“That’s a cute blouse. Did that design just come out this year?”
“Oh, um… I just bought it.”

If diligently searching through bargain sales and specials online, carefully selecting the item that put on the best display for its price and ordering it, could be called “just buying it,” then Setsuna’s wording was correct.

Except for that single half-year in high school when she got more relaxed, Setsuna had always been a vain girl.

Though she herself didn’t know to whom she was trying to show off, or what she was so greedy for.

“I assume you’re looking for a guy on the same level?”
“You want a guy who spends good money on his clothes?”
“Guys, I just told you you’re not allowed to ask Setsuna questions like that…”
“Well… I guess I’m not worried about how much money is spent, but I do prefer a guy who puts effort into his personal appearance.”
“S-Setsuna?”
“Aha, got it. Yeah, that makes sense…”
“I mean, if you’re gonna walk next to Miss Houjou, that’s like the most basic requirement.”

It was a fairly innocuous answer…

But, for all the guys present, this first-ever allusion to the Setsuna Ogiso’s tastes was quite an event.

“Hey, Ogiso-chan, mind giving me your evaluation? Would the clothes I’m wearing right now suit you? They’re actually imported directly from Italy…”
“No, you just missed the whole point. It’s not about the money.”
“You gotta raise your level as a person, first. Your personality wouldn’t fit her at all.”

As the guys around her ran every which way with her remarks, Setsuna herself…

          Exactly. Put some effort in.

          You were wearing the same jacket as last year while you walked around with that girl.

          If you’ve changed girlfriends, you ought to change your clothes, too…!

Wrongfully, she was thinking of a guy who wasn’t even here—one who, for that matter, was far removed from the kind of guy she had just mentioned.

Always wearing the same clothes, the same haircut he’d had since high school, unrefined in fashion. His only saving grace was in his cleanliness.

And, although she couldn’t make an unbiased judgment herself, most people would say his looks were only average…

If the group present here were to appraise him, every one of them would most likely give him the “Not Worthy To Walk Next To Setsuna Ogiso” stamp.

And yet, the girl known as Miss Houjou had been jerked around by this guy for the past two years.

She put so much effort and money into herself, but he didn’t respond at all.

At that moment, Setsuna found another thing she hated about Haruki.

She hated that he didn’t notice or care about her appearance.

After that, the welcome party continued to build in excitement, centered around the grad students surrounding Setsuna…

But, after two hours had passed, the students had partied themselves out, beginning to unravel, and a calmer mood fell over the space.

Accordingly, the topics of conversation shifted to what they’d been up to recently, places they’d gone…

“Oh, yeah, I saw Tomochika the other day.”
“Oh, shit, where?”
“At my apartment. He was working on moving someone into the place next door to me.”
“Now you mention it, he hasn’t shown up to seminar at all. You think he’s gonna drop out?”
“I asked, but he didn’t really give me a clear answer…”
“I hope he doesn’t. I need his notes…”
“You’re not really his friend if that’s all you’re worrying about…”
“Well, if we don’t have Kitahara any more, Tomochika is our last hope.”
“Oh, yeah, I saw Kitahara with him, too.”
“Again? That means they’re working at, what, three of the same places now?”
“I know people joke about them dating, but I guess they’re still close after Kitahara’s transfer anyway.”
“I guess smart people just have some kind of understanding…?”
“What? Why…”
“…”
“…”
“Um… Ogiso?”
“Oh… Don’t mind me. Keep talking.”
“But you look pretty upset…”
“All the seniors are glaring at us…”

At the end of the table, as two guys engaged in smaller, more relaxed gossip, Setsuna, who had been monopolizing the focus of the place, had wedged herself in.

…Since right about “I saw Kitahara with him, too.”

“Ugh, I can’t deal with this!”

As Setsuna pushed hard off the street with her heel, she heard an unexpectedly loud, unpleasant crunching sound, shortening the lifespan of both Setsuna and the heel by a bit.

She took the fifteen-minute walk from Suetsugu Station to her house quickly, sometimes cursing like that, sometimes falling into a depression, sometimes getting agitated.

The time was 9:40.

When the main party ended at nine, she betrayed the hopes of the guys who were expecting her to come to the after party, saying it was almost her curfew; she then brushed them off when they offered to see her home, and vanished in the direction of the ticket gate.

The development brought some peace of mind to her female classmates, in a way—“Ah, there’s the Setsuna we know”—but to the male grad students who didn’t know about her self-braking, it was a disaster. They could easily imagine the party going flat without her there.

Setsuna didn’t care about that, however…

          He did it for Tomochika-kun.

          Not for me…

When Haruki came up at the party, Setsuna got excited for a moment.

But, as she listened to the particulars, her irritation steadily grew.

If Haruki was still working at the same places as Tomochika post-transfer, that meant they were still involved with each other.

He never contacted her. He never looked at her, even when she was close by.

He didn’t apologize, refute, explain, or rebuke her for what had happened.

But he hadn’t cut things off with Tomochika, who had given her that unforeseen confession, had caused her such pain.

To Setsuna, this was unforgivable.

Because, now, everything was clear.

The one he had been trying to protect by going on the spring break seminar trip…

The fact that he had intervened on behalf of a continuing friendship…

          Still so nice to everyone, Haruki-kun.

          But not to me. You’re awful…

          Still lecturing everyone, even girls, Haruki-kun.

          But you won’t do it to me. You’re awful…

          Still helping your friends to a fault, Haruki-kun.

          But you won’t help me. You’re awful…

At that moment, Setsuna found two more things to hate about Haruki.

She hated him for steadily blending into a different world, with his friend and his new girlfriend.

She hated him for no longer existing in the world she would never be able to escape.

“I can’t do this I can’t do this I can’t do this!”

Her head was filling up with Haruki.

With every “hatred” she added, her feelings for him intensified beyond what they were before.

“…Ah.”

Setsuna had been doing this the wrong way from the start.

She should have been collecting indifference, not hatred.

…But right now, standing in the street in a daze with one broken shoe, there was no way for her to understand such an obvious fact.

May.

A fine afternoon, the last day of Golden Week.

“Hey, sis, I don’t know whether I should be the one to say this…”
“Then don’t say it.”
“I don’t see how it can be any fun for you to shut yourself up for Golden Week, like you did for Spring Break.”
“I just told you not to say it…”

Setsuna had spent the consecutive holidays just as her brother said.

Yet again, doing nothing from morning to night, avoiding seeing anyone…

“School starts again tomorrow… I don’t really wanna go.”
“…Senioritis?”

But she could only escape reality for one more day.

After today was over, she would return to a life that was full of people, but empty of Haruki.

Even though he had almost never spoken to her when they were in the same department…

Even though she had dragged this loneliness around with her for two years…

Even though they had broken up in spring…

Even though there was no need for her to be assailed by feelings of emptiness…

Setsuna awaited the next day in idleness, with new wounds forming.

…Just as she was on the point of sinking even deeper, the front doorbell rang out shrilly.

“Someone’s at the door, sis.”
“I’m not dressed.”
“I’m in my pajamas!”
“If I walk outside looking like this, everyone in the neighborhood is going to talk. Do you really want that?”
“Then wear real clothes when you’re at home…”

The neighbors did see the daughter of the Ogiso household as a “proper young lady,” in both appearance and personality.

But her brother, who personally saw her loafing around the house like this almost every day, couldn’t possibly agree with that appraisal.

“They just rang again!”
“I know, I heard it! Fine, fine, hang on…”

With a groan, Takahiro finally answered the summons, shuffling down the hallway in his pajamas.

There was an interphone monitor in the living room, but the Ogiso family was fundamentally laid-back enough that no one made use of it as a security device.

After a moment, she heard the door open, then Takahiro talking with someone, and another moment later, the sound of footsteps returned to the hall…

“It’s for you, sis.”
“…Who?”

She no longer had the optimism to hope for Haruki unconditionally.

Thirty minutes later…

By the window of a café, fifteen minutes’ walk from the house, two people sat facing each other.

“It’s been a little while, huh.”
“…Has it?”

Of course it had. They hadn’t seen each other in three months.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch. I’ve had a bit… Well, I’ve had a lot going on, actually.”
“Uh-huh.”

She, too, had “had a lot going on.”

“Have you… lost weight?”
“Oh… I don’t know.”
“I’ve lost eight kilograms, myself… I started working for a moving company, and it’s pretty intense.”

She hadn’t noticed anything—whether he’d lost or gained weight, whether he’d gotten tan or pale.

…She couldn’t even remember what face he had just been making.

And, really, she wasn’t of any mind to look closely at him to check.

“So, what’s this about… Tomochika-kun?”

Because the tiny bit of hope she’d had—even with conditions attached—had been betrayed.

“We kind of left off without resolving anything… It was bothering me.”
“…”

Tomochika’s smile was slightly embarrassed, apologetic, awkward.

But, to Setsuna, that expression didn’t mean anything else.

Just a discomfited look, from a guy she knew.

“So, um… I’ll make this quick—“
“Um…”
“Huh?”
“Sorry, but I have to get back home soon.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry. I said I’d make it quick, but it’s been ten minutes already.”

She had nothing but time.

Her only plans after this were to go home and eat dinner.

But she didn’t want to be here any longer.

“Ogiso, I just… wanted to know your answer for…”
“…”
“…”
“…”
“…I see.”

In response to the continuation of Tomochika’s confession, likely spoken after mustering up a great deal of nerve…

Setsuna gave nothing but complete disregard, even though she was the one who had hastened the topic.

“Sorry, Ogiso… for putting you in that position.”
“…”

Blatantly averting her eyes.

Not denying it in the least.

“I guess I’ll get going, then.”
“…”

And keeping silent, as a sign of affirmation.

“Oh, also…”
“…”

Setsuna had changed.

On her twentieth birthday, three months ago, she had made another subtle change.

“It’s about Haruki…”
“…”

Her kindness, in form only, shown to everyone equally, had disappeared.

She no longer smiled the way she had, only on the surface, at everyone.

“The other day, he and I…”
“…”

She had ceased to be the “good girl” who wanted happiness for everyone.

Her spite had grown a bit too strong to be called the Ogiso family’s pride and joy.

“I guess you’re not interested in that, either?”
“…”

The pheromones that drew people in remained as they were.

But she had grown sharp thorns, to pierce anyone who got too close.

“Did you… break up for real?”
“…”

As things were, she might well make extra enemies.

Perhaps the girl who had been loved above all would become hated above all.

“…Actually, you probably don’t want to talk about that, either. Forget I said anything.”
“…”

Yes, just like the one who had been Setsuna’s best friend, for one scant moment…

“Okay, I’m leaving for real this time—“
“Wait.”
“Huh?”
“What about Haruki-kun?”
“…”

Now, it was Tomochika’s turn to fall silent.

“What about him?”
“…Pff…”
“Wh-What? What is it?”

And, now, he began to laugh in astonishment.

To laugh at this question, posed and timed in the most selfish way imaginable.

“You’re cruel, Ogiso.”
“…Huh?”

But he knew. No, he had known since they first spoke.

Known about this awful behavior of Setsuna’s, almost unconscious.

“Your personality suddenly changes when Haruki comes up. You genuinely don’t care at all about what other guys think.”
“Huh? Huh?”

But it was completely beyond the scope of Setsuna’s expectations that she would ever be accused of being “cruel.”

This word that she had spoken any number of times in cursing Haruki—now that it was being returned to her, exactly, cursing her, all she could do was accept it as it pierced.

“It’s crazy how you’re so popular anyway…”
“…What about Haruki-kun?!”
“…Right, right.”

Setsuna had changed.

…But, apparently, her fundamental essence hadn’t.

For better, or for worse.

There was a reason that Tomochika had stopped coming to school in April.

No, there was a reason that he hadn’t come along on the seminar trip in February, too.

…Because the day of his sick mother’s operation had been set.

And on short notice—she was to be hospitalized the day that they departed for the trip, and the operation was to take place the day after.

Time, money, readiness, the future… with so many problems weighing him down, he had no choice but to turn to Haruki, whom he had run into that night, causing such awkwardness for both of them.

Haruki came half an hour after he was called.

Calm, in control, preachy, just like always, he gave Tomochika a pep talk, as though that night had never happened, and then got to work.

First, he took care of the most immediate matter—preparations for hospitalization, gathering the needed funds, and following up with their lodging.

…In other words, when it came to the trip, it wasn’t Setsuna that Haruki had saved.

Whatever circumstances he might have had, no matter how deep, how pressing, how characteristic, that fact did not change.

Haruki returned the night of the operation, which was a success, finally bringing Tomochika some relief.

After hearing the news and being reassured himself, he started the procedures for hospitalizing the senior who had fractured his leg.

Everything progressed well for Tomochika’s mother, and in the middle of March, she was at last discharged.

In the meantime, Haruki had found space in his busy schedule to go and visit her a number of times.

With all of that, the day for which Tomochika had dearly wished—a complete recovery for his mother—was growing very near.

But they both knew that the real battle was only beginning.

Surgical fees, hospitalization fees, all the money that would be required for treatments, rehabilitation, medicine…

Insurance would cover some of it, but the amount left over was enormous, and with tuition cutting in, it wasn’t possible for the Tomochika household to get by on part-time jobs.

So, naturally, Tomochika resolved himself to drop out of the university and work.

…But the one who most vehemently objected to that noble determination was none other than Haruki.

He lectured Tomochika for three days and three nights, telling him not to waste his talent, not to waste the year’s worth of hard work that got him into college, that if he could weather this now, it would be sure to benefit his future.

Tomochika finally buckled beneath his persistence, and immediately began to act.

He looked into every scholarship that he could take simultaneously, building a foundation that would allow him to devote himself to his studies.

Then, in April, to handle the upcoming tuition payment deadline, he added the job with the moving company to the two he was working already.

Of course, Haruki was right there with him, keeping an eye on him and encouraging him when he got discouraged, unaccustomed as he was to manual labor.

His look, attitude, and actions were fierce and relentless, and caused Tomochika to feel immensely indebted to him…

And things went on like this for a month.

At last, yesterday, with Tomochika and Haruki’s salaries combined, they somehow reached the necessary tuition amount.

The night before, they had raised a toast in celebration.

“Without Haruki, I would have dropped out ages ago.”
“…”
“You never find anyone who’ll plunge into other people’s circumstances like that. Most people would never go this far, even if they were getting something in return.”
“…”
“He’s a nut, and he drives me up the wall, and he’s my best friend.”
“…”

Setsuna fell silent once again.

Desperately hid her wavering eyes.

“So, I want him to…”
“…Congratulations.”
“Ogiso?”

But, right now, she couldn’t maintain her indifference.

“About your mother. Congratulations… I hope she recovers completely soon.”
“O-Oh… Thanks. Well…”
“Yes, I’m really glad. And I mean that, okay?”
“Ogiso…”
“I’m sorry, Tomochika-kun. I got so hung up on little things, and hurt you.”
“No, no. I was the one who didn’t get the message. So…”
“I’m… going to leave now. I’m really sorry.”

Her heart… was about to break.

She thought her heart had broken in February.

But that wasn’t true.

She had just assumed it was, blaming everything on him.

But Haruki wasn’t the one in the wrong. He wasn’t the cruel one.

She realized that the truly wrong one, the truly cruel one, was the other member of that pair…

“Wait, Ogiso. There’s still something I want to say…”

The reason for Setsuna’s despair was disconnected from the essence of what Tomochika had said.

It wasn’t that she was embarrassed for having hated Haruki without knowing the situation, now that she knew he had done it for his friend.

“Sorry… I can’t.”

It was because, even though she had learned how strong and noble he really was…

She was jealous of Tomochika and his mother, and that terrible part of her nature had come home to her.

“…You might regret it if you don’t listen to me.”

As she listened to Tomochika’s story, Setsuna was biting her lips, feeling both happy and viciously bitter.

“There’s… nothing for me to regret any more.”

Haruki hadn’t actually changed at all.

But, at that moment, he had prioritized Tomochika over her.

Even now that she knew the unavoidable circumstances that led to it, her pride wouldn’t allow her to forgive it all.

She was a truly awful woman.

“I told you Haruki and I were drinking together last night…”
“Stop.”
“It was about how I’ll be able to come back to school. He was as happy as if it had happened to him.”
“Stop!”
“And… he broke off our friendship.”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with m—huh?”
 

“Wait, hang on… What are you talking about, Haruki?”
“You don’t have to pay me back. Use it all.”
“No, I can’t do that. You’re my friend. I can’t just take your money…”
“No, you have to. …I’m about to do something terrible to you.”
“Seriously, what the hell are you…”
“Let me punch you… Just once.”
“…Haruki?”
“I’m really sorry to drag this up now, but I’ve been suppressing it for a long time.
“I almost exploded so many times, but I held it back until your mom’s operation was done.
“I put it off again and again, until she’d been discharged, until your tuition was paid off.
“But… I don’t have to now, right? You’ll be fine without me from now on.
“So… we’re done. And you can back the hell off, you son of a bitch!
“You fell for Setsuna, didn’t you?
“You confessed to her right in front of me.
“You tried to take her from me…!”
“Well, I mean, you’ve been avoiding her.”
“So what?!”
“You can’t tell me you weren’t planning on breaking up with her!”
“You don’t know the first damn thing about us… Don’t talk like you know!”
“Haruki…”
“I, I… I betrayed Setsuna.
“I know she’ll never accept me again. She’ll never forgive me.
“But I can’t… I can’t let another guy go after her.”
“Isn’t that pretty unfair to her?”
“It is unfair. It’s cruel!
“But it’s how I feel. I can’t stand it!”
“Tomochika, you’re a good guy. You’re a great guy.
“I think you’re even more commendable as a person than my best friend.
“You might even be able to make Setsuna happy.
“But I don’t want to see Setsuna happy with another guy…!”
“Feel free to keep coming to me whenever you have any trouble. I won’t hesitate to help.
“But, we’re not friends any more… I’m not forgiving you again.”

“And he really did hit me. See, here’s the bruise.”
“…”
“I don’t think he’s hit anyone before, though. He probably hurt his fist more than me.”
“…”

She clenched up both her hands, and set them in her lap.

“Frankly, we probably both looked pretty lame in the moment.”

She moved her fists between her thighs, and clenched them even more tightly.

“He was super serious, though. It was a big shock to me.”

Not to suppress her emotions, but for a more practical reason.

“I thought he was my best friend, but he tore that apart.”

Right now, there was a different part of Setsuna that needed suppressing.

“But, I know it’s completely my fault. So I can’t go back.”

Something was threatening to spill out, and she had to hold it back.

“So, you see how he feels about you, Ogiso… He really—“
“…I’m sorry.”
“Huh…?”

She was throbbing.

“I know apologizing won’t fix anything, but I’m sorry!”

As she basked in Haruki’s extraordinary selfishness and possessiveness…

She was moments away from getting wet.

“…Will you look at me, please?”
“…”

The two of them, a guy and a girl, facing each other across a table by the window of a café.

And she had had her head deeply bowed for a while now.

It looked so much like trouble in paradise that the customers around them couldn’t help but stare.

“Really, I want to say there’s nothing for you to apologize for…”
“No, I’m the one in the wrong.”

But Setsuna accepted those odd stares without shame.

“It’s my fault Haruki-kun did that terrible thing to you.”
“Ogiso…”
“I’m the one who made him do something so stupid.”

          It’s because I let another guy make a move on me, when I’m supposed to be his.

          Yes, I belong to him. He could never allow that.

Setsuna’s stance was so incredibly arrogant, giving no sense of gratitude.

“So, let me apologize.”
“If it’ll satisfy you to feel like you’re responsible…”

She couldn’t go on being apologized to. It just felt so ridiculous.

“…I’m sorry. I mean it.”

Finally, Setsuna looked up.

With slightly upturned eyes, and a smile that was a little mischievous, unbearably lovely…

Exceptionally adorable, and impish—the smile of three years before.

“Sheesh…”

Faced with that smile, Tomochika found himself even more lost than he had been that night in February.

Because he realized he had still been underestimating the extent of Setsuna’s appeal.

No—in all likelihood, no one who had met her since she started college knew.

Knew that the Setsuna Ogiso was concealing such tremendous, devilish charm.

But that was a charm only seen when she was full of love for a certain someone…

Something like a desert mirage, which would never reach him.

“I’ve really… been an idiot, huh?”

As her heel scraped lightly against the ground, a small “clunk” caused her to panic, hurriedly lifting her shoe to make sure the heel was okay.

She was wearing the same shoe she had broken the month before, which had just come back from being repaired.

The neighborhood shoe shop had fixed it up for a thousand yen, and the parts had been changed just slightly, but it still had the same feel, supporting Setsuna’s body perfectly.

It was a ten-minute walk from the café where she had parted from Tomochika, back to her house.

…Thirty minutes after that, Setsuna was still meandering around her neighborhood, taking her time and plenty of detours in returning home.

She walked leisurely, at times deriding herself, at times reflecting, always giggling.

As they were parting, Tomochika had told her, “I want to make up with Haruki if I can.”

And Setsuna had smiled lightly, said, “I’m sure you will,” and turned her back on him.

…Completely disregarding his possible desire for her to act as an intermediary.

          I’m sorry.

          I’m a terrible woman.

          My personality is warped.

          …Because of Haruki-kun.
 

“…When I’m talking to Kitahara-kun, I can sense my personality twisting.”
 

She remembered her own words from three years ago—back when she was still calling him “Kitahara-kun,” and he was still calling her “Ogiso”—with some nostalgia.

Smiling wryly, pondering how cute her own irrational sulking had been.

          See, it makes me happy that you two fell out.

          It makes me happy that Haruki-kun went astray on my account.

As Setsuna walked along like that, chuckling with such a charming look on her face, the darkness overflowing from the words that crossed her mind would have caused anyone who didn’t know her well to shudder.

          Haruki-kun got violent.

          He did something he never should have done.

          …Because of me.

          He lost control because of me.

Perhaps Setsuna did have the resourcefulness of an idol.

After all, she could smile at anyone now.

She could respond with a perfectly superficial smile.

…Even if, in her heart, she didn’t care about them in the least.

Even if she was only thinking about one single man, who wasn’t there.

          I’m the only one who can drive him mad…

          The only one who can corrupt him.

          I, and Kazusa…

          That’s why I’ve been chosen.

          Why he gives me special treatment.

She was no longer “Setsuna-chan, from the Ogiso family.”

The real Setsuna, the little girl who was raised with love by her parents, was supposed to be honest and kind, a good girl who wanted happiness for everyone.

          Maybe he doesn’t love me. Maybe he hates me.

          But he can’t stay indifferent to me.

But Setsuna was able to draw a clean line there, to say, “I’m allowed to be bad right now.”

She had to protect herself, even if it meant hurting someone else.

It might be wrong, but this was the only thing she could do right now.

          I’m being so egocentric, it’s unbelievable…

          I guess this makes me just like you, Kazusa…

Wanting everyone to be happy.

Wanting people around her to be happy.

…Wanting the three of them to be happy.

          Just kidding… Are you mad, Kazusa?

          But, I don’t think I said anything wrong.

          Neither of us can keep caring about how we look.

To be tied to the one she loved.

To be full of love.

It was the first thing she had ever prayed for…

          Hey, Haruki-kun…

Setsuna kept walking, looking up at the sky.

The starry sky, with a warm wind blowing, no more snow to come.

She kept looking up, trying to keep anything more from spilling from her eyes.

          You’ve been so terrible, causing me so much pain, constantly.

          But you can’t stand by when other people make me suffer.

          You’re a coward, who refused to accept me.

          But you treat me like I belong to you.
 

          Just to warn you, I’m pretty popular.

          Plenty of guys approach me.

          And yet, you’re so stubborn, and so unfaithful.

          …You won’t even look at me.

          You’ve loved a girl other than me, this whole time.

          And you won’t let me go…

At that moment, Setsuna finally found what she hated the most about Haruki.

…She loved that, as hard as she tried to hate him, he managed to ruin the whole thing.

That night, Setsuna rewarded herself for the first time in months.

She pushed her body to its utmost limits, biting down on the sheet to keep herself from screaming.

Crushing her nipple between the fingers of one hand, working vigorously inside of herself with the other.

Her fluid spread across the sheet, her toes stretching heavenward.

Her legs tightened up, and her whole body spasmed hard, climaxing over and over and over…


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