The Snow Melts, and Until it Falls Again… – II

Chapter 2: Summer

The middle of August was approaching, and the high-school baseball quarterfinals were ready to go…

And Kazusa was passing a truly appalling summer vacation.

The notion she’d had before the break of taking a trip by herself had been dropped in a matter of seconds—too much trouble—and there wasn’t anything she wanted to do, or had to do, so she lolled around in the giant living room of the Touma house, running their air conditioner at full power because it wasn’t cooling enough, sleeping whenever she felt like it, waking whenever she felt like it. This indolent lifestyle, day after day.

That chairman was probably the economizing type. What would he say, seeing this way of life, or this month’s electrical bill? She cut that ridiculous train of thought off. No thinking.

Until two years ago, she had practiced the piano for ten hours a day, every day—whether during school or during summer break. Now, that was reduced to twice a week, maybe three or four hours each time, far from a level that would eat up the twenty-four hours of free time she had.

Still, she’d had a reasonable amount to do in July.

Having quickly given up on the idea of doing absolutely nothing during the break, she started going to driving school on the first day, with the notion of getting her license.

According to the schedule at the outset, she was going to need to attend for at least a month, even if things went well—and really, she should have been busy with on-road training at this point… but, yet again, it became clear that Kazusa Touma and anything with “school” in the name just didn’t click.

With her strong innate sense, she was able to handle before breakfast the lessons that most people could clear, and she cleared every practice session in one go as well, then got out of the car immediately for whatever time was left over.

Even with this student’s rampant selfishness, the female instructor who had been assigned to her had a certain friendliness… or one might say timidity, and let it slide for a while.

The fact that this instructor was knocked out of commission with a cold for a few days, shortly after entering the third stage, threw a big wrench into Kazusa’s summer vacation.

The middle-aged man who came in as a substitute instructor refused to let Kazusa out of the car even if she cleared the assignment in no time at all, instead demanding that she practice the same thing over and over.

That itself was technically according to the rules, so Kazusa as a student had no right to complain, but everything else about it got on her nerves.

His tendency to pick out faults in her driving even when she hadn’t made any mistakes. His tone, criticizing every little flaw in every answer she gave. And, least bearable of all, the way he kept randomly touching her shoulders, hips, and hands…

All of these components reminded Kazusa of a certain head-of-year, and during her third lesson, she got out of the car with ten minutes to go.

There may or may not have been an instructor nearly passed out from agony in the passenger’s seat, clutching a certain area of his anatomy… but regardless, she naturally did not receive her certificate of completion, and Kazusa never returned to that driving school again.

And yet, she now held a brand-new driver’s license.

…Because, one week later, she had managed to pass the exam in one try, simply through independent study and practice.

Setting aside practical skill, what would that pedantic chairman have said if he knew that she had scored 90 points in the subject after one try? She allowed herself to find some satisfaction in the notion.

Kazusa knew.

She knew that she was capable of anything, if she was of a mind to do it.

Aside from the piano that her mother had abandoned.

“Guess I’ll… get going.”

Seeing by the wall clock that it was three in the afternoon, Kazusa sat up from the sprawling living room floor and began taking off her loungewear.

Her hip-length black hair was briefly hoisted up, and the moment her shirt was removed, it flowed down her naked back.

Her ample breasts bounced out, with no bra confining them, their slight imbalance with her slender body producing its own exquisite sort of balance.

Then, stretching her naked body out taut, she walked to the corner of the room, picked some underwear out of the garments that sat folded there, and casually put them on.

Of course, Kazusa had not set them there herself; it was the housekeeper who came in twice a week, who had laundered them.

Next, she took her uniform, which that same housekeeper had also cleaned, from its hanger on the wall, and this, too, she slipped casually onto her body.

“…Looks hot.”

Now that she was nearly dressed, Kazusa looked at the sun-blasted world outside the window, narrowing her eyes slightly at its brightness.

It did seem hot out, and the weather report had forecasted temperatures in excess of thirty-five degrees Celsius.

In the midst of this heat wave, in her school-regulation uniform, Kazusa was about to head for the campus, where her attendance wouldn’t even be noted because the break was still on.

For her, this could only be an arduous, pointless, exhausting activity…

“Ugh…”

But, even though she grumbled, Kazusa was in a slightly better mood today, even compared with the self-indulgent, slothful days she had been spending.

Because today was Tuesday.

Which meant there was something just a little bit better than usual.

During summer break, the campus was neither completely still nor especially noisy, enveloped in a sort of mild hustle and bustle.

In the schoolyard, the zealously-training members of the sports club were starting to call out in tired voices, about ready to knock off, while inside the building were enthusiastic voices, ready to move to the main event now that the air had cooled a little.

Kazusa, who had never in her life had anything to do with the sports club, quickly ducked into the main building, before ascending the familiar stairs to the third floor.

And, once she reached the third floor, she proceeded down the west hallway containing all the special classrooms, aiming for the one at the very back… Music Room #2.

The fully open windows rendered the soundproofing completely meaningless, and the guitar, drums, and bass coming from the nearby Music Room #1 were almost painfully loud.

But Kazusa didn’t react to this din; and, after carefully checking her surroundings and confirming that she was the only one in the hallway, she unlocked the door to Music Room #2 and quickly slipped in.

Her fluid series of motions didn’t stop there. Now she set the lock again and turned on the lights in the dim room, its curtains shut even though it was daytime.

The true identity of the “Master of Music Room #2” had always been concealed in this way.

The closed-off classroom was, as always, exceedingly humid, and within seconds she felt as though all the pores in her body had opened up at once.

Kazusa picked up the AC remote controller, and just as she did at home, with no concern for electric bills or the environment, she set the wind power to maximum, the temperature as low as it would go, and hit the switch.

Then, finally, she followed through on her original purpose, and sat down before the piano.

Just as she had in the competition, she sank deeply into the bench, sticking out her backside, and stretched her spine out taut.

However, she did not begin playing immediately.

She set her fingers on the keys, stared into space, and listened to the performance in the next classroom over.

She wasn’t focusing her mind, or waiting for her sweat to dry up.

She was waiting for something else.

Five o’clock p.m., when the band practice next door was supposed to end.

The drums, being bashed hard enough to drown out all other sounds.

The bass, modest but always stable in its sound.

The somewhat narcissistic guitar.

The inexperienced keyboard.

And the female vocalist—well, she wasn’t there today. She seemed to be skipping out constantly, actually.

It was probably the light music club, or a band that just came together out of people who were interested.

They must be spending all of their time rehearsing, even throughout the summer break, in order to play at the Houjou High School cultural festival that was coming up that fall.

That said, the fact that Kazusa still hadn’t started playing wasn’t because she wanted to avoid disrupting them, or to enjoy their sound.

To Kazusa’s ears, listening to a performance like this in the first place was a waste of time.

In other words, the fact that she hadn’t started playing…

The fact that she had bothered to take the train to come here, in this heat, even though she had a very high quality piano at home…

Was, in short, so that she could indulge in an even worse waste of time.

As she had predicted, a few minutes after five on the classroom clock, the performance next door stopped.

“Here we go…”

And Kazusa’s piano started up quietly, covering over the lingering notes.

Softly and slowly at first, as a trial run.

Nonchalantly, so that as far as the people next door, and the sports club members outside, could tell, she had been playing for a little while already—just drowned by the sound of the band.

Kazusa knew.

She knew that Tuesday and Thursday afternoons were their rehearsal times.

This light music club, or this band that came together out of shared interest.

These members of moderate skill levels got together, practiced for two hours, from three to five, tidied up as necessary, and left the classroom around five thirty.

And, then…

“…Goddamn shitty guitar player.”

The guitar part from “Stairway to Heaven” floated in on the wind, weaving its way through the gaps between the piano’s notes.

Yes, Kazusa knew.

Or, rather, she had recently deduced the rule behind it.

That, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons…

After the band’s rehearsal ended, “Guitar-boy” began his own practice session.

The one behind the sound was probably a member of that band.

But she never heard tones like this within the group rehearsal.

In the band, the guitar could get a little carried away, but it was at a relatively listenable level—a different rank from this guitar, at least.

In other words, “Guitar-boy” here must be the second guitar, a spare, an errand boy, a handyman.

And he devoted himself to his personal practice sessions like this, staying behind after the other members had left, in an effort to bridge the skill gap between him and everyone else.

Steady, earnest, humble, hardworking…

So Kazusa dubbed the one behind this lousy sound “Guitar-boy,” and harbored a secret sort of fondness for… What? No, she was determined at all costs not to feel that way.

For some reason, she hated that sort of “Effort is a virtue” attitude with a fiery passion.

Kazusa believed that results were everything, in all things.

Whether those results were reached after lots of hard work, or whether they just happened from pure talent with barely any effort at all, didn’t matter.

It was certainly more valuable by far than a lack of results after working hard.

The guitar moved on to “Shoro nagashi.”

For this reason, Kazusa found no value at all in these clumsy sounds.

There was just something comfortable about this perfect balance of awkwardness.

Having her own superiority complex satisfied just felt nice.

She didn’t hate it. That was all…

“Ah…”

Sighing as the guitar slipped out of time, she kept her piano playing neutral, not dragging, her rhythm and notes remaining accurate always.

Just listening to the guitar.

Just playing the piano as she pleased.

The other might be in the next classroom over, but there was no point of contact between them.

The guitar moved on to “White Album,” seemingly confident that it could handle this one.

Kazusa had no interest in knowing any more about her neighbor Guitar-boy.

After all, she couldn’t even find any common ground with her own classmates. There was no way she could hold a conversation with a total stranger.

If they did meet face-to-face, she might stop hearing this sound after next week.

So, just like always, she shut herself away in Music Room #2, turned the AC on at full blast, opened the window, thereby drastically reducing the efficiency of both air-conditioning and soundproofing—and in this environment, she continued to play the piano, and to listen to the lousy guitar.

With an earth-shaking explosion, a new star was born in the sky, only to fizzle out in an instant.

The second-floor balcony of the Touma house was a special reserved seat for this once-a-year big bang—the summer festival fireworks display from the next town over.

“…Are you mad?”
“You’re asking now? What do you care…?”

But, as Kazusa looked up at the night sky from the balcony, the voice she finally mustered up contrasted starkly with the lively energy of the sky.

In other words, it was a darker, heavier voice than usual.

“Well, I do, and that’s why I’m apologizing. The negotiations and everything here are dragging on longer than I thought they would, and I wasn’t able to find time to go back over there for a visit.”
“Oh, okay.”

And the voice coming out of the cellphone against Kazusa’s ear was apologetic in tone, though not especially dark or heavy.

Did the other party realize that her own lightness of manner had Kazusa’s voice stuck in a vicious cycle, sinking lower and lower, heavier and heavier?

“Kazusa, are you listening?”
“I’m listening, and I’m not mad. I’m not that kid any more.”

Youko Touma. Kazusa’s own mother. Her only blood relative.

The one who left her only daughter in Japan, moved to Europe alone, and was the whole reason Kazusa was the way she was now.

“…Also, I never believed a word you said.”

She had known there was no use in hoping.

She hadn’t thought it was important enough to hope for, anyway.

“Oh, I sent you a souvenir, by the way. It should arrive tomorrow.”
“Yeah? Thanks.”

“I should be able to stop back in Japan for a day after my concert in China. Why don’t we go get dinner or something?”

This trivial promise from Youko—which hardly sounded like the sort of thing a parent would say to her child—was, of course, neglected just as trivially.

This was her third broken promise this year.

…To turn it around, she hadn’t once kept that promise this year.

“Are you going to school?”
“I’m on summer break right now.”

They hadn’t seen each other in a year and a half.

Kazusa wasn’t even sure she could remember her face accurately.

“All right… Well, why don’t you come visit Paris, then? I won’t be able to spend any time with you, because I’ll be getting ready for my next tour, but I can have someone from my staff show you around.”
“No thanks. I’m busy, too. As busy as you.”

Then again, maybe it was better that she couldn’t see her.

…Kazusa couldn’t even guess what abuse she might heap on her mother if they saw each other now.

“If you say so. Well, I’d better go. It looks like we’ve finally started boarding.”
“Okay, bye.”
“Oh, but, Kazusa…”
“!”

At the same moment that the ten-burst finale split the sky, Kazusa’s cellphone scattered into shards, having been flung hard against the balcony.

But she didn’t care if it was broken.

The only person who called this phone was the one who had just skipped out on a promise, and wouldn’t be coming back to Japan for who knew how long.

“Ha. Ha ha…”

Kazusa’s profile, lit by the gleam of the fireworks in the wide-open sky, diverged in a number of regards from the good mood of that afternoon.

She hadn’t gotten her hopes up.

It hadn’t been important enough to hope for.

“I don’t care…”

No, she couldn’t convince herself that simply.

The world still existed purely to hurt Kazusa.

At least, Kazusa had begun to believe that much again.

Even the terrible guitar playing, twice a week.

Even the fireworks that had brightly garnished the night sky until moments ago.

All of it was some trial set by God, to further emphasize the contrast with her present despair… or maybe it was just a caprice.

“I really don’t care…”

It seemed so ridiculous.

The part of her that had spent today feeling a tiny bit lighthearted seemed deeply, painfully ridiculous.

Kazusa Touma hated the sky.

She especially detested the starry sky that had suddenly become so desolate, now that the fireworks were over.

The chairman’s nosiness. Guitar-boy’s terrible playing. Her own inability to learn.

She hated it all so immensely that she could cry.

Two days later, Thursday.

Just as she always did on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Kazusa put on her uniform and left the house.

However, it was at a different time from the usual on Tuesdays and Thursdays—in the morning, under a downpour of blazing sunlight.

Even in her brief ten minutes on the train, she rubbed at her sleepy eyes over and over, nodded off several times, and quite nearly missed the stop at Minami-Suetsugu.

Because, ever since the call from Youko two nights ago, she hadn’t slept a wink, even though she hadn’t taken a single step outside.

Kazusa had not slept in over thirty hours.

At first, the jumble of all the negative feelings in her head disrupted her, so that even if she shut her eyes, she experienced no sleepiness.

Although she was wide awake, she couldn’t find the will to do anything; so there in that sprawling, empty house, she wandered into the maze of her own thoughts, and spent the whole day there.

Then, last night, whether because she had finally broken out of her spiritual prison or because her body had simply reached its limit, she found herself assailed by a fierce drowsiness.

But Kazusa rejected the desire to sleep, this time with a clear-cut volition.

“Ugh…”

It had already struck her as she left the house, but when she got off at the Minami-Suetsugu station, the rays of the sun were more conspicuous than usual.

Because, unlike two days ago, it was the hour at which the heat was nearing its peak.

Because her body, after being shut in for two nights, couldn’t regulate its temperature well enough to handle that heat.

And, above all, because according to the weather forecast, today was supposed to be the hottest day of the year…

When, with great difficulty, she reached the high school, it was past noon.

She always had to take a detour around the schoolyard, so as not to get in the way of the sports club; but with everyone on lunch break, the yard was empty at the moment, so she cut straight across, rushed to the shoe cupboard, and rested her hands on her knees, breathing heavily.

Her stamina was at its limit—if she had to walk another five minutes outside in this heat, for all she knew, she could get heatstroke.

After catching her breath for a few more minutes by the shoe cupboard, she stepped on the pedal for the water cooler. It had clearly already been ravaged by the sports club members as they started their break, and the water that ran down her throat was no cooler than normal tap water.

She winced hard at the first mouthful, but sometimes one just had to make sacrifices; after gulping down the tepid water, she pulled out five or six of the candies she always kept stashed away in her pocket, tossed them into her mouth, and crunched them down.

And, after taking in water and calories for the first time in nearly a day and a half, Kazusa finally started dragging her legs in the direction of the third floor.

She was actually so exhausted by the time she reached the campus that she couldn’t possibly climb any steps; her brain, at least, had recognized that.

“Ah…”

One step, another step, a moment’s rest, another step—after taking almost ten minutes to climb fewer than fifty stairs, she finally reached the third floor hallway…

And a sound reached Kazusa’s ears, so off-key that it dispelled the feeling of the labor she had just undergone.

It came from one spot ahead of her usual destination.

From one classroom east of the westernmost end of the hallway.

In other words, it was the lousy guitar she heard from Music Room #1.

“…”

After slowly accustoming her ears to the discord, Kazusa gathered her energy back up, and took a firm step down the hallway.

Not, of course, toward Music Room #2.

At some point, the sweat that had been gushing out of her whole body had cleared.

Her flushed face had regained its normal hue.

Her heavy, ragged breathing was perfectly settled.

The usual Kazusa Touma, like a keen-edged blade, was complete.

Kazusa knew.

She knew the reason that she had left home earlier than usual today.

It was because she believed he would be here.

Guitar-boy always did his own solo review session after band practice was over.

And, knowing him, he would never skimp on pre-rehearsal, either.

Why? Because…

“Kitahara…?”
“Wha… Oh.”

The face that turned her way was all too familiar.

“…What are you doing? It’s summer break. Aren’t you in the go-home club?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?”

When Guitar-boy—Haruki Kitahara—saw Kazusa’s face, he looked startled for half a second, but quickly turned away again, focusing his gaze on his own fingertips and the strings.

This behavior could be taken as embarrassment at seeing someone completely unexpected, or as lingering ill-feeling after what had happened when they parted on the day of the end-of-term ceremony…

“Well, whatever it is, I can tell that you’re shitty at it…”

So Kazusa, in an attempt to figure out the meaning behind his reaction, clumsily piled on the provocation.

“Touma, you’re not in any clubs either, right? So why the hell are you here at school during summer break?!”
“The second someone gets you pinned, you snap? Weak…”

…While feeling a bit more hurt with every response he gave.

“I only just started this year. Of course I’m kinda bad at it.”
“I mean… Look, you’re just holding down chords. I don’t see how you could mess that up.”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone says when they’ve never tried it before…”
“Heh…”
“Touma… You have a tendency to scoff at people who are trying their hardest at something. You really ought to change that.”
“Trying hard, eh?”
“Whatever anyone else might say, I think people who sweat are the most admirable. I mean, it’s the same whether you’re using your body or your head…”
“Huh.”

Nothing he said was of any interest to Kazusa.

Because she believed that people who produced results were far more impressive than people who sweated.

Because she wasn’t so estranged from the instrument as to be called someone who had “never tried it before.”

Because he was worse than “kinda bad at it.”

“What are you here for? If you want extra lessons, then later I could see about…”
“Give me that.”
“Huh…?”

Because she knew he had only started this year.

“Give it to me.”
“What? But…”

After all, she had been hearing him play since the beginning…

“Just for a second.”
“Touma…?”

She held out her hand, and Kitahara, seeming a little bewildered, slowly presented her with the guitar.

Kazusa accepted it casually, pulled up a stool, settled herself onto it as deeply as she did with the piano, and wrapped her fingers around the strings.

“Ah…”

Playing exactly the same song that he had just been playing.

As though it were a different song entirely.

…Showing off to him.

“Ah, um…”

Why? Because that was Kazusa’s entire purpose for today.

Not extra lessons.

And she wasn’t here to play the piano, either, for once.

She simply came to see him.

The boy there in front of her, Guitar-boy, the chairman.

Kazusa had been lying to herself, and everyone else, this whole time.

She knew Guitar-boy’s true identity from the start.

The clumsiness of tone, the diligence, the inflexibility, were all unmistakably his.

A few days after she first met him, and stabbed him with the cold blade of her words…

That spring day, when she first heard his sound, and was disgusted with his abysmal performance…

She had realized that the figure she saw from behind, as he left the twilit Music Room #1, was that of the nagging chairman.

“…”

“Guitar-boy” caught his breath.

“Mr. Chairman” stared at Kazusa’s hands and face in alternation.

The skill of her fingers, manipulating the strings with flowing motions.

The expression that differed so completely from how she looked in the classroom—serious, but with a hint of enjoyment.

It was a face that Kazusa never made, except on special days.

The day that she intentionally ignored the chairman’s interference, for example.

The day that she poured out a torrent of abuse onto Kitahara after he spoke a word too much, for example.

The day that she responded to the over-familiar attitude of the classmate who sat next to her with a cold gaze, for example…

On those days that left some sour feeling in her heart, she always waited in the classroom next to this one, waited for the sound of this lousy guitar playing.

And if her wish was granted, if she did start to hear the tones of the guitar, she would cover over it with her piano, or perhaps allow the guitar to take charge, and the two sounds would converse.

This was the face Kazusa made at those times.

The face she made when she arbitrarily decided they had reconciled, and allowed herself to feel relief.

“Thanks.”
“…”

After she’d played through the whole thing, she held the guitar out, but its previous owner was completely rigid.

“…You don’t want it?”
“…”

No, he was moving just a bit.

“Kitahara…? Are you crying?”
“…Sorry. Please don’t make me any more miserable than I already am.”

His whole body was trembling.

“…Did I hurt you?”
“I’m gutted… I’m agonizingly aware of my own of talent…”
“Not talent. Practice. It’s about the amount of sweating you’ve done, like you said.”
“Huh…?”

At these preachy words, which sounded so much like something he himself would say, Kitahara looked up.

“If you actually put your back into practicing, you’ll be able to do this much in a short amount of time. You talk pretty big, but you’re not working nearly hard enough.”
“But… I already do two hours a day…”

However, the statement that followed—words with a certain weight, coming from personal experience—was a simple, outright lie, where Kazusa was concerned, purely for the purpose of making herself look good.

Because, for the guitar playing that Kazusa had just demonstrated, that “short amount of time” was entirely too short, and it wasn’t persuasive at all.

“This is something you get from practicing ten hours a day.”

Yes, there had been ten hours of practice a day.

“That’ll make you a pro.”
“…I don’t really care about being a pro.”

…It was only last night, but it was still ten hours in one day.

“Still, wow… You play guitar, Touma?”
“No. I just messed around with it for a few days a little while back.”
“You’re completely undermining that big impressive thing you just said…”

After managing to play through with no mistakes, she did a small fist-pump of victory behind her back, but it didn’t seem like he had noticed.

“Now, start from the beginning again. I can teach you a trick or two.”
“…Are you sure?”
“I’ve got nothing else to do.”
“Why are you here at school during summer break?”
“Hurry up and play!”
“S-Sure…”

At Kazusa’s urging, Kitahara set his fingers against the strings once again.

After a single deep breath, keeping a close watch on his hands, he started beating out the rhythm, at the same poor tempo.

The sounds that spilled out showed no sign of development whatsoever.

“You can start slow.”

In fact, he was bungling from the very beginning.

“First you told me to hurry up, now you’re saying I can take it slow…”
“Aren’t you Mr. Chairman with the perfect grades? Don’t tell me you can’t understand the difference in nuance there.”
“…Of course I can.”
“Then go slower.”
“Tch…”

This time, he went a fair bit slower, but with greater certainty.

“…”

Even so, his nearly-six-months’ worth of guitar playing was still several levels below what Kazusa had managed in one night of cramming.

“…”

However, maybe that was inevitable, in a sense.

Kazusa, who had been beloved by the god of music since her birth, had focused herself to her utmost limits during those scant ten hours, offering up her prayers.

On top of that, she had come at it with the same unimaginable motivation as the day she touched the piano for the first time.

“Oh, by the way…”
“What now?”

Purely to create an opportunity for a conversation with this chairman.

“I think this is the first time you’ve ever approached me to talk, Touma.”
“…You’re making that up.”

That was how badly she had wanted to interact with a person.

Not just anyone, of course.

In fact, there was only one person it could possibly be.

Not just by process of elimination, but out of multiple choices…

“Thanks.”
“Terrible.”

She had no choice but to acknowledge it now.

That, whether she liked it or not, she needed this nosy chairman who would never leave her alone.

That night, Kazusa still couldn’t sleep.

Her body’s exhaustion had passed its peak, to the point that she couldn’t take a single step, and she took a taxi home from the high school, where she collapsed into bed without even getting changed—but her brain stubbornly refused the temptation of sleep.

There were too many thoughts racing around in her head, and it seemed unlikely she would be able to drop off until they collected themselves to a certain extent.

          Well, this isn’t good.

Granted, at least ninety percent of these many unresolved questions pertained to the school festival coming up in three months.

In the end, Kazusa had only spent about an hour teaching Kitahara how to play the guitar.

The other party had seemed more than prepared to ask for an entire day’s worth of instruction, but she had cut off his question in the middle, with an air of irritation, and left right away.

Because, even though he might have forgotten about it completely, she remembered.

That, if she continued the lesson, his fellow band members would show up for their rehearsal, and witness the unusual scene playing out.

          How am I supposed to bring that idiot in line with everyone else?

As she turned over in bed for the hundredth time, Kazusa pondered the reality of the shock she had finally experienced today, sighing.

That there were pitiful people in the world who couldn’t get their fingers to move the way they wanted them to…

Kitahara… Guitar-boy… She understood the patterns in his playing, somehow.

Basically, as his fingers could only respond to what he was thinking in his head, his thinking speed must not be particularly fast.

With the behaviors, thoughts, grades, and deliberation of a standard honors student all piled up on top of each other, there was no room for muscle memory to wedge itself in.

Put simply, he was smart, but his intuition was dull.

Lately, Kazusa had taken immense pleasure in being able to look down so completely on the chairman who always (to her mind) condescended to her, and it was with that sense of superiority that she had taught him so meticulously, but in the end, she couldn’t keep a certain feeling of frustration from welling up inside her.

          Why isn’t this going better?

          He’s working hard.

          No one can beat him when it comes to studying and effort…

          So, why isn’t God rewarding him?

Kazusa was forced to realize that she didn’t understand anything.

That there was an unbridgeable gap in ability lying between them, cultivated over the years that they had been alive.

While he spent ten hours a day facing his desk, Kazusa spent ten hours a day facing the piano.

While he was studying for ten-plus years, Kazusa was handling a musical instrument for ten-plus years.

As a result, he couldn’t catch up to Kazusa. Kazusa wasn’t even close enough to perceive his back.

Yes, effort led to success.

In that sense, Kazusa’s blunt declaration that Kitahara wasn’t “working nearly hard enough” was true.

But Kazusa’s single night of guitar cramming had more than ten years of ten-hours-a-day piano practicing as a foundation.

And his half a year had no musical training to back it up.

Kazusa, who had always dealt with everything by sense and therefore had no grounding in logical thought, hadn’t realized this simple fact until now.

That said, they couldn’t change anything about those years that had led up to this point.

All that he could change, all that Kazusa could change, were the three months coming up.

          So, what now?

          How do we get to a point where this guy can actually play…?

So, Kazusa thought about it.

She drove her brain hard, in a way that she had never done in her life.

For Kitahara, this sort of mulling might be no more of an exertion than an after-dinner exercise. He might have come up with a solution in a matter of seconds.

Even so, Kazusa thought as hard as she could.

Pondered a way to turn terrible guitar playing into not-great guitar playing.

Pondered a way to keep the audience from laughing, at least, if by some mistake he were to have to fill in at the school festival concert.

Contemplated, worried, writhed…

At some point, the piano, her mother, herself…

All had been forgotten, and she thought of nothing but him.

It was late August now.

The high school baseball season was over, and the Bon festival and sea-bathing season had long since passed…

Kazusa was so busy that her eyes were practically spinning.

That day—that Thursday, two weeks ago—Kazusa’s summer break had ended.

Rumors about the girl who had shown up nearly every day for the past several days, carrying a heavy musical instrument into the school building, then staying shut up in Music Room #2 all day instead of participating in any supplementary lessons or club activities, had started to spread among the members of the sports club.

At the end of last week, a delivery truck had suddenly pulled up at the school grounds; when they tried to haul in a large quantity of equipment, it threatened to cause some trouble with the school, who didn’t know anything about it.

Through all of this, Music Room #2, which had been almost barren of anything useful aside from the piano, came to be quite busy before long.

Now there was a drum set, a bass, a saxophone, and any other number of instruments—a lineup not to be outdone by Music Room #1 next door.

And, to the trained eye, it might have been apparent that those instruments were all about one order of magnitude greater in cost than those furnished by the school.

Every one of them was brought in from the Touma house’s private studio, a quality of storage space that most ordinary people wouldn’t even understand.

And today, the final Tuesday of the month…

In the completely transformed Music Room #2, there was Kazusa, sat deeply in the bench, just like always.

She set her fingers on the keys, stared into space, didn’t move a muscle.

Waiting, with her mind focused, but still relaxed.

It was almost time for “pre-rehearsal”…

From the perfectly silent hall, from the open window, the sound of a solitary guitar floated on the breeze.

“Still ‘El Condor Pasa’? Seriously…?”

As dizzied as she was by this utterly novice song selection, Kazusa’s body still stiffened up with excitement at the arrival of what she had been waiting for.

She dropped her eyes to the keyboard, lightly raised her arms, took one deep breath, and…

The breeze carried the piano accompaniment out of Music Room #2.

“El Condor Pasa,” of course.

Not just following along with the sound, like before, but adding to it.

She couldn’t let the other sound be.

Then, the guitar stopped.

After one beat, the piano accompaniment stopped as well.

Right about now, someone from the classroom to the east must be peering out the window at the classroom to the west, making a puzzled expression.

However, as the heavy curtains over this window were drawn, and he couldn’t see inside, he picked up the guitar again, his head still turned…

And, once again, the guitar part from “El Condor Pasa” began to play.

One beat later, the piano accompaniment began.

It was almost as though the sound of the piano, as nosy as a certain chairman, were leading the guitar.

This time, the guitar did not stop its performance.

He just left it to his own ability, and kept plunking along, tempo and pitch both divergent, so clumsy that he could never have looked the song’s composer in the face.

And the piano—Kazusa—lectured him with sound.

Lectured him on the intention of the composer, the true beauty of this song, the many mistakes in his playing.

Without a word, she drummed it all into him.

Single-mindedly, at the correct tempo, the correct pitch.

Pulling him back if he ran ahead, waiting for him if he fell behind.

Directing him down if he went too high, up if he went too low, setting him right if he slipped completely out of place.

She continued playing, remaining patient until he accompanied her.

“You’re as shitty at this as it gets, Kitahara…”

The one who accepted this display of dedication the most readily—something that anyone who knew her would scarcely have believed—was, of all people, Kazusa herself.

The connection of these sounds, done half in fun, felt incredible.

She felt something worthwhile in the guitar sound that pulled the sound of her piano down so far.

In trying to teach him the guitar, she felt the limits of teaching by words.

She didn’t know how to convey something that she could do without even thinking about it.

All she could find to say was, “I don’t know, I can just play it.”

So, Kazusa decided to use sound.

This way, she could correct his sound without using words.

This was the practicing method that she had devised after a good deal of unaccustomed pondering.

At first, she got both of them familiar with her strong point, the piano; then, gradually, she put him in contact with the instruments that made up a band.

Guitar, drums, saxophone…

She would make Haruki Kitahara into a guitarist that wouldn’t be embarrassed to stand onstage three months from now.

…That was the whole purpose.

At her suddenly busy days, here in the final stage of summer break, Kazusa heaved a sigh of pleasant exasperation.


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