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

Chapter 3: Autumn

“Oh, hey, good morning, To—“
“Hey, Chairman? Kitahara!”
“Ah, yes?!”
“We’ve got something that needs handing out. Can you come to the staff room? The collection deadline is tomorrow, actually…”
“…How long have these been sitting on your desk?”
“…Don’t worry about the details. Just take care of it right away, okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll see what I can do.”
“Sorry to put this on you again. Anyway, take these. Careful, they’re pretty heavy.”

………

Two weeks after the end of summer break…

It was mid-September, and both students and teachers had just about stopped dragging out the summer.

“Oh, Kitahara-kun, sorry to grab you like this during lunch, but do you have a minute?”
“What? Is there a problem?”
“Yeah, a pretty serious one… Look, today’s the regular library board meeting, right?”
“Yeah, now that you mention it… Huh? But, Harada-san isn’t…”
“Exactly… Hiromi’s out with a cold, and we need a substitute.”
“Ah…”
“We need a substitute.”
“I don’t really have any connection with that, do I?”
“Yeah, you don’t.”
“…So what are you smiling for?”
“Apparently they’re talking about some pretty important stuff today. Hiromi begged us to find someone…”
“…”
“…”
“…It’s happening right now, in the library?”
“I knew we could count on you, Chairman! You’re always so dependable, whether it’s necessary or not!”
“Yes, yes. More importantly, if I’m late for fifth period, will you explain to the teacher for me?”
“Sure will! I’ll even answer roll call for you, if you want!”
“No, I’d rather you didn’t do that, with your voice…”

………

Haruki Kitahara, the chairman of class 3-E, was being pushed around by everyone around him, just like always—maybe even more than before.

On top of his usual work as chairman, there were the orders from the teachers, who depended on him for the past three years. There were the minor tasks from his classmates, whose confidence he had newly won. And…

“Hey, Haruki, let’s go.”
“Chikashi…”
“We set up our homepage. It’s just a start, but it’s something. So, I was hoping we could get your opinions on some stuff…”
“Can’t the committee members figure something out for that?”
“No, no way! Those guys ain’t got any skills or ideas. Every single one of ‘em said ‘Whatever Haruki says goes.’”
“…Look, I’m not part of that committee this year.”

And, on top of that, the school festival committee that had booted up with the start of the second term had forced its way in, leaving him with almost no free time during breaks or after school.

“You’re regretting leaving the upperclassmen alone and taking charge for the past two years, huh.”
“Well, I don’t think that was a good thing for the upperclassmen, either. But, this year…”
“What, band practice? But you’re not actually gonna perform, right? So who cares if you don’t show up at every rehearsal?”
“Maybe, but… You never know.”
“Oh, like Takeya’s gonna get sick or something. He’d be more likely to get stung by some girl.”
“…And you think that likelihood is low?”
“C’mon, c’mon. We won’t get anywhere without you!”
“Whoa, let go! All right, I will, just hang on a second!”

          …!

“Later, Touma!”
“…”
“…Careful on your way home!”
“…”
“Let’s go, Haruki!”
“Y-Yeah…”

Without receiving any response from Kazusa, who had been staring out the window from the next seat, showing no interest in the exchange playing out, Kitahara—emphatically not part of the festival committee, but an important part of the main staff anyway—was all but dragged out of the classroom by Hayasaka, with whom he had grown close enough to be considered “good friends.”

For the next few seconds, a certain someone took the time to settle her breathing…

“…!”

Fortunately, the din that immediately followed, of the entire window-side row of desks being toppled like dominoes, did not reach Kitahara’s ears as he walked down the hall.

That day, in Music Room #2, a tempestuous recital took place, with a certain “fighting spirit” that had not been present for quite a while.

This single piano was enough to drown out the rehearsal of the wind ensemble on the first floor, and this show of “derision from the music department” only served to lower the ensemble members’ motivation.

Today, however, the solo guitar did not mix itself in with the loud reverberations of the piano.

As a result, the voltage of Kazusa’s performance kept on increasing.

Of course, it wasn’t because she could play more comfortably without that clumsy racket to afflict her—nothing that positive…

“That yes-man! Doormat! Opportunist! Evasive bastard!”

She played at fortissimo so that no one else would hear her tirade.

Since the end of summer break, Kazusa and Kitahara had barely exchanged a word.

It was bad enough that she wondered what the point of their dramatic chance encounter that day had even been.

The rest of the world probably would have understood it this way: the delinquent girl ignored the chairman entirely, no matter how cordial he was with her, how much he spoke to her.

“Why aren’t you coming to practice! Do you understand that you have zero time left?!”

But the truth—well, the truth within Kazusa alone was the complete opposite, and the fact that things had reached this state of crisis was all on Kitahara.

Yes, all right, Kazusa had been completely ignoring all of Kitahara’s appeals to her for the past several days.

But it wasn’t because she refused to respond to him, regardless of what he said.

As far as Kazusa was concerned, the entire problem was that he wasn’t hitting the right target.

“Good morning”? Whatever.

“Goodbye”? Couldn’t care less.

“Did you do your homework?” Not even worth a glance.

“I want you to teach me more about the guitar.”

Why couldn’t he just say that…?

“You haven’t improved at all! You don’t know a thing!”

After about twenty days of teaching him remotely from Music Room #2, Kazusa had hit a wall.

With piano, bass, drums, she sunk in all of her own aptitude, sense, and natural genius in order to support him, but Mr. Hard-working Prodigy Student still didn’t show any flash of uptake with any of these instruments.

She couldn’t get a grasp of the limits of his abilities, his potential for growth, the speed of his development.

She found herself recalling how vexed she felt as a child, when her friends dropped out of their piano class one by one, and her social group steadily vanished.

And so, Kazusa got more and more irritated.

Now that she thought about it, maybe the whole thing was hopeless from the start.

A coach with hardly any… no, with no patience at all.

The inadequate degree of mutual understanding that came from a lack of teaching experience… no, a lack of communication skills in general.

…What kind of rehearsal routine was this, anyway? No contract, no knowledge of the mentor’s true identity, no notion of whether he recognized her as a mentor in the first place.

…The more she thought back on it, the more it seemed to her like she had left too much up to chance, in a way that might have led the chairman to lecture her for being unreasonable.

“Goddamn amateur… Don’t you have any sense of urgency…!”

And in her impatience she muttered things she didn’t really mean, then started to fear that what she said had been the truth in her mind, which worsened her anxiety, throwing her into a vicious cycle.

Of course, Kazusa didn’t realize it.

That serious symptoms were sprouting up within her.

That the impatience, the irritation, the anger she was feeling was over somebody else, when she had barely even looked at anybody else for the past several years.

“Good morning. You’re five minutes later than usual today.”
“…”
“Your eyes are red, too. I’ve never known you to stay up late. Did you nap too much during the day, so you couldn’t sleep at night?”
“…”
“Oh, or maybe you were preparing for next week’s proficiency tests…? No, sorry. Forget what I just said.”
“…Haaaargh…”
“Anyway, keep your focus up today… no, hey, don’t go back to sleep already. What’s the point in coming to school if that’s all you do?”

Kazusa, having to deal with this clueless yammering after finally being through with her homeroom teacher’s nastiness, fell forward onto her desk in an exaggerated way, as if to say, “Do whatever the hell you want, I don’t care any more.”

“…You seem seriously exhausted. What were you doing last night?”
“…”

          Whose fault do you suppose this is?

She swallowed this gripe down before it could leave her mouth.

As Kitahara had pointed out, she had barely slept at all the night before, engrossed in a sort of pensiveness with which she had to this point been unfamiliar.

Brooding over pitiful Kitahara, and his threefold handicap: he could hardly practice because he was so busy, the practicing he did manage wasn’t bringing any improvement, and he showed no sign whatsoever of being concerned about this.

“We’ve got Suwa for first period, so you should probably at least try to look awake.”
“…”

          Do you really understand where things are?

          There’s no way you’ll be ready for the school festival at this rate.

          Even your little “memory-making” notion is on shaky ground.

Even as she flagrantly ignored her neighbor’s gaze, Kazusa’s head was full of nothing but said neighbor.

          I’ll have to tell him directly, huh.

          I’ll have to shove the truth at him, like I did over summer break…

Since last night—no, since yesterday afternoon—no, since the start of this week, she had fretted and fumed more than the guy himself had, and ended up only going in circles, with no progress made.

          But wouldn’t that be way too pushy?

          Like the sort of thing Kitahara always does.

          Why should I have to do something like that, in the first place?

          There’s no reason for me to go this far for an idiot like him…

“…Yes, there is.”
“Hm? What is there?”
“Shut up. None of your business.”
“…Right.”

          Think about how much I’ve suffered because this idiot insisted on butting in.

          That being the case, who could blame me for retaliating a bit?

Kazusa was dead tired.

That was almost certainly what led her into this inversion of priorities.

          Yeah. I’ll let him have it.

          I’ll point out every little mistake he makes, in minute detail.

          I’ll teach him what a shameless, hypocritical thing he’s been doing.

          Music? I can do that.

          There’s no way I’ll fall behind this dumbass in anything that’s not studying.

          Yeah, that’s it.

          I’ll push him so hard that he’ll never be able to play the guitar again, out of sheer embarrassment.

The fact that playing a live show was his goal was a stroke of bad luck for Kazusa.

To her, failing in a recital was absolutely unthinkable.

She would start her intensive practicing more than a month in advance, sparing not a second for sleep, playing and playing until no matter how rigidly nervous she was—no, even if she were to lose consciousness—her body would be able to reproduce what she had practiced on its own.

That was the norm for her, until two years ago. She never found it painful or difficult.

When it came to music, and music alone, she was miles more diligent than he was, and she allowed for no compromise.

          Don’t resent me for this, Kitahara…

          We’ve both run out of luck.

That was what Kazusa told herself.

That, were it not a matter of music, she wouldn’t have involved herself this deeply.

She was supposed to have thrown away this pride two years ago… but she chose not to think about that right now.

          Now that I’ve decided, it’s simple.

          I’ll take action after school today…

“Hey, Touma, would you mind hanging around a little bit before you leave?”
“…Huh?”

And, after school…

Kazusa’s initiative was suddenly stolen.

“I want to talk to you about something… but, once everyone else has left.”
“J-Just… the two of us?”
“I mean, I guess so. That’s what you would prefer, anyway, right?”
“What…?”

Kitahara’s invitation, delivered openly in front of everyone, completely put to waste the strategy that Kazusa had spent the entirety of their class time considering—how to start talking to him without everyone noticing, how to get him alone without causing any suspicion—and it left her unnecessarily flustered.

“Ki-Ki-Ki…”
“Seeya, Haruki. Thanks in advance for the physics notes tomorrow!”
“Yeah, see you… Hey, why don’t you take them, for once?”
“Bye, Kitahara-kun!”
“Yeah, see you tomorrow.”
“…tahara?”

But, in spite of Kazusa’s immense agitation, their classmates just strolled right by the two of them, exchanging seemingly habitual parting greetings with Kitahara.

They showed no sign of teasing the two of them—it was clear in their faces that they were simply observing at a distance the usual scene, the chairman’s futile meddling ignored by the delinquent girl, as though it were something charming.

“Mind locking up, chairman? I’m heading out.”
“Yes, I’ll bring the keys back to the staffroom. See you.”

In other words, there was no misunderstanding whatsoever.

“…”

The lack of unnecessary prying from others should have been something desirable for Kazusa, but she was at that complicated age where she still couldn’t feel completely satisfied—couldn’t keep from feeling the tiniest bit of something like humiliation.

Whether it was how trusted the chairman’s character was, or that the delinquent girl’s misanthropy had soaked in…

“So, what I wanted to talk about…”
“Uh?!”

And, while she was imprisoned by these unhappy thoughts, before she realized it, they were the only two left in the classroom.

In other words, Kazusa was hanging around a little bit before leaving, just as she had been told.

“I’m sorry, I actually wanted to talk to you right after the end of break. I’ve just been really busy lately…”
“I… I’m leaving!”
“Huh? Why?”
“I don’t care if you’re busy or not, I’ve got nothing to talk to you about!”

But she had had something to talk about. She had been planning on it just now.

“I get that, but it’s just for a second…”
“Shut up. I said I’m leaving. Back off.”

She had been waiting for the right timing to talk to him since the middle of the end-of-day homeroom. The fact that he spoke to her first should have been a godsend.

“Didn’t you stick around this long so you could hear what I had to say…?”
“What kind of stuck-up delusion are you spouting, dumbass? You think I would just go along with whatever you tell me to do, dumbass? Here, let me run that by you again. Dumbass.”
“But, I… Touma, when we were on summer break…”
“I have no goddamn idea what you’re talking about.”
“…Hey.”

This conversation was moving farther and farther away from her intentions, and the one freaking out most about it was Kazusa herself.

“Anyway, I’m busy. I don’t have time to run along with every bit of pointless bullshit you throw at me. Move.”

This situation, the two of them alone in the classroom at dusk—Kazusa was thousands of times more stoked up about it than anyone else, and probably the boy here with her, too. It was too much, entirely too much…

“I told you, it won’t take that long—“
“I said move!”
“Oh, hey, there you are, Haruki!”
“?!”

This sudden, excessive new noise, blasting into the stillness of the classroom, made Kazusa’s heart jump even higher.

“Chikashi? You’re still here?”
“Ah…”

Had she been a little calmer, she would have known immediately that noise came from the classroom door being flung open, and the slightly over-familiar voice of Hayasaka, Kitahara’s overnight best friend.

“Of course I’m still here. I gotta take you with me.”
“…Huh?”

She would also have realized what this over-familiar best friend was after.

“Wait, do you still…”
“I mean, like, I thought your suggestions yesterday were great, but the other guys are coming in with all this this and that and whatever, even though they aren’t actually doing anything…”
“So, they didn’t all agree that what I say goes.”
“Please, Haruki! You’re the only one who can shout these morons into submission!”
“How many times do I have to tell you I’m not on your committee?”
“Don’t talk like that, now’s not the time! Our festival is in crisis!”
“I don’t think you’re feeling a sense of crisis at all, though.”
“…”

And, unfortunately, Kazusa did know one thing.

Kitahara’s next line in the course of this development was all too predictable…

“Sorry, Touma… Could you wait a second?”
“As if.”

So, she felt that her curt reply came off naturally.

“I promise I won’t be long. I’ll be back in ten minutes!”
“Yeah, it won’t even take five. C’mon, Haruki.”
“H-Hey… Chikashi, you just said…”
“I’ll be home in less than five minutes.”
“T-Touma…”

Yes, curt. Blunt. Thoroughly dry in tone.

Not the faintest hint that she was grinding her teeth escaped.

“He’ll be right back! Okay? Stay there!”
“Hey, don’t speak for—whoa, whoa, don’t pull me! Look, I’ll be right back, so…”
“…”
“Ha. Ha ha…”
“…”
“Come on, Haruki!”
“Yeah, coming…”

Assuming that Kazusa, who had turned away and was pulling her things together to leave, had ignored the end of what he said, Kitahara—not a member of the school festival committee, but apparently their chairman regardless—was dragged out of the classroom by Hayasaka for the second day in a row.

And, for the next few seconds, a certain someone took the time to settle her breathing…

“…I’m leaving.”

But, today, she just slumped her shoulders, exhausted.

———

Five o’clock p.m.

The setting sun, dyed red, shone into the classroom at a low angle.

“…”

In this space dominated by stillness, the one who had muttered “I’m leaving” an hour and a half ago remained slouched over on her desk, staring vacantly at the glow of the sky.

She had spent nine times ten minutes, eighteen times five minutes, in idleness, and the she burned the steady shift of the light in the classroom from bright white into dim red into her eyes in real time.

“…”

She had tried to leave the classroom a number of times.

In fact, she had actually stepped out a few of those times.

Just once, she had made it to the shoe cupboard, and even changed her shoes.

However, for some reason, once it was time to progress beyond that point, she couldn’t move; and when she turned around, she suddenly found herself moving double-time. She had cursed her feet over and over for it.

“…”

Her brain, even with its sleep deficit, refused to let her rest.

All it did was churn out guess over guess concerning what he wanted to talk about.

Maybe he had finally acknowledged his lack of training, and had come to beg for instruction.

Though, if he really had a sense of the danger he was in, maybe he wouldn’t have been dragged off by the festival committee like that.

Maybe he had realized the true identity of the “Master of Music Room #2.”

But, if he had, what would he say?

And, once he said whatever that was, how should she respond to it?

If he knew who she was, what kind of feelings would he have toward her?

And what would he say to her, as a result of that…?

“…Like I care.”

As she muttered this bluff that no one would hear, Kazusa was on the verge of tears over how pathetic she was, trapped in this unlikely situation, waiting and waiting for this male classmate of hers in a darkening classroom.

———

…Seven o’clock.

The sunset had quickened and finally passed, and the first star was gleaming in the fully darkened sky.

“…”

In this space, dominated not only by stillness but by darkness, the one who had muttered “I’m leaving” three and a half hours ago looked up at the soon-to-be-starry sky, shocked by the extent of her own stupidity.

“…”

Even the vaguest movement was too much trouble now.

The security guard had finally come by to warn her.

But, with an outright lie—that she was staying here in connection with the school festival committee—which she only acknowledged as truth within her mind, and drawing on her pride as “Touma-san’s daughter,” she managed to succeed in remaining there.

“…Ha. Ha ha…”

She couldn’t help but laugh at herself, waiting and waiting like a faithful dog.

“I want to talk to you about something…”

She stayed here in her chair in this classroom because she had been told, “Sit!”

“Could you wait a second?”

She was unable to leave the school building because she had been told, “Stay!”

By this stupid chairman, who came running to her at the worst times, but treated her like a pet dog as soon as she showed a tiny bit of modesty…

The most ridiculous thing was that, even so, her current situation was just a bit more comfortable than spending time at home, where no one else would go, would have been.

“…No, I’m going. I’m leaving. I’m out.”

Nevertheless, Kazusa made up her mind that this time would be the one.

“I’ll be back in ten minutes!”

If he didn’t come back in the next ten minutes.

———

Eight… thirty.

She didn’t know whether it was the day of the harvest moon, but the moon floating in the sky was nearly a perfect circle.

She never would have seen a view this picturesque if she hadn’t stayed in the classroom this late.

So, did Kazusa take some time to reflect upon this gift, born of pure chance?

“What the hell is that idiot doing…!”

…Of course not.

The cacophony, following this exclamation, of every desk in the room being kicked over one by one, echoed in vain down the deserted hallway.

“Hey, I’m sorry about yesterday!”
“…I’m leaving.”
“Ahh! Wait, wait!”

The next day, before school…

Kazusa saw the chairman from a distance, loitering around at the school gate as though waiting for someone, but she waited until he had gone to the trouble of walking up to her and apologizing before turning around with a flagrant look of disgust on her face.

“No, really, I’m sorry. The business with Chikashi wound up taking a bit longer than I assumed it would…”
“So? I just went home.”
“Oh…”

Taking no notice of his nonsense excuse, Kazusa let her feet carry her further and further away from the campus.

In other words, in order to be able to converse with Kazusa, he would have to risk being late himself…

“So?”
“Huh?”
“…Just for reference, how long did it take?”
“Oh, I mean… Just a little bit longer.”
“…Bye.”
“Ahh! No, wait!”

She knew that that “just a little bit” was a complete lie.

However, as she had supposedly gone straight home, Kazusa couldn’t point out the lie, and had no other option but to put distance between herself and the school and get revenge that was equal to her stress.

“Sorry, that wasn’t entirely true… It was a little more than just a bit.”
“Just tell me!”
“Um… Until just before nine.”
“Heh… Hrrrrrm.”

Kazusa had finally left the classroom, despairing, at 8:50…

Realizing that waiting just ten more minutes would actually have worked this time caused Kazusa’s irritation to jump exponentially.

“Then I left the building at 9:30, after setting all the desks and chairs back up…”
“Oh, yeah… There was an earthquake.”
“Just in our classroom?”
“Well, it’s not like I care either way.”

So, she firmly made up her mind not to apologize.

“Anyway, again, I’m really sorry. If we could talk after school today, instead…”
“No. No way. Not gonna waste my time.”

And never again to accept requests from this guy, since he clearly wouldn’t follow through…

“…I thought you might say that. Could we just take a second now?”
“…”

With this difficult-to-refuse favor coming just as she was trying to resolve herself, she was once again at a loss for words.

“We can talk here by the road, or in that park over there, wherever. Please?”

Being clever and sly like this was distinctive to him, a facet that was difficult to tolerate.

“If we loiter like that, we’ll be late.”
“…Then, could we turn around and head back toward the school, at least?”
“…”

Being stubborn and unreasonable like this was distinctive to Kazusa, a shameful facet.

“If we run, we’ll make it in time. What I want to talk about really is that short.”
“…”
“You know, Touma, you showed up to school earlier than I thought you would today…”
“If you’ve got something to say, say it. Don’t keep pausing to act high-and-mighty. Idiot.”

In the end, unable to tell him that she hadn’t slept two nights in a row out of anger, she had no choice but to fold.

“Listen, um… I know it’s been a while, but I wanted to thank you for summer break.”
“…You’ve been chasing me around over something that stupid?”
“It may seem stupid to you, but it wasn’t to me.”
“…”

They had moved themselves to the small park by the roadside, and as they sat side-by-side on the bench, Kazusa was quite aware of the fact that they might look like they were on a date; and Kitahara’s words, which themselves brought a date to mind, had a fairly strong impact on her.

“It made me really happy. I was sure no one could possibly take any interest in my guitar playing.”
“I’m not interested. I was just sick of the racket.”
“I know I said this already, but I only just started playing the guitar this year. And I’ve had to teach myself, since I’m not getting any real lessons. As you pointed out, I developed some weird habits in my playing…”
“Those aren’t habits. They’re proof of the limit of your ability.”
“Anyway, you were a big help, and I really appreciated it… Thank you.”
“…Don’t care.”

Her face was hot.

All these words she hadn’t heard in the past several years—“appreciated,” “thank you,” and so on—embarrassed her so much that her whole body felt itchy, and brought about another, different sort of feeling as well.

“Honestly, I was on the verge of giving up. I felt like I hadn’t made any improvement at all before summer break, even with all the practicing I was doing.”

          Oh, don’t worry. You weren’t making that up.

“But, ever since that day, I’ve gradually started feeling some effect. I mean, sure, only a tiny bit at a time, but…”

          You’re not making that up, either. You’re only improving a tiny bit at a time.

“I feel like I’m on the verge of grasping something… Like playing is getting more fun, or…”

          If that’s how you feel, then play more. Practice. Quit bothering me.

“…”

It was such an utterly corny speech, fully loaded with opportunities for jabs.

And yet, for some reason, she couldn’t find it in herself to interrupt him right now.

She didn’t want to shut him up with her own voice. She wanted to keep listening.

Listening to his words of praise for her.

Listening to the acknowledgement of the ways she had helped him.

“So, I’m really grateful to you. I owe you a lot. I know I’ve said this a hundred times already, but thank you.”
“…”

Listening to the slight sweetness in his words, which could have been taken as a confession, depending on how you listened.

After all, Kazusa Touma loved all sweet things, not just pudding…

“And… here.”
“Huh…?”

And, carrying on in the same blunt, straightforward manner, Haruki Kitahara took a paper package out of his bag and held it out to her.

“I hope you like it…”

The present was just like him—simply wrapped, but carrying strength, tension, and sincerity.

…No matter how she tried to twist her interpretation of it, that was the only way she could take it.

“Kitahara…”
“…”

This time, his face seemed to be heating up.

There was too much sweat on his forehead to ascribe it to simple leftover summer heat.

“Um, what is this… why are you…”
“You’ll see when you open it.”

From her looks and figure, it might be difficult to believe, but…

Kazusa had never received a straight pitch like this, let alone from right in front of her.

Whenever some sort of sentiment was conveyed to her like this, it was while she had no regard for anything outside the piano.

When she quit looking at the piano, she quit being someone who inspired these sorts of feelings in other people.

So…

“…”

While she could have torn him apart verbally, could have rejected him, could have derided him, Kazusa simply snatched the package away from him wordlessly, and opened it with great seriousness in her face.

Forgetting that, if there were true sincerity inside it, she ought to have some kind of answer prepared…

“…What is this?”
“Chlorophyll Publishing’s Sprout Series # 16: Foundational English Grammar.”
“…Huh.”

The “wrapping paper,” which was really a paper bag from a bookstore, was crushed and crumpled up.

“I looked really hard for it. It’s from a minor series, so they don’t sell it in small bookstores.”

A reference book.

“I can vouch for it, though. I used it in middle school. It helped me a lot with exams and stuff.”

For middle school students.

“Like I said, I hope you like it…”
“…”
“Anyway, why don’t we head back to school? We should still be able to make it in…”
“Before that, can I ask you one thing?”
“Huh? What is it?”
“Why this…?”

It certainly was a straight pitch.

But it was a pitch that kept her solidly at arm’s-length.

“Well, I mean, the day before yesterday, Takemura-sensei said you didn’t even have the basics of English grammar…”
“…”

Of course she didn’t.

Because every time she was called on in class, she ignored it completely.

…No matter what class.

“So, after class, I walked all the way to the Kitaguniya bookstore in Onjuku…”
“The day before yesterday…”

The day that Kazusa spent waiting in vain in Music Room #2…

When he hadn’t shown up to practice, it wasn’t because he’d been trapped by the school festival committee. It was…

It was because he was off looking for this meaningless thing…

“Oh, I don’t want you to think I’m mocking you just because it’s for middle school students. There’s just no point in buying something upper-level if you don’t know what you’re aiming for.”
“…”
“Right now, I feel like you don’t get what you don’t get. That’s when you want to go back to the beginning, the most basic of the basic. Once you get a grasp of that, you’ll be surprised at how far you can progress.”
“…”
“I’m just kidding. Actually, what made me think of this was…”
“…ot.”
“Huh?”
“You’re an idiot.”

Kazusa felt dizzy.

“…You know, I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a while, Touma, but you shouldn’t be so quick to call people idiots.”
“You skipped out on practicing the guitar so you could go look for a reference book?”
“Huh?”

She had lamented his evident lack of any sense of urgency, but figured there wasn’t too much she could do about that.

At least as long as he remained incapable of saying “No” to people when they asked him for things.

But…

“I told you to play. Every day. I said it didn’t have to be ten hours a day, but at least ten minutes. I told you never skip it.”

That summer day, in the music room filled with clumsy guitar.

“I told you you weren’t getting better because you weren’t working hard enough. That if you really, seriously applied yourself, even for a short time, you’d be able to play.”
“Touma…”
“Nothing has changed, Kitahara! What, you think you’re gonna be able to swing it at the school festival this way…?”

She might not have been all that articulate, but she’d meant what she said. And he just ignored it…

“No, listen…”
“I don’t wanna hear it. You haven’t done a single thing I said…”
“Look, proficiency tests start next week.”
“…”
“There are more important things than the guitar right now, you know? It’s no time for you to be worrying about someone like me, either…”

This was something he had said to her time and time again.

Earnest advice—telling her to focus, through Sports Day, summer break, the school festival, on the classes and tests that inevitably came before and after.

“Are you… planning to skip practicing through the whole exam period, so you can study?”
“Isn’t that my duty as a student?”

His everlasting, unwavering conviction.

He wasn’t wrong. In fact, his assertion was more correct than Kazusa’s, to an overwhelming degree.

“Fine.”

So, Kazusa understood.

“Oh, great! Then, let’s…”
“I’m leaving.”
“Huh…?”

That she and this idiot…

No, she and this prodigy would never be able to understand each other.

“Look, I’ll accept this. I’ll even use it.”
“R-Really? I’m glad to…”
“So… quit worrying about me. Don’t even think about teaching me how to study again.”
“H-Hey, Touma…?”

Kazusa stood up from the bench and walked away, as if to say she had no more business or interest in the matter, and Kitahara watched her go, dumbfounded.

“Wait, hang on… Where are you going?”
“Oh, yeah. Tell our homeroom teacher…”

The same emotion that Kazusa had just experienced now showed in his face.

“That I’m taking today off, so that I can study hard for my proficiency exams.”

The pain and frustration of wanting to understand the other person, but being unable…

Of course, she didn’t go straight home.

It might not be the middle of the night, but Kazusa couldn’t put herself in that desolate place right now.

So, on this weekday afternoon, in her school uniform, she wandered aimlessly through the shopping center of Minami-Suetsugu.

Any piece of clothing or accessory that caught her eye, she bought with her card, without even looking at the price.

She pulled out a hundred thousand in cash, and spent several hours frittering away more than half of it in the game center.

At first, Kazusa was easily swindled out of a hundred yen in a matter of seconds, being a beginner in shooting and fighting games; but her quick perception allowed her to improve quickly, and her coins stopped going as fast, so she was forced to move to the crane game, but then she wound up with so many prizes on her hands that she could barely move.

By the time she left the game center it was already fully dark out, but she still wasn’t really in the mood to go home.

She crammed her stuff into a coin locker and began wandering again.

The streets frequented by students were overflowing with people now that night had fallen, and as a result, the number of men catcalling Kazusa grew greater and greater.

Two of them at the station front, two of them in the shopping district arcade, one in an alley…

Three of them she drove away with a kick, one of them she shoved past with a torrent of abuse, and one of them started an argument, only to embarrass himself in the midst of a crowd of onlookers.

Normally she would be able to ignore this sort of thing completely and avoid trouble, but Kazusa’s mood was just a little bit worse than usual today.

In fact, her mood was absolutely foul…

“Ugh…”

When she finally reached home, it was after ten p.m.

She lay down in bed, still in her uniform, and within moments her head was hazy.

Maybe her body had finally caught up with her after not sleeping for two nights in a row, maybe the five helpings of pudding she had just eaten at Goodies in place of dinner had satisfied her need to keep her stomach full…

          I’m sleeping tonight, and that’s that.

          Through the morning, through tomorrow, however many days.

          I don’t even care if I sleep all the way through those stupid proficiency exams.

          There’s nothing bothering me any more.

          There’s nothing for me to worry about.

          No need to concern myself with him any more…

“Nn…”

Still lying down, still with her eyes and brain half-shut, she reached out to the side of the bed and picked up her school bag, which she had flung down when she came in.

There wasn’t a lunch box in there. The stuff she’d bought was in a different bag. And she certainly wasn’t about to do any homework.

But, unsure of why she’d done it, Kazusa automatically opened the bag…

“…Uh?”

The contents were no different from usual, but something seemed off about that.

There was almost nothing in there.

Handkerchief, wallet, candy. That was all.

None of the writing implements or textbooks that any other student would carry around.

There’d never been anything in there, so there shouldn’t be a problem…

“…Huh?”

And yet, anxiety boiled up within her.

She racked her drowsy brain, trying to come up with the reason.

Why had it occurred to her to open it in the first place…?

“…Ah.”

After nearly a minute, she finally hit upon the truth of her unease.

She had put something into this normally empty bag this morning, and it wasn’t there.

Chlorophyll Publishing’s Sprout Series # 16: Foundational English Grammar.

The paper bag from the bookstore…

“…What the hell…”

Having reached her conclusion, Kazusa let out a sigh of simultaneous disappointment and relief.

Because it wasn’t the discovery of the century, nor some enormous bitter loss.

On the contrary, she had already excluded it from her memory.

“Ha ha…”

She smiled derisively at herself, yet again, for unconsciously troubling herself over something so stupid.

This pointless resource—she would never use it, but throwing it out with the burnable trash would make her look bad, and no secondhand bookstore would buy it from her. It was nothing but a nuisance.

If she’d dropped it outside, it would be a stroke of good luck in many ways, saving her a whole lot of time.

It wasn’t like she cared about the environment.

“…”

So, Kazusa felt free to shut her eyes.

With the room lights shining brightly, as always.

Praying vaguely that tomorrow would be a better day.

…Even though she wasn’t planning on waking up tomorrow.

“Um… We’re closed for the night…”
“Shut up. Don’t talk to me. I’m busy.”
“But…”

Goodies, Minami-Suetsugu.

Kazusa had appeared here again, the place to which she had betaken herself a few hours earlier solely to eat pudding.

But right now, what she was doing wasn’t any of the things people normally come to a diner to do—eating, taking a break, killing time…

“If you want me to leave, go and look for it. It’s a paper bag, about this big, with the Kitaguniya bookstore logo on it…”
“I’ve told you, we haven’t found anything like that here…”
“Really? Not under the chairs? Not in the kitchen? Did you get down on the floor and crawl on your hands and knees to look for it?”
“That’s what you’re doing right now…”
“Because you refuse to look seriously, even though you work here.”
“Excuse me…”

The young part-timer, whose nameplate read “Satou,” had by this point ceased to use his “customer service” voice and begun dealing with Kazusa in a frank, pitiful way.

As a candidate for manager, he had been forced to deal with this final customer, who absolutely refused to leave, and was chewing over the outrage of it all.

“…Maybe it isn’t here…”
“Um, was the item you lost really that important?”
“Of course not. What are you talking about?”
“…I could ask you…”

She’d meant to shut her eyes.

With no worries, no regrets, almost a refreshed sort of feeling in fact, forgetting all about its existence, all about him…

“I just woke up in a bad mood, that’s all.”
“I think I’ll be able to sleep pretty well tonight, myself…”

So, really, she didn’t know why this was going on.

The bewildered look on his face at that moment…

Her false promise to use the book…

She had just been a little worried that they might bring something bad into her dreams.

          Anyway, I’ve taken care of that obligation.

          He should be grateful I looked for it at all.

——

“No, nothing like that has come in..”
“…Oh.”

In a police box in front of Minami-Suetsugu station, on the way back from the diner, after she’d cut her search short…

          It was pure coincidence that it was there.

          It’s not like it took that much time just to ask.

Making all these little bothersome excuses to herself, Kazusa spoke somewhat nervously to the adult man standing there, in a uniform that seemed to embody the law itself.

…While being reminded of the face of a certain acquaintance of hers, who seemed as though he could very well end up in this occupation in the future.

“If you don’t mind writing your address and phone number here, we’ll contact you if it’s found.”
“Ah…”

The police officer dealt with her far more warmly than she had imagined.

He even contacted the other police boxes in the area, checking to see whether it had shown up at any of them.

“But, it’s the sort of thing they sell in most bookstores, right? And, if it wasn’t dropped with anything else, I think the likelihood of anyone bringing in a book by itself is probably fairly low.”
“…”

Though, he didn’t forget to give her the hard truth.

But, it was a completely reasonable opinion.

After all, if she were the one to find something like that, she would probably just leave it there the second she saw it was a book.

In other words, Kazusa was basically on a fool’s errand right now…

“And, since it’s not that expensive, you could just buy a new copy if you’re in a hurry…”
“That would defeat the point.”
“The point?”
“…The point is, it’s not that important.”

Whether Kazusa was trying to cut off the police officer’s words in that moment, or to cut off her own thoughts…

She didn’t know herself, and there was no way anyone else would, either.

——

“Ah…”

It had finally started to fall.

The sky had looked as though it were about to cry since she arrived at Minami-Suetsugu about two hours before; now, it had finally reached the limits of its endurance, and slowly begun to shed its tears.

It was getting very late, probably close to midnight.

The last trains were likely about to leave, but Kazusa remained under the eaves of the Minami-Suetsugu shopping arcade, looking up at the rain.

After she left the police box, her feet were supposed to take her back to the station, back home; but, just as they had at the school gate this morning, they had begun taking her in the exact opposite direction.

She opened and checked the contents of every coin locker she had used that day, prowled around inside the game center here and there with her eyes rooted to her feet, and made any number of trips around the area where she had gone shopping.

However, Kazusa may as well have been looking for a single grain of sand in the desert, and reached the present moment with no results whatsoever.

“God, I guess I should just…”

Kazusa’s voice as she muttered this was nothing like the griping and sighing she had been doing before.

With every word, tinged with resignation, her tone grew more and more desolate.

Her body was remembering her own face and voice on the day that the world abandoned her.

She had gone so far in her search as to talk to other people.

She had gone all the way to the police.

All for a single book that she would never use.

For a product she could easily acquire just by walking to Onjuku the next day.

“Go home, huh…”

She was just about done going along with this uncharacteristically ridiculous whim of hers.

Her body, after doing hours of walking and running around all day, was starting to scream.

Hurting. Heavy. Tired. Hot. And cold.

The streaks of the pouring rain steadily started to increase their pace.

A blessed, merciful rain, cooling her down from the post-summer heat, and that in her own body after her feverish search.

But, as she stayed out in it, it became a loathsome rain, stealing away her body heat.

So, this time…

          I just wasted a huge amount of time.

          But, that’s enough…

          I’m going to go home, take a bath, fall asleep, and forget about everything.

          Yeah. I can just forget all this.

          I made my attempt.

          I put all my effort into it.

          I can be done now.

          I can be done with him…

“…!”

Yes, she slipped out of the arcade and ran into the rain.

…In the direction opposite to the station.

Toward Houjou University… and its attached high school.

          I’m not gonna go to school tomorrow anyway.

          So, who cares if I’m up a little later yet?

Her excuses to herself were getting harder and harder to buy.

——

“Why…?”

The time had reached three in the morning.

The rain had reached the “downpour” point.

“Why can’t I find it…?”

As a result, Kazusa’s outcry of resentment was drowned out by the sound of the water pelting the pavement, and made it to no one’s ears.

She had looked so many times, for so many hours…

From the shopping arcade, to the park where she had parted ways with him.

From the park, to the school gate, just to make doubly sure.

From the school gate, to the station, just to make sure one more time that she hadn’t forgotten to check anywhere.

The stores she’d visited. The game center. The diner.

…She had repeated this rotation over and over and over.

“Dumbass…”

The chance of her finding it had been miniscule from the start.

She knew that.

But, even if she understood, she couldn’t get it through her head.

So, her anger was directed at herself, half a day earlier.

Herself, who normally made a straight round trip between school and home, but just today, today of all days, had to act so recklessly.

Herself a few hours before, who had treated her first-ever present from him so shabbily.

Herself, who had no idea how badly a single moment’s carelessness would rebound on her later…

She wanted her foolish, lying past self to know how she felt now.

          I’m such a goddamn joke.

          Why am I running in circles like this?

          Why can’t I just go on the same way I normally do with him…?

Rain continued to fall.

The spear-like drops splashed loudly against the road to the school, normally shrouded in silence in the middle of the night like this, and pierced Kazusa mercilessly.

Nevertheless, she glared up at the clouds in her usual defiant manner, accepting the heavy, painful deluge head on.

Her opponent did not flinch from her gaze, dashing itself against her head, hair, face, and eyes.

That sting, that pain… gave Kazusa an excuse for the redness of her eyes.

“…Not yet.”

Her feet were too worn out to run any more, but Kazusa dragged them along anyway, retracing the path she had just come down.

She wasn’t going to give up.

Because, if she gave up, it would break—

The bond connecting the two of them together.

Though it was a bond that, half a day earlier, she had decided herself would no longer exist.

A bond that she had continuously denied, without even knowing whether he was conscious of it.

Even so, she had no choice now but to acknowledge that there was some significant attachment left in her heart.

——

“Ha ha…”

It was pure coincidence.

The tiny park on the way to school, where she had last parted ways with him.

The five-step staircase at its entrance.

Right beside that, in a thicket…

Underneath the shrubbery, as though it had been taking shelter from the rain, sat the paper bag from Kitaguniya, its printing faintly blurred.

“Ahaha, haha… Oww…”

She had passed by this spot countless times already and overlooked it, but then she slipped and fell on the stairs, which put it right in her line of sight.

This was because, unlike most people, her instinct had been to protect her hands, which led her to a full-body collapse.

She’d banged her knees. Her thighs were scraped. Every part of her body, apart from her back, chest, and palms, had been injured.

As she lay there for a while, unable to sit up from the pain, her gaze, which had fallen even with the ground, caught the paper bag.

For the first time in a long while, she thanked heaven that she was a pianist, and that those habits of hers were still etched into her body.

Finally, she managed to sit up, settled herself on the stairs, took the muddied paper bag, and held it tightly to her chest.

It could have been out of some notion of protecting the book from the rain, but given that her whole body was sopping wet, it wasn’t likely that her holding it would be very effective.

She was well aware of this, but she couldn’t stem the affection her heart had begun to feel for this inanimate object.

Because she had dedicated the whole of herself, tonight, to this very object.

“See that…? I found it, Kitahara.”

After a short moment, she gingerly opened the paper bag she held to her chest.

Even though the brush had protected it somewhat, the book contained therein was far from undamaged, the cover dark with moisture, the entire volume gone somewhat wavy.

But Kazusa didn’t care about that.

Because whether or not the book was in pretty shape was of absolutely no interest to her.

All that mattered was that it was here…

“…Huh?”

As she turned the pages over to check their condition, her hand suddenly stopped.

Stopped at the scrap of paper that wasn’t part of the book, the letters that weren’t part of the printed text.

“Ha… ha…”

It was a hidden message, directed at a person who would probably never use a book like this, and therefore with an extremely low probability of ever reaching her eyes.

“Ha ha ha… Ahahahaha!”

Discreet, but lacking in consideration.

As though he’d wanted to put up some sort of front, but his own embarrassment surpassed the feeling and got in the way, preventing anything from being conveyed.

In the face of the same old stupidity from that idiot chairman, all Kazusa could do was laugh weakly.

It welled up spontaneously from her heart, enough to blur out the anger, the frustration, the irritation that she had felt up to this point.

“Dumbass… You’re such a dumbass…!”

Even so, she wanted to keep smiling like this for today.

Because she’d done it.

She’d found that single grain of sand in the desert.

It wouldn’t be going too far to call that a miracle…

No, Kazusa could readily believe that what had happened was fate.

“Touma…”
“…”

The next day.

The moment Kazusa reached the classroom, she flopped down on her desk and didn’t budge.

“Um, listen… Touma, about yesterday…”
“Don’t talk to me right now.”
“Urk…”

The chairman, who seemed to have been looking for a chance to talk from the instant they met eyes in the room, was forced out of the initiative by this lightning-fast maneuver.

About yesterday.

About the reason for her anger, concerning which he had no clue.

The common-sense conclusion—even if he had been in the wrong, that didn’t make it okay to cut class.

And his determination, timid and yet strong, to try to find a way to repair their relationship.

“Look… all I need is a minute. Will you listen to me?”

There was so much for him to tell her that he couldn’t accept her rejection.

So, as always, he continued to press her, knowing full well that it would make her hate him more…

“I’m sleepy. Next week.”
“Huh?”
“Let me sleep today. Don’t wake me up.”
“Touma…?”
“…”

And, surprisingly, she accepted it somewhat easily, albeit with conditions attached.

In a manner that seemed like a sidestep, as though nothing had happened.

To him, with all these extraordinary feelings he bore for her, it was too welcome a pain to be considered a draw.

“All right… Sleep tight, Touma.”
“Wait, you’re really saying that?”

But, he didn’t know the truth.

How significant it was that Kazusa was here right now.

That dawn had broken by the time she returned home last night—or rather, this morning.

That, the instant she stepped out of the shower, she was swamped by relief, exhaustion, and sleep deficit all at once, such that a second’s carelessness might lead her to collapse immediately.

That the option to just pass out had flitted through her brain over and over.

That the injuries all over her body ached with every step she took, and it took her half an hour longer than usual to reach the school.

…And that, even after all of it, she just wanted to sleep peacefully next to someone today.

…And, of course, that the “someone” next to her couldn’t be just anyone.

So, he didn’t know. And he probably never would.

The great adventure undertaken last night by Kazusa, the faithful dog…

——

One week later, the Houjou University Attached High School had happily finished its proficiency exams…

And Kazusa Touma had received the lowest scores in all five subjects.

The closed-off classroom had become more bearable than it had been in the summer, and one needed only to open the window to let in a more pleasant air—no AC necessary.

With exams over, the clubs regained their former energy, and the school once more echoed with the familiar sounds of shouts and musical instruments.

After looking down at the schoolyard for a while, taking the breeze, concealed behind a curtain, Kazusa slowly stepped up to the piano, and sat down with the same perfect posture as always.

And, as always, she slowly began to play, waiting for five o’clock.

It was early October, and dusk’s approach was moving earlier and earlier.

The first Tuesday since exams had ended, and the clubs regained their former energy.

More specifically, just about fifteen minutes after 5 p.m.

“…Still shitty!”

Even though hardly a second had passed since she heard the first sound, Kazusa was already appraising the performance.

She had been waiting so adamantly that she didn’t actually listen to what was being played.

Yes, the guitar part from “White Album” was flowing in from the room next door.

Kazusa’s fingers responded more instantly than usual.

The classical etude that she had just been playing shifted its rhythm, shifted its key, and quickly joined in with that dated pop tune.

And, as though well accustomed by now, her neighbor immediately began to play comfortably, as though entrusting everything to her accompaniment.

Perhaps the fairly standard song selection to begin was meant as a way of dispelling the pent-up frustration of not being able to practice recently, thanks to the exams.

The “White Album” that came drifting in on the wind, for the first time in ages, made it easy to imagine how much he was enjoying himself—full of energy, lively and bright, mismatched and estranged from its lyrics that sang of difficult love.

But today, instead of correcting and redirecting, Kazusa abandoned her perfectionism and went along with his pace, strength, and enjoyment.

Just for today, this was fine.

She could have fun. She could be happy.

Just playing together was enough…

“…Hm?”

As Kazusa raised her tempo to match his, he raised it even more.

And when Kazusa ramped it up even higher, he did his utmost to keep up.

It was clearly a debacle of a session, with way too much energy crammed in.

A terrible performance, with none of the quality of the original song left.

And yet…

“You…”

Kazusa’s face was shining, in a way that it never had before.

This was so far different from normal.

Too fast, too strong…

And yet not a single note was out of place.

“What was that about studying being ‘your duty as a student’…? Damn liar.”

After a two-week gap, Guitar-boy—Haruki Kitahara—had plainly improved his ability, compared with before the exams.

He still hadn’t fixed his habits of getting carried away or being dragged along behind, but he was able to pick up the most important thing—the sounds.

This was a skill that could not have been improved without daily practice.

And one that could not have been acquired without practicing it correctly, from the very outset…

          Dumbass… You’re just like me.

          Sounds are way more honest than words.

          You were practicing during the exam period, too, weren’t you?

          Even while you were studying, you thought about the guitar.

          You played it secretly.

          Reading that book, not textbooks…

That park, late at night, in the rain, returned vividly to the back of Kazusa’s mind.

That single note, tucked between the pages of the damp reference book.

 

I bought the guitar practice book you told me about.
It’s really easy to understand. I think I should be able to follow along.
Thanks to you, I remembered that the most basic foundations are the most important thing.
I really think this book will be the most useful to you.
I’m the studying expert here, so try to take my word for it.
The school festival and graduation aren’t far off. We’ve both got work to do, so let’s do it.


Kitahara

 

“The… Kaiou Proficiency Series?”
“They’re exercise books for complete beginners. Just what you need, Kitahara.”
“Did you work your way up with these?”
“No way. It was just pure genius for me.”
“Oh.”
“Yeah, right. I wasn’t using the guitar one, but it definitely helped.”
“You play something other than guitar?”
“…That’s not relevant right now.”
“Touma…?”
“Here, just play. I don’t have all the time in the world.”

 

She had mentioned the title of this book any number of times that day during summer break, while she taught him about the guitar.

Back when she had started the piano—in other words, as soon as she was old enough to have awareness of the world around her—Youko had purchased the piano edition of this series, and given it to her.

Her mother had made the choice to give a book full of kanji to a three-year-old child, but that cheeky daughter of hers, declaring herself a genius, took in all those symbols written there and understood perfectly.

Her reading comprehension—or sound comprehension, really—was higher than that of anyone else in her age group… a true child prodigy.

Those long-ago lessons, etched into her by Youko Touma, now tied themselves to reality…

“You screwed up! Too bad!”

The guitar player had finally made a mistake right at the very end, and Kazusa laughed, with delight and scorn.

That night, Kazusa went without sleep for the first time in a week.

However, it wasn’t because she was practicing the piano or getting lost in thought, and certainly not because she was studying…

She was, of all things, undertaking something that could quite fairly be called night work… sewing.

The object at hand was the stuffed dog from her drawer.

The birthday present that Youko had sent her two years ago.

This emblem of the rupture between mother and child, torn up and then neglected ever since.

Kazusa worked tirelessly to stitch up the damage that she herself had caused.

At first, she had pricked herself a number of times, unaccustomed to handling a needle.

But her piano-trained fingers quickly found the knack, steadily picking up her pace, and her stitches became cleaner.

Even so, Kazusa controlled her pace whenever it started to run too high, warned herself against getting too carried away, and sewed carefully, attentively, trying to keep the stitches as small and hard-to-see as possible.

It wasn’t that she had forgiven her mother.

Nor that she had accepted the world.

But, this stuffed animal… this dog had done nothing wrong.

And Kazusa herself absolutely had done wrong…

The newly sewn-up stuffed toy was slightly crooked.

But that misshapenness actually resonated with her all the more.

It was like a loyal dog that kept on wagging its tail, even though its feelings never reached its master.

So, after making sure of how much time there was before school, Kazusa lay with it in her arms for half an hour.

It seemed warm, somehow, as she held it.

“Okay, I’m leaving.”

And, exactly thirty minutes later…

Kazusa tucked her copy of Chlorophyll Publishing’s Sprout Series # 16: Foundational English Grammar next to her faithful dog’s chest, addressed the two of them briefly, and left her room.

It was the first greeting she had given aloud in almost two years.

“…Ah…”

The moment she stepped out of the house, she narrowed her eyes in the downpour of sunlight.

The autumnal sky wasn’t as painful as the summer had been, but as mild as it was, after staying up almost all night, Kazusa wished it would go a little easier on her.

“I don’t… want to go to school, really.”

Until now, or at least until last year, she would never have shown up at school on a day like this.

But now, her body didn’t listen to the grumbling of her mouth, and it took her with a steady gait straight to the station.

And her heart felt something comfortable in her body’s self-willed response.

“Too much work…”

Her mouth, having been left behind, continued attempting to return fire with its retorts, but there was no one within her to engage it.

A clear, autumn sky stretched out above Kazusa.

Kazusa Touma… had never really hated the sky.


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