Twinkle Snow ~Dream~ I

“You don’t have to grip it that hard. Just pull it straight toward you, like this.”
“Mm…”

It was December.

The leaves had finally vanished from all the street-side trees, and in their place, an enormous tree had suddenly sprung up in front of the station—a tree signifying a particular day, all asserting the winter season.

“Oh, you’re supposed to hold the sprouts there, not right by the knife.”
“What do you mean, ‘there’?”

The school festival—the final glimmer of their school life—had ended, and now that they were third years, they had no choice but to think on the four grey months that remained to them.

“Ah, you sliced that one a bit too thick. There won’t be as much to eat.”
“…”

Although, considering most of the students already knew where they were going (a strong point, or perhaps a weak point, of having a high school already attached to a university), the greyness was really less than half.

And, within that, if you took out the strong ones and losers who had been referred to other universities, and those who had found employment already, the number remaining was in the hundreds.

“All right, we’ll stop there.”
“Phew…”
“So, we’ve got five potatoes left, two carrots, and…”
“…”

For those in that chosen minority, these days were fierce, desperate…

“Aaaargh, how am I supposed to peel something this tiny?!”
“Wait, no, you can’t just stop in the middle, Kazusa.”

Days of battle… supposedly. Until thirty minutes ago.

“God, cooking is boring.”
“We’ve only just started…”

The name of the young lady with long, lustrous black hair, relaxing in a kitchen chair, having just given up on the task of peeling potatoes after a single attempt, was Kazusa Touma.

Houjou High School, class 3-E. Her habit of dozing off at the edge of the classroom, never standing out, may have been her downfall; now, she boasted extremely bleak circumstances, with three months left before graduation and no settled path or prospects.

“I wasn’t made for delicate work like this. It’s not my calling.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re a pianist. That’s the most delicate work there is.”

And the name of the young lady with moderately long hair gathered into two pigtails, who had been tapping rhythmically with her own carving knife while still managing to give a proper follow-up to everything Kazusa said, was Setsuna Ogiso.

Houjou High School, class 3-A. She had put a suitable amount of effort into maintaining the sweet image that had always led everyone to look on her with admiration, whether she liked it or not; now, she contented herself with her promising future, having easily secured a recommendation to Houjou University.

“Exactly, I’m a pianist. What happens if I cut my finger on one of these things?”
“But you were the one who brought it up! You were worried you might end up a woman who couldn’t even make a curry.”
“And then you’re the one who decided we actually needed to make it. I thought we were here to study for exams…”
“Well, someone came and clung to me desperately…”

 

Yet again… it was December.

Exams started tomorrow, which meant their school days ought to be growing more and more hurried, in a certain unpleasant way.

And yet, for some reason, those who had gathered at the Ogiso family home for the sake of helping the lazy pianist and her dicey graduation prospects were now working diligently at preparing dinner in the kitchen—except for one.

“Hey, are you sure you don’t need my help?”
“Back off. Go back to studying in the bedroom by yourself.”
“…Remind me again who this study party was for in the first place?”

The name of the young man with nothing of particular note about his hair, who now poked his head out of the hallway, seemingly at loose ends, was Haruki Kitahara.

“Anyway, you can just leave the dinner prep to us.”
“To ‘us’… I see.”
“If all three of us do it, it’ll go faster. We need to eat quickly so we can get back to studying. You haven’t even finished the first subject yet.”

Houjou High School, class 3-E. With his strict, unswayable policy of helping others, and his preachy personality on top of it, he had provided direction to a number of school organizations, both from the inside and from the outside; now, he had fallen into a rosy future, having been guaranteed not only a recommendation to Houjou University, but also the formal address at their graduation.

“Shut up. If we did let you help, you’d just stand there nitpicking every damn thing. I know you’ve never done any cooking, either.”
“Maybe, but peeling potatoes is something anyone can do.”
“Oh, yes, if you’ve got the patience.”
“Setsuna… If there’s something you’re trying to say, keep your mouth shut.”

Kazusa, unable to continue blatantly slacking off now that Haruki had entered the scene, reluctantly stood next to Setsuna again and picked up a carrot, which seemed like it should be easier to peel.

“A-Anyway! …Don’t you dare tell him what I said earlier!”

…Under which pretense, she now muttered right into Setsuna’s ear.

“What you said earlier?”
“Y-You know. The bit about being a woman who couldn’t even make a curry.”
“The part where you can’t make a curry? Or the part where you were worried to death that he would hate you because of it?”
“Ah! Gaaah!”
“The second one, got it.”
“…You’re scarier than you look.”

To reiterate, it was December.

Almost two weeks had passed… since Haruki and Kazusa became boyfriend and girlfriend.

 

Two weeks ago…

The school festival concert ended a massive success.

The praise and encores for Setsuna, who had displayed not only her expected loveliness but also an entirely unexpected singing ability, were unending; the admiration for Kazusa, who supported everything perfectly from off to the side, handling keyboards, saxophone, and bass, was generous as well; and Haruki, the guitarist who did all he could within his scope, received his own share of applause.

 

“Hm…”
“S-So? How is it?”
“How? …Well, it’s jab curry.”
“…You know, it’s hard to tell whether you’re doing it on purpose or whether you’re just like that, but god, you’re brutal.”
“The taste, Haruki-kun! Give us your thoughts!”
“Well, as the catch copy says, it’s got a hard-hitting bitterness, and a deep, robust flavor.”
“Ugh, screw this! I shouldn’t have tried to feed someone who refuses to acknowledge other people’s effort!”
“K-Kazusa… Haruki-kun, come on!”
“I like it. I always have, ever since I started liking bitter stuff in middle school.”
“What…”
“Is there enough for seconds?”
“…”
“It tastes good, okay? As good as it always does.”

Two hours after those fifteen amazing minutes…

In the twilit music room #2, which had served as their changing room, the two backing band members who had put everything into lifting up their singing idol confirmed their feelings for one another.

“…More, please.”
“What, I, wait… Setsunaaa…!”
“More, please, Kazusa.”
“Y-Yeah, okay… I’ll go get some more.”
“Make sure to really heap it on!”
“I know, I know!”

 

Which was why the female member of the backing band now reacted with such nervousness to the curt, slightly unkind words of praise from the male member of the backing band.

“Pff… Heehee… Ahaha!”
“…What’s so funny?”
“Did you see how many expressions Kazusa went through just now?”

Which was why the idol now failed to hold her laughter back as she watched the overreaction of the female member of the backing band, practically bouncing out of the room with curry dish in hand.

“Did I screw something up?”
“You might have been juuust a little tactless. All you had to do was take one bite and say, ‘Oh, this is good!’”
“But, using store-bought roux… No, you know what, you’re right. I’m sorry.”
“Though, it did mean I got to see Kazusa on the verge of tears, so it’s all A-OK where I’m concerned.”
“…You really are scarier than you look.”

 

And so, even though the concert had ended, the three of them never truly left the stage, carrying on those dreamlike hours.

The two lovebirds, and the Cupid who brought them together—the three of them.

Two hours later.

 

“No, look, I did say that it tasted good.”
“Yes, because jab curry is good. It tastes the same regardless of who makes it.”

After dinner, the night wore on in chitchat under the excuse of “taking a break,” completely ignoring Haruki’s attempts to get the study party back on track.

 

“I had three helpings and everything. You seemed pretty happy.”
“Yeah, you threw me off pretty good. Turns out I’m cheap enough now that even completely insincere crap like that gets me all fluttery.”

And so, having had no real accomplishments on the studying front, but more than enough to make up for it on the nourishment front, they departed the Ogiso household, bearing mandarins as their spoils of war.

“Seriously, you don’t have to snap like that… It really made me glad.”
“Oh, of course. Doesn’t really matter how it’s made, it’s still that store-bought flavor you love…”
“It’s because it tasted like… Mom’s cooking, to me.”
“Huh…?”

Beneath the wintry sky, the topic finally returned to Haruki’s reaction as he ate the curry earlier.

“She would make a ton of it in a pot at the beginning of the month… I’d heat it up and eat it later.”
“…”
“The side dishes all set out on the table were always ready-made, but…”
“Mom made the curry herself, however it turned out… Well, though she did use store-bought roux.”
“We never ate together, morning, noon, or night…”
“But I was always just a little bit happier on the days that our kitchen smelled like curry.”
“…”

Haruki stared up at the sky. The stars looked as though they could turn to ice and start pouring down at any moment.

His breaths turned white and floated upward, covering over the myriad stars like clouds.

His face showed happiness, and fond familiarity, to be sure—but also the slightest hint of desolation.

“So, today, I really did…”
“You…”
“Hm?”
“…You were trying to distract me again, just now. Just throwing out a bunch of lazy excuses.”
“…You could tell?”

…But the fact that the whole thing was just for show didn’t get past Kazusa, who had already taken the “girlfriend” brand, even though it had only been two weeks.

“You’re using all that lame nostalgia stuff to run away. Cut it out. My mother never made me so much as a piece of toast.”
“Yeah, that… does sound like Youko Touma.”
“I’ve told you before, the fact that your past is so boring is a good thing. Mostly…”
“Well, in that case…”
“What.”
“Maybe I’ll make you some curry next time?”
“…Huh?”

So, when Haruki made this offer, Kazusa raised her eyebrows, seemingly suspicious that this, too, might be for show…

“As thanks for today. Once all the tests are over.”
“…What are you…”
“I might not be able to mix a lot of spices together, but… Maybe I’ll do some messing around with the ingredients and try for a seafood curry.”
“I’d… rather have pudding, than curry.”

But, the delay in her grand response when she did accept the offer already flagged her for the loser.

“Can I use a pudding mix? The kind where you just add milk and chill it until it’s firmed up.”
“Only if you make three packets’ worth. I want a full bowl.”
“It’ll lose its shape if I do that…”
“I don’t care. I’ll just eat it right out of the bowl with a spoon.”
“…I almost don’t want to ask this, but are you planning on eating the whole thing in one sitting?”
“Well, you ate three helpings of curry today. It’s basically the same amount.”
“The nutritional balance is completely different! It’s almost entirely sugar and butterfat!”

And so, beneath the wintry sky, the two of them walked on through the silent residential area, pondering the pudding to come as their reward in a few days, with an energy that might be considered a nuisance to the neighborhood.

“…”
“…”

Thirty-five minutes after that…

It was fifteen minutes on foot from the Ogiso residence to Suetsugu Station, then ten minutes to Iwazu Station by train, and then a further ten minutes’ walk.

At some point, as they walked through the neighborhood, keeping the long, white wall to their left, the words they exchanged lessened considerably.

“…”
“…”

Because this white wall surrounded the mansion of a certain world-famous pianist—in other words, once they turned left at the next street corner…

“…What?”
“Oh, no… Sorry.”

Only a few more steps, and they would no longer have a reason to keep walking together…

With a deeply sorry look on his face, the boy began to wrap his free hand—the one not carrying a bag of mandarins—around the girl’s free hand, the one not carrying a bag of mandarins.

“Why now?”

The eyes of the girl, Kazusa, upturned and slightly reproachful, wavered and shone by the faint light of the streetlamps.

Her gaze and words were difficult to interpret—she could have been admonishing Haruki for this sudden burst of initiative, or she could have been demanding to know why he had waited this long to do it.

“You don’t want this?”
“No, I don’t.”
“O-Oh, okay. I’m sorry…”
“I don’t want you to think I’m gross.”
“Huh?”

During this short exchange, their hands repeatedly touched and parted, let go and took hold again.

“My hands aren’t like most girls’ hands.”
“Ah…”
“My fingers are harder and rougher than yours, or most guys’, for that matter.”

Attacking, retreating, hesitating, vacillating.

“I would never think that was gross.”
“But…”
“I mean, they’re my teacher’s hands.”
“…”

And the boy finally mustered up all the courage he had, and cut off his path of retreat…

Finally, he entwined his own fingers around the girl’s fingers, which were just as rough as she said they were.

“I told you… I love this proof of your hard work. I love your piano-playing.”

They really were hard.

She might have slacked off continuously in the two years since she entered the high school, but she had been tempered so thoroughly in her childhood that that hardness was preserved the whole time…

No, maybe she only claimed to be slacking off, but could never really stay away from the piano—and these fingers were filled with stubbornness and pride.

“Why are you getting all mushy? It’s not like you. That’s just embarrassing.”
“Who cares? We’re alone.”
“Put yourself in my place, okay? I’m already about to freeze as it is, and now I have to listen to these lame lines.”
‘Then I’ll warm you up, like this…”
“Ah… Hey…”

The mandarin bags slipped out of their grips, and now they clasped together their newly free hands as well.

Their entire hands were tightly entwined—not just their palms, but their fingers, too.

They faced each other, not walking, casting aside all their excuses.

“…You’re the one who said you wanted to do this, okay?”
“Yes.”
“All of this is what you wanted.”
“Yes.”
“So, so… I’m not gonna let you let go. Okay?”
“Yeah.”
“You’d better keep hanging on until I say, ‘Let go.’”
“I won’t let go, Kazusa.”
“…Haruki…”

Two weeks had passed since they started dating.

Two weeks, since they began calling each other by their first names.

“…But why are you still looking at me like that?”

Kazusa Touma was the same dour-looking girl she had always been.

“You look like you’re gonna cry…”
“…”

However, these were not the eyes of a lone wolf, rejecting everything, as she had before—more like those of a stray dog, that had just been fed, just tasted the forbidden fruit, for the first time in its life…

“We’re dating, you know? We’re flirting right now.”
“Why does everything you say have to be so lame?”
“Because I want you to laugh. Just a bit.”
“This is… all on me.”
“But…”
“When I might lose you, when we might separate, when I might wake up from this dream…”
“Ah…”
“Thinking about that stuff, all the goddamn time… That’s all on me.”
“Kazusa…”

Kazusa Touma was no longer aloof.

“You won’t go anywhere, will you, Haruki?”

But, she was just as cowardly as she’d ever been.

“You won’t just disappear, like Mom?”

She was hesitant to like anyone this way.

Betrayal was all she could imagine.

She was a girl who had only just learned to love someone, and all her reactions were extreme.

“Well… Will you close your eyes?”
“Okay…”
“…Why are you shutting them that tight?”
“Because… Well, because… You’re gonna do it, right?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Then, hurry up… Get it over with.”
“Why do you have to talk like that? It ruins the mood.”
“Look, I’m… I’m embarrassed, okay?”

But, little by little…

The littlest bit by the littlest bit, she was regaining her honest self. She was still in that transitional stage.

“Y’know, I like it when your voice breaks like that…”
“S-Stupid… mph?! Mm, mmm…”

A mere twenty steps remained until the entrance to the Touma house.

Kazusa knew that she would warm up far more quickly if she simply went straight inside, but she couldn’t move now.

 

Not until her master’s magic spell—“Wait”—wore off.


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