“Man, after all of that, the end of the semester really flew by, huh!”
“Which ‘all of that’ are we talking about…?”
After “all of that”…
The madness of exam week had passed in an instant, and with Saturday’s English test, everything drew to a happy conclusion.
“…You seemed pretty deep in it, Haruki. Were you trying to hit the top in every subject, just to crown it off?”
“I wouldn’t waste effort on something that inefficient… All I needed was to hit the average in each subject.”
“Wow, you’re pretty articulate for someone who’s asleep.”
“Look, there’s been a lot going on. Graduation’s coming up and all… Also, I’ll have you know I’m awake.”
In the cafeteria, which was less populated than usual, four people took up one table, digesting their sense of freedom in the aftermath of their exams.
Haruki, his self-proclaimed best friend Takeya Iizuka, his partner-in-crime, both in name and nature, Io Mizusawa, and…
“…Hey, Patrasche. Wake up before you freeze to death.”
Next to Haruki, who was fighting with every ounce of his strength to keep his bleary eyes open, there was Kazusa, who had long since crashed out with all of her god-given elegance.
“Touma-san, haven’t you been a little too relaxed lately? In a few different senses.”
“Haruki, you already managed to make enemies of ninety percent of the guys here back during the school festival, and yet you’re aggressive enough to pick a fight with the last ten percent…”
To Kazusa, who had let all the strength drain out of her, body and soul, to lean her head defenselessly against her boyfriend’s shoulder, and to Haruki, who accepted this behavior as though it were completely natural, the other two spoke with exasperation.
Even to Takeya and Io, who had a fair enough grasp of how things had gotten this way, when compared with the sense of emptiness that the crew from class E had been feeling lately, the two of them must have looked like puppies clinging to each other.
“Hey, don’t rub at your eyes like that. I know you’re sleepy, but you can use my handkerchief…”
“Who’re you calling ‘Patrasche’? Does that make you Nello? You’re no artist. You can’t even hardly play the guitar. If you ever got your hands on a Rubens painting you’d probably use the back as a calculation sheet or something.”
And in response to their words, which had been fired off like a belch, the barely-awake puppy and her groggier-than-usual brain rerouted the blow toward the day after tomorrow.
“The whole Touma family fortune wouldn’t be enough for that. I prefer living with clothes on my back, thanks.”
“See, this is what I mean about you saying stuff like that… you’re such a drag, Haruki.”
She looked like nothing if not a whining dog at the moment, which only gave the other two further heartburn, together with a vague sense of helplessness.
“I know you’re embarrassed and trying to cover it up, but would you mind knocking it off, maybe?”
“No one’s doing anything like that. He’s the one who…”
“Setsuna-chan will probably be back before long…”
Takeya recalled correctly—in fact, with timing that almost seemed perfectly planned to coincide with his words, the atmosphere at the table returned to the state it had been in when they first gathered.
“Oh, good, there you are! Thanks for waiting!”
Yes, as though it had been planned in advance, Setsuna’s lively voice reached them not ten seconds later.
“You know, they say artists have a different level of sensitivity from normal people…”
In accordance with an emphatic suggestion from one person in particular, they had settled on the karaoke place in front of the station—said person’s home ground—as the location for their end-of-exams party.
As Setsuna guided them all to the spot in question, Io caught up with her, and put forth her hushed remark in such a way that those behind them couldn’t hear, just as they entered the stationfront shopping area.
“She’s got this really childish side, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, it’s cute!”
“I guess so… It’s totally different from my first impression of her.”
“Well… It happens a lot with girls. Right? You know what I mean.”
“Right, yeah, that…”
‘When you’re in love,’ etc…
…They were both too embarrassed to say it aloud, but each still managed to understand perfectly what the other was trying not to say.
“Except, you have to be careful not to tease her too much, which is a little tricky…”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. She can’t really take a joke… where a certain topic is concerned.”
In only a month, Kazusa had undergone a dramatic change.
She reacted dramatically to mentions of a certain topic—which is to say, Haruki. To give a few examples, she could become angry, shy, or stubborn, or be brought to the point of tears, at the drop of a hat.
Io felt a bit as though the girl she’d teased in elementary school had come back around again, exactly as she was, and it made her feel weirdly uncomfortable.
“She’s just so pure, and earnest, and… precious, I think.”
“…Uh, um… Try not to get discouraged, okay?”
And, just now, she realized that she had stepped on a landmine that was an entirely different sort of uncomfortable.
“Oh, no, I’m not feeling down at all, really!”
It wasn’t clear who had realized and who hadn’t, but Setsuna herself at least must have been aware of her own feelings.
“I got rejected, y’know?”
“I didn’t listen to your advice, and… Well, no, I think it would have happened this way even if I had. The point is, I lost to Kazusa, completely.”
“If you’re serious about him, you should probably hurry.”
“And I know that this was the best way for the whole thing to end, anyway.”
The result was exactly as Io had feared.
But, apparently, it was just how Setsuna wanted it to be.
“This way, the three of us can keep being a trio. It was the best choice.”
“Haruki-kun is still plenty nice to me, and Kazusa and I are finally best friends!”
Yes, Setsuna and Kazusa had become best friends.
Up on the rooftop, at dusk, the week after the school festival.
“Can I… call you ‘Kazusa,’ from now on?”
“So, this is all I need.”
There, again, was Kazusa, on the verge of crying like a child.
There, again, was Setsuna, smiling slightly impishly.
“The two of them granted my wish.”
The two of them had sworn an oath for the three of them.
The third one hadn’t been consulted at all on the matter, but Setsuna knew.
“Then, keep it up, Setsuna.”
“There’s nothing to keep up! Everything is happy and fun right now. Why would I need to force something else?”
She knew that this was the future the third person wanted the most…
“If you say so… Well, if anything happens, you can come to us. Whatever little complaints you might have, we’ll listen.”
“…Why are you talking like my problems are your problems, Io?”
“No, I mean, I…”
“You two have a different problem to solve, right? A real nuisance of a problem, that hasn’t had a single step of progress after six years.”
At this proof that she had correctly guessed the other figure included in the “we” Io spoke of, Setsuna fired back.
“Once you’ve done something about that, we’ll let you into our group. Until then, you two need to put some work into it. Oh, I’ll listen to any little complaints you might have, though.”
“There’s no spring coming for me… But only me. Not a bad start to a new school term, right?
As Io came to a halt, shocked, Setsuna gave her a wink—the kind she would never give a boy.
“Come on, guys, hurry up! The daytime discount only lasts until six!”
And Setsuna left her there, quickening her steps.
“Hang on, how many hours are you planning to sing…?”
By the time Io managed to mutter a retort, Setsuna was no longer looking at her. She couldn’t see her face.
In only a month, Setsuna had undergone a subtle change.
More of her walls seemed to have been demolished now. To give a few examples, she was a little chattier, a little meaner, a little nosier, and she smiled all the time.
Io knew that her muttering wouldn’t reach her target’s ears, but she continued anyway.
“You’ve grown up a little.”
Had it happened naturally, or had she done it out of necessity?
Was it proof of her development as a person, or was it the result of her loss?
Io had no way of knowing.