“Well, this is great! Now the four of us can be together again.”
“We’ve finally made it to college, and yet our lineup isn’t changing at all…”
It was January.
The first three days of the new year had rushed by, and what had rushed to meet them was their third school, term, but for people who were already guaranteed to graduate and enter the university, these days were spent in full-on cruise mode.
“I was pretty nervous, you know! Takeya-kun didn’t pick his course until the last minute…”
“Oh, yeah, that was just… a pause.”
And so, Setsuna and Haruki, two of those who were “already guaranteed to graduate and enter the university,” set off on their way home while the afternoon sun was still high in the sky, and turned their thoughts to the new life that awaited them in April.
“Well, he had a lot going on… Will you promise not to tell anyone this?”
“He was planning from the beginning to go to the same university as Io.”
“So he pretended to be mulling it over until the very last minute.”
“Of course, whether Io knew or didn’t know about that, she would probably just say, ‘So, what?’…”
“Those two are really just… What’s up, Setsuna?”
“Huh? Oh, uh… nothing, really. Why?”
“Oh, I just feel like normally you’d be more excited about this… Y’know, ‘Hey, I wonder whether those two will really be able to pull it together this time? I hope so!’ or something.”
“Come on, I… I wouldn’t say a nosy thing like that!”
“Really…? Well, if you say so.”
“…Yeah, there’s something up with you today, Setsuna.”
Yet again… it was January.
In the time the three of them spent together in the first three days, they thought back on memories of the past three years, freaking out and relaxing in turn in the face of the little time that remained until graduation.
Because that was what all three of them, every single one, wanted… supposedly.
“See you tomorrow, then.”
“Oh, um, by the way…”
They exited the school gate, passed through the shopping district at Suetsugu Station, passed by the park, entered the residential area.
When they reached Setsuna’s house, via the same roads they always took, the area was already wrapped in dusk.
“You don’t have to walk me home any more.”
“Well, I’m not coming home as late as I was during the school festival.”
“Is there some school regulation that says I can’t go with you if your way home is safe?”
“It’s just a detour for you, Haruki-kun.”
“Don’t underestimate the legs of a member of the go-home club. I could walk all the way to Onjuku.”
“Also… Kazusa isn’t here.”
“…How many more times are you going to harp on this, Setsuna?”
Ever since the year started, a certain other person who had announced her candidacy for music school had been applying herself zealously to “studying for exams,” to the point that she scarcely showed up at school at all.
“As many as I have to. Kazusa is working so hard on her own, and…”
“I know. I talk to her on the phone every day.”
“I do, too…”
With only half a month left before the competition, she was deep in the midst of a sixteen-hours-a-day training regimen, and even the heaps of verbal abuse for Haruki coming through the phone receiver seemed a bit more tired than usual.
“Look, the three of us are all together, right? There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Seriously, you don’t seem like yourself today…”
Something is definitely wrong.
I mean, we aren’t dating.
This relationship can’t exist without all three of us… without Kazusa.
“Do you not like going home with me, or something?”
“N-No, it’s not that—“
“Or is it annoying, having me insist on helping like this?”
“If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be you, Haruki-kun!”
“…Should I take that as a compliment?”
Though she apologized as a matter of form, Setsuna didn’t see her words as a gaffe in the least.
Nor did it occur to her that her own awareness of the fact might come out as a show of contempt for him…
“I’m gonna come and get you tomorrow, too! So you’d better wait for me.”
Taking little notice of Setsuna’s absorption in her own thoughts, Haruki brought things forcibly to a conclusion.
“You’ll be in the library again, right? As soon as I’ve finished everything up, I’ll come and get you.”
As she was always swallowed up by this pace at the end, and had kept losing and losing every argument up until today, Setsuna knew perfectly well that this was a decisive moment…
“Ah, ahaha… Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
But, just like always, she folded at the last minute.
“That’s right. See you tomorrow.”
Unable to put up a front and reject him, she instead spoke what she truly felt.
“I will never, ever leave you, Ogiso!”
As Haruki left, Setsuna felt as though she could see a transparent cross on his back, the one she had made him bear back then.
But, now, there was a part of her that wanted to cling to that binding spell once again.
Twenty-two minutes after exiting the high school gate.
Normally this route would take fifteen minutes for someone going alone, but today, she walked slowly, tapping out the numbers.
Really, there was no need to stay at school this late, but because he always stayed late with miscellaneous affairs, she would lie and say she had things to look up, and kill time in the library. Thus had she gained these twenty-two minutes.
“Seven minutes… over.”
She knew that she was completely contradicting her words from before…
Even so, Setsuna allowed herself to reflect upon the fact that she had been able to spend just slightly longer a time than usual with him.
“So… all four of you are going into politics and economics.”
“Yep! Like Haruki-kun said, nothing’s going to change from how it was in high school.”
Now that she’d eaten dinner, hung around in the living room with her family for a bit, taken a bath, and gone back to her room, it was precisely ten o’clock.
The next thirty minutes were the only time Setsuna could talk with Kazusa.
That was the rule that the three of them had decided on together, for the sake of Kazusa’s success in the competition.
“Man, you guys are lucky you don’t have to do any more test studying. I’m just now heading into my last big stretch.”
“Maybe you should have spent the last three years working at it, then? Every day, like Haruki-kun, instead of cramming it all in at the last minute…”
“…Give me a damn break. You think someone like me could live a life like that?”
Even Setsuna, who could easily talk for three or four hours at a stretch, adhered rigidly to this rule.
Because she didn’t want to hinder Kazusa’s practicing, of course… but also because she didn’t want to steal any time from the two lovebirds, whose conversation time began at 10:30.
“Ahaha! But, you know, you’re going to have to go along with ‘a life like that’ from now on.”
“Not so sure about that.”
“Oh? Are you sure you should be talking like that?”
“Well, I mean, you and he are gonna be spending more time together now, right?”
“No, I mean…”
Kazusa’s inadvertent grumble at that moment, on top of being irrational, was nothing more than an unwarranted bit of vitriol, with hardly any connection to the conversation up to that point.
“Um… You, and the club chair, and Mizusawa, right? Since you’re all gonna be in the same department, at the same university.”
Setsuna could have gotten mad. Or, she could have laughed it off.
“That thing about the lineup not changing from high school. I wasn’t part of that, so…”
Instead, she found herself at a loss for words in the face of what should have been a meaningless comment, and simply forced the conversation to continue.
“Th-Then, you should go somewhere close by, Kazusa. Hey, the Tomioka School of Music is only one bus ride away. And it’s a sister school to Houjou…”
“I don’t wanna go there… It’d be full of people from our music department.”
A barren conversation, to which neither of them could see a conclusion.
“Well, have fun. I’ll be spending the next four years totally sunk in the piano. It’ll be a pretty grey college life.”
“Kazusaaa, you don’t have to be so nervous. We’ll be able to see each other on weekends and summer break, and you know Haruki-kun will call you every day.”
“You don’t have to try to make me feel better. I brought it on myself anyway.”
“Are you anxious? About not getting to be with him?”
Even though Kazusa put up a front, antsiness and jealousy were absolutely oozing out of her voice, and it was blatantly obvious that there was nothing “not really” about it.
“Oh, I know!”
“You’re worried that he’ll find some new, nasty girlfriend!”
“Wh-What the hell?!”
“Well, you don’t have to worry. Leave it all to me!”
And so, Setsuna, in a brighter, bouncier voice than was necessary, forcibly attempted to amend the flow of conversation…
“What are you even talking about, Setsuna? I never said anything that pathetic.”
“Listen, I’ll be in his same department. I’ll keep a watchful eye on him at all times. And, if I sense anything suspicious, I’ll tell you right away.”
“I don’t want you to do that! I don’t think there’s any need with someone like him, anyway.”
“Oh, I know… I could act like his girlfriend to ward anyone else off…”
“Jesus! No, don’t! Stop!”
And, finally… she awakened it.
The worst fear, sleeping deep within Kazusa’s heart.
“Oh… N-No… I didn’t really mean that…”
In Kazusa’s shout at that moment, there was no shred of playfulness or calm.
It was excruciatingly clear to Setsuna.
“I-I’m so sorry… That was a terrible thing to say, even as a joke…”
“I told you, it’s not like that! That’s not the problem!”
She knew who had stolen that calm, too, and it bored into her like a drill.
“Then, I guess it’s about time for me to…”
The clock in her room read 10:20… Their parting time had come ten minutes earlier than usual.
In the end, their conversation never made a comeback.
Setsuna’s freewheeling chitchat, changing topics at the drop of a hat, and Kazusa’s badmouthing that was bursting with affection, her words and tone perpetually divergent from each other, both concealed shadows.
“…Ah, wait, Kazusa!”
“I can call you again tomorrow, right?”
“Please do… at the same time, okay?”
But, at the very last minute, with a sigh of relief, she was able to make a promise for the next time: a single saving grace.
After she hung up, Setsuna looked up at the white ceiling, as though in a daze.
However, this was a mistake.
Because, when she looked up, she had no way of avoiding it.
The truth steadily shone through by the white ceiling, the shining fluorescent light.
The truth that she could no longer keep locked away by her own effort.
It was such a short time ago.
We swore so firmly to each other.
I thought we would go on this way forever…
Setsuna’s one selfish wish.
To remain as a trio.
That the two of them would try to preserve the trio…
“Is it… not going to work out, after all?”
Before she knew it, that wish itself had eaten the three of them to a point beyond repair.