Twinkle Snow ~Dream~ VI

“Um, Setsuna…”
“…”
“…Is Ogiso-san here?”
“Why the hell would you start in with last names now? Every single day it’s been ‘Setsuna, Setsuna.’”
“Well, apparently you’re gonna get mad at me whichever I go with…”

When Haruki burst into class A before the end-of-school bell had even finished ringing, he found the sluggish atmosphere of a classroom that had lost all sense of school-life purpose, and a warmth of attitude from his classmate that brought a harsh, bitter winter to mind.

“Ogiso-chan? She went home.”
“Huh? Already…?”

But the one person Haruki was looking for was absent.

“Eh, she probably just doesn’t wanna see you.”
“You think Setsuna’s avoiding me…? Why would she?!”
“Why are you so sure she wouldn’t?!”

Taking no heed of his classmate’s criticism and ridicule, Haruki looked over the room one last time from corner to corner, confirmed that Setsuna wasn’t there, and sighed lightly.

“Why…? Huh.”

It was already Friday, and he hadn’t managed to have a single real conversation with Setsuna this week.

Recently… Well, ever since she caught that cold the past weekend, meaning ever since Kazusa’s competition, Setsuna had been so distant that it did almost seem forced.

Every morning, in contrast with Haruki, who was always first to arrive, she had shown up just barely in time for the warning bell.

During breaks, including lunch, she never once left the classroom.

And, as had happened today, before Haruki came to pick her up… in fact, before end-of-day homeroom was even over, she slipped out through the entrance and exited the school gate.

Haruki always saw this through the window, across the unoccupied desk right next to him, and today, determined to catch her, he dashed down the hall, in violation of school rules… and now, there was this mess.

“Argh… ?!”

Just as he heaved a second sigh, with no idea what to do or where to go with this…

He suddenly felt someone’s fingertip tap lightly against his right shoulder, twice.

“Setsuna…?!”
“…How can anyone be that gullible, in this day and age?”
“If that’s what you think, knock it off!”

Haruki spat his complaint at his self-styled best friend, Takeya, with both of the latter’s pointer fingers poking his cheeks.

 

“Huff, huff, huff…”

After sprinting down the hallway at top speed, drawing puzzled looks from surrounding students, rushing down the stairs, and bursting through the entrance, Setsuna finally… well, she came to a halt, drained of all her stamina, and stood with her hands on her knees, heaving great ragged breaths.

“Huff, huff, huff, huff…”

Her heart felt like it was about to leap out of her mouth, and it wasn’t just because of the running.

Most likely, it was because of her reason for throwing herself so frantically, right now, into the act of running.

Irritation, fear, anguish… and hope she should never have held, combined with the disappointment of having that hope betrayed.

All these extraordinarily complicated emotions mixed together to shorten Setsuna’s breath.

“Huff… huff…”

And yet, as she tried desperately to steady her breathing, Setsuna stretched her back out taut again, as though to wind a screw.

It was still too early to relax…

She couldn’t feel any real relief in an open place like this. Not until she’d left through the gates, made her way through her neighborhood, and closed the door to her own house…

“You haven’t been getting nearly enough exercise. Why don’t you start skiing for fitness this year?”

…And yet.

“Wh-Why?”
“Don’t underestimate a former basketball club regular.”
“Regular… You were the captain…!”
“Well, whatever. The point is, you can’t outrun me, Setsuna. Never mind Haruki.”

Setsuna had just rushed out of the classroom, her preparations for returning home not even begun yet…

Io, so perfectly calm and composed that it was impossible to think she’d run the same distance at the same speed, smiled at Setsuna with no shortness of breath.

 

“It’s been a while since I heard you play the guitar. Was the school festival the last time?”
“Yeah, maybe so…”

As the sun dipped down to the west, it came in at a slant through the windows of Music Room #1, illuminating Haruki and Takeya faintly.

The formation of the Light Music Club, the gathering of members, the senior members who hardly practiced at all, the discord that broke out over the admission of the female vocalist, the eventual disintegration…

In this space full of memories for the two boys—some of them unpleasant— Haruki slowly began playing a new song, something not in his repertoire, as if testing something.

“Maybe I’ll start practicing again in college…”
“Gonna make your debut at the university festival?”
“Well, I’m not interested in throwing together a band in a rush like that again, so I’d start preparing a little sooner… Would you join, Takeya?”
“Hang on, when did our lousy guitar player get so lofty?”
“…Shut up. Stupid.”

The first time Haruki heard this song was on a video site.

Apparently it was the theme song for some video game or late-night drama or anime series, but he didn’t know much about it, and he hadn’t looked into it, either.

But the lovely, fleeting melody and lyrics had stuck in his head.

“So, what’s going on? Why did you bring me here?”
“You did something to make Setsuna-chan hate you.”
“…”

He had made it this far without any mistakes, however clumsily he played along; but at these carefully aimed words from Takeya, Haruki’s fingers slipped hard out of line.

“She’s been completely avoiding you lately… I mean, all the other third-year guys are probably thrilled to see that, but…”
“Setsuna’s busy like the rest of us… With graduation and college coming up, and all…”
“She’s been just fine with me. We actually spent three hours chatting in a café the other day. It wasn’t just us, there was one other person, but.”
“…”

After that, though he attempted to start again from the point where he slipped, the noise interference next to him prevented the melody from coming to his mind, and Haruki was forced to set the guitar aside.

“Though, I guess it’s okay, really.”
“What’s okay about that…?”
“You already have a girlfriend who’s never gonna hate you.”
“…”
“It’s really cute how head-over-heels she is. It’s like she can’t see anyone but you.”
“She… hated me forever, though.”
“Haruki, are you aware of the term ‘tsundere’?”
“She can’t be bipolarized that way. It’s more complicated than that. It’ll seem like she’s been smiling constantly, and then she’ll suddenly blow up… I don’t know how I’m supposed to handle her.”
“…Sounds to me like you know exactly what the word means. Wouldn’t expect anything less.”

At the time that they first met, this girl who was fundamentally ignored, yelled readily, was frequently disgusted, and looked his way very, very rarely, was nothing more than a strange, unknown life form to Haruki.

And now, Kazusa, who yelled readily, was frequently disgusted, and yet looked his way constantly…

The fact of her being a strange girl to him still hadn’t changed.

“Anyway, we’re not talking about Kazusa right—“
“So? What about Setsuna-chan? Would she never have hated you? Would she have understood absolutely everything?”
“…No…”

The girl who, at the time that they first met, was fundamentally sociable, laughed readily, was frequently perky, and pouted very, very rarely…

And Setsuna now, who laughed readily, was frequently perky, and yet tried desperately not to show another expression threatening to seep through by covering it with a teary smile…

“Takeya…”
“What?”
“Girls are hard.”
“I know an easy way to get a girl to hang out with you. Want me to tell you how?”
“…What do you do?”
“When you’ve decided on someone, just plunge in. Don’t show any weird attachment. Don’t fan any expectations.”
“…What does that mean?”
“You don’t get it?”
“Not remotely.”

Haruki fixed Takeya with a disappointed scowl, as though he had in fact grasped it completely.

 

“…Hey, is that Haruki?”
“I don’t know… Maybe?”

As the sun dipped down to the west, it poured down uniformly across the roof, illuminating Setsuna and Io brightly.

But the wind was cold, and strong, as though it were waiting eagle-eyed for an opportunity to change the color of the sky to grey.

And the timbre that she heard, riding faintly upon that powerful wind, was faltering, and lonely enough to stoke sympathy in Setsuna.

“Sorry to stop you like that when you were in a hurry.”
“No worries. I didn’t really have anything to…”
“Then why were you sprinting like that?”
“Th-There was a TV show I wanted to catch, but then I decided I didn’t really care!”

Io sensed that the sound of the metal fence as Setsuna shook it vigorously showed her emotions more truly than the words that spilled out of her mouth, and averted her eyes.

“…Hey.”
“Wh-What?”
“Setsuna… What are you gonna do from here on out?”
“From here on out? Well, I’ve cleared my exams and attendance days. Oh, I’m not sure about the skiing, though… Well, but if it’s somewhere with hot springs and karaoke…”
“I’m not asking about graduation or graduation trips.”
“Th-Then, what do you mean…?”

Io finally realized that she had misjudged Setsuna.

She’d thought Setsuna was better at lying than this.

“That whole thing about ‘being the three of you, forever’… You gonna keep that up?”
“I’d rather you didn’t say ‘that whole thing about’… It feels like you’re making fun of me.”

And she’d thought Setsuna was a little more sensible… a little better at knowing when to quit.

“Well, maybe I am, in a sense. It does seem a little bit like you’re playing house.”
“What do you know, Io…?”

Setsuna’s trembling voice made every effort to shove Io coldly away.

Setsuna’s wavering eyes tried earnestly to look down on Io.

She tried to make herself believe, firmly, that she was in the higher position.

“You didn’t rehearse with us, stay up all night with us, stand on that stage with us. How could you possibly…”
“If you’re going that far, then what’s with this half-assed way you’re doing things now?!”
“…”
“Without Touma-san around, you don’t get anywhere near Haruki. In fact, you’re blatantly avoiding him.”
“Io…”
“Is this distant relationship the ‘endless festival for the three of you’ that you were talking about? I don’t get it at all!”

Yes, Io was being obstinate in her denial.

But, at that moment, what brought some extra harshness to her manner of speaking wasn’t irritation with Setsuna’s own stubborn attitude…

It may have been that she was dissatisfied with the treatment of the one other person, other than herself, who had spent a short while striving with them.

 

“What do you know about us, anyway?”

Haruki’s trembling voice made every effort to shove Takeya coldly away…

“…Just to be clear, I’m not saying you aren’t my best friend.”
“I know, I know.”

…But Haruki didn’t really have the self-assurance or nerve to go anywhere beyond that.

“There are things about me and you that I don’t tell Kazusa or Setsuna. The opposite is true, too…”
“Aha. So, even a group of three, there are secrets that two of them won’t tell the other one.”
“Like I said, what do you…”
“You stayed over at Touma’s place, right? Last Sunday… after the competition.”
“…”

His reasoning, his prudence, had supported his past three years, and had held the last half-year in a precarious balance. And yet…

“Did you really think I wouldn’t catch the signs? If you didn’t wanna get found out, you should’ve skipped school on Monday.”

That day, somewhat suspiciously, Haruki had avoided standing out to the best of his ability, focusing all his attention on his personal appearance.

“When did it start? …No, there’s no point in asking that, I guess. Considering you two are already like that.”

It lined up perfectly with Takeya’s own behavior from two and a half years ago, when he came to school from a girl’s room for the first time.

“She’s… about to be busy with her endorsement exam. We won’t be able to see each other for a while.”
“Okay, but that circumstance has nothing to do with anyone except you two.”
“…”

Takeya’s words now were the very words that Haruki himself had thrown at his best friend, over and over.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with Setsuna-chan, either. You two have started a new relationship, and that’s all.”
“Okay, so don’t…”
“Don’t tell Setsuna? Don’t go blabbing stuff because I don’t understand anything?”

And so, it very much came home to Haruki…

That Takeya was still treating him as his best friend.

And that Takeya was sincerely, honestly worried for him.

“I’ll… tell her myself.”

In which case, no matter what it took, he couldn’t imitate his best friend’s usual response.

He had one last shred of pride…

“Be honest with others.” He protected this shred, stubbornly.

 

“Setsuna, what you’re doing is weak. It’s full of contradictions.”
“It… No, it’s not.”
“What do you expect to do in college, with an attitude like this? You’re going to have to see him every day. You’ll be spending a lot more time together with him.”

At some point, the sun had hidden itself.

The sky had become murky with clouds, the wind grown colder…

“Maybe I’ll switch departments…”

And Setsuna’s emotions had been changed to the same color and temperature.

“Really? Would that fix everything?”
“I’ve never been good at Politics and Economics. English Literature might be better for me…”
“That’s not what I’m asking… No, you know, that could be it in one sense.”
“What does that mean…?”
“Well, Setsuna, you were originally talking about going into English lit… Until Haruki decided to go for Politics and Economics.”
“!!!”

But right now, Setsuna couldn’t feel the cold from these clouds, this wind, even if she wanted to.

“You twisted up your own ambitions because you wanted to be with this guy so badly, and now you’re going to distance yourself from him? Is that what you want?”
“D-Don’t tell…”
“Don’t tell Haruki? Of course I can’t do that… For his sake, not yours.”
“S-Sorry… I’m sorry!”

The shame of realizing that the core of her heart, which she had tried to desperately to cover up, had slipped out, took her body’s temperature to boiling.

“Come on, just stop… This isn’t what Setsuna Ogiso does.”
“Io…”
“You regret it. It’s agony, being the three of you. That’s why you’re running away, with no idea what to do.”

She was being opened up.

“Because, really, you want to be with him. You like Haruki.”

Every little feeling that she had loathed in herself was being unraveled, exposed, one by one.

“You don’t want it to be three… You want it to be two.”
“That’s not it…”
“What’s not it?”

She had worked so hard to cover them up with clean, white snow…

“I’m not that earnest, or that pure…”
“I want both of them. I really want both…”
“I’m so greedy…”

But here they were before her eyes, dark, dirty, like mud trampled and crushed underfoot.

 

“Y’know, Haruki… You should really quit calling her ‘Setsuna.’”
“What the hell?! You call her ‘Setsuna-chan’!”
“That’s different. The weight of calling her by her first name is completely different for each of us.”

Takeya’s words now were the very words that Haruki himself had thrown at his best friend, over and over.

And yet—no, maybe exactly because of that…

Those words, straight from the heart, were the words he wanted to hear least in the world right now.

“I’m gonna ask you this one more time, Haruki… Which one of them do you really like?”
“What? I… Kazusa, obviously.”
“Uh-huh… I figured.’
“But Setsuna is still a—“
“A dear friend, right?”
“…”
“They’re both really important to you, but one of them is your girlfriend, and one of them is a friend… That’s not a great situation.”

“Friend.” He didn’t want to consolidate the girl known as Setsuna into such a standard, basic word.

From an object for coverage to a friend, from a friend to a companion, and from a companion to… one of three.

A special girl, whose disguise was peeled back every time their bond deepened, who steadily became more appealing every time her disguise was peeled back…

“You think Setsuna-chan won’t be hurt if you make a weird little distinction like that? …You think Touma won’t be hurt if that’s the only distinction you make?”

Even though he was disgusted with himself for holding these special feelings for her, he couldn’t avoid the girl who had given him those feelings.

“If you’re gonna make a distinction, you ought to make it a clearer one.”
“But that would hurt Setsuna… Removing her from the group of three would hurt her more.”
“If she’s going to get hurt either way… which do you think will hurt the least?”
“I…”
“Make it a clear distinction, or keep things in limbo as the three of you… Which one?”

He knew the answer Takeya wanted him to give.

And, by majority vote, it was the one most likely to be approved.

“Being the three of us is better… That’s what Setsuna wants.”

He also knew that the answer he chose would be classified as the “minority opinion” answer.

“But where has that stubbornness got you? Setsuna-chan and Touma are both hurting, and so are you.”
“Why does it have to be three? That’s what I don’t get!”

But, there was no other choice.

Because he felt that attraction to Setsuna, the one who clung to that incorrect answer.

“Your whole relationship is gonna rupture that way!”

Because he loved seeing her trying so hard to sweep away the wounds of her past, then getting depressed because it wasn’t working, struggling, and then trying again, smiling through her tears…

 

          I liked Haruki-kun as the committee chair.

          I liked it when he lectured me. I enjoyed it when he scolded me.

          I was glad to have him, whether as a boyfriend or as a friend.

          I thought I was okay with it, if he treated other girls the same way.

 

          I liked how he normally was.

          Saying “Good morning,” like normal. Saying “Goodbye,” like normal.

          Listening to me like normal, admonishing me like normal…

          Having him treat me nicely, like normal, was very comfortable.

          Not giving me any special treatment, like the other boys…

          But getting just a little bit flustered with me. It made me happy.

          I would be lying if I said I hadn’t dreamed about dating a boy.

          But, after what happened in middle school, I was a bit scared.

          So, someone like him, who was serious and straight-laced, but still kind, was ideal
for me.

          Maybe it’s a bit arrogant of me to say this, but you could say he was
“completely perfect.”

 

          But Kazusa’s values were so completely different from mine…

          She didn’t acknowledge Haruki as the committee chair who was nice to everyone.

She couldn’t endure him concerning himself with everybody.

          How do I put it… Kazusa might get angry with me for saying this,

          But she wanted him to be a prince, who would only look at her.

          And, and… in accordance with what Kazusa wanted, he decided to become that prince.

          A prince, for the only girl he considered a princess…

Haruki chose not the girl everyone treated as an idol, but the girl everyone treated as though she didn’t exist.

He chose not the girl he alone treated normally, but the girl he alone treated like an idol.

And to Setsuna, who hated being given special treatment and fell in love with Haruki, who treated her normally, this dilemma was difficult to endure.

 

          I can’t win against Kazusa.

          I don’t want to beat her, but even if I did want to, I never could…

          No one could rival such a straightforward girl.

 

To Setsuna, Kazusa seemed like an exceedingly different entity.

Because she was a girl who maintained an impossible balance—the pettiness of an elementary-schooler, the romanticism of a middle-schooler, and the seriousness of an adult, all at once.

And because Setsuna was just a bit more mature than Kazusa.

 

          And I don’t want to rival her.

          Because, I’m like Kazusa, having loved him just the same amount as her…

          And I wanted him to like me as much as Kazusa.

 

However, Setsuna hadn’t realized…

That she really was only “a bit” more mature than Kazusa.

That her feelings really weren’t that different from Kazusa’s.

Kazusa, who wanted to be the only number one in his eyes.

Setsuna, who also wanted to be his number one.

In the end, either of them would be hurt by being number two…

          I can’t call him “Haruki-kun” any more.

          I’m not a girl who can be called “Setsuna” by him any more.

          But I don’t want to start calling him “Kitahara-kun” now.

          And having him call me “Ogiso” would make me cry uncontrollably.

          So, I can’t see him.

          I don’t know what to call him, or what I want to be called…

 

“I made a promise.”
“Haruki…”
“I promised that I would never leave her, not unless she cut me off herself. I promised…”

He picked up the guitar that he had dropped earlier.

“It’s a promise I have to keep, no matter what else I may leave behind…”
“Even if it means hurting Touma more than you already have?”
“…”

He held it on his knees, strummed it lightly.

His hands had gone slightly numb with cold, and the strings hurt a bit as they dug into his fingers.

But, right now, all he wanted was to feel some pain.

Although, compared with the pain he had made the two girls feel, this was practically nothing…

“Hey, Takeya.”
“Hm?”
“Did I screw up?”
“Dunno.”
“What am I supposed to do about this…?”
“Beats me.”

The movements of his fingers steadily grew faster, bringing control to the monotonous sounds, and changing them into a song.

“…Nah, I’m kidding. Look, I’ll take care of it.”
“Takeya…?”
“Oh, wait… that might come off wrong. Io and I will both take care of it.”
“Then…”
“No need to rush… First, the five of us need to get together.”

It was the song he had been playing just before.

That fleeting song, with a melody and lyrics that suited this freezing season.

“Once Touma’s got her endorsement for sure, why don’t the five of us all go skiing?”
“Skiing…?”
“Y’know, mess around in a big group, look at the snow, bathe in a hot spring…”
“That would…”
“It doesn’t have to be three people, right? You don’t have to leave one person out of a trio that way, see?”

Messing around, snow, hot springs, and that oath…

He strummed the strings more forcefully, trying to drown out the memories rushing around his head.

“Well, there you go. We’ll handle the details. I’ll get in touch once it’s all set.”
“If you keep spending all this time on me, you won’t have as much time for dating yourself.”
“…I’d rather be in a group of five than alone with a girl, honestly.”
“…”
“So, keep it up in April, Haruki.”

 

Outside the window, the sky was dark and somber, and it looked like it could start snowing at any moment.

“Five…?”
“We’ll be there, Setsuna. Takeya and I will.”
“Io…”

Setsuna let her feelings overflow.

Let her tears overflow.

Her crying fit gradually slowed, and when it had tapered off…

Io murmured to Setsuna.

“You can keep calling him ‘Haruki-kun.’ You can keep being ‘Setsuna’ to him.”
“I… I can…?”
“But you have to loosen up a little bit in your connection with him.”

Just as Takeya said to Haruki…

Or, really, she was passing on the strategy that the two of them had discussed and settled upon, around three years ago.

“You’ll be glad to have Haruki there, right? And Touma-san?”
“Y-Yeah…”
“Okay, then… Will you stop this, Setsuna?”
“…”
“…Will you?”
“…I… I will.”

Setsuna hesitated for at least half a minute before giving that simple, two-word answer…

“I’ll stop… I will… I won’t talk about wanting to be a trio any more…!”
“Setsuna…”
“So, don’t tell anyone… Don’t tell Kazusa, or Haruki-kun, about how I feel!”
“I would never tell them… I mean, we’re best friends, right?”
“Ah… aah… uwaaaah…!”

And at that moment, even though she had just stopped crying, her face crumpled once again.

“Sheesh… Who would believe you were the school idol, to see you now?”
“Ah… aaaah…”

Setsuna let her tears flow again.

This time, it wasn’t anything so simple as a crying fit—this was wailing, wrung all the way from her throat.

“Io, I… Aaaaaah…!”

But these weren’t tears of regret…

They were forward-facing tears, an oath that she would never turn back again.

“Setsuna… You’re gonna end up an even better girl than you are now. A perfect idol, who would turn any guy’s head.”

Never cling desperately to the “trio” again.

Never try to break two of them out of the trio again.

Never run away from being two, and end up alone again.

Because this was something Setsuna had done long ago.

The guitar’s melody reached the roof.

It was a song of illicit love, heartbreak… and growth.

 

The tiniest bit of snow began to flutter down out of the sky, as though drawn by that fleeting timbre.

 

          Hurting a little, waiting to heal, hurting a little more…

          Through that process, over and over, I can grow up.

 

Setsuna implored the snow. Prayed to the snow.

 

          I’ll give it everything I have…

          I’ll take my time, and keep at it, until all of my wounds are healed.

          So, until then, snow, wrap my feelings up gently.

Only a little time after that, on February 14th…

Kazusa Touma was accepted into the Kisaragi College of Music.


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