She had sworn she would manage, somehow…
And yet, that final, major regret…
Her friend, who was late to the party…
One of the only people she hadn’t been able to invite… had now shown his face.
“I guess I made it just in time?”
“Um, wh-wh… Why?”
She hadn’t said anything about it.
Not to Haruki, nor to her other best friend.
“Sorry I’m late… It took me a little while to pick this out.”
Haruki’s hand held a large basket, covered in wrapping paper.
“But I wound up going with what the shopkeeper recommended, so you can send any praise or complaints their way.”
The basket was offered slowly to Setsuna, and passed into both of her hands.
The moment she touched his hand, after all this time…
Setsuna’s heart gave such a jump that it was almost shameful.
“Ah, um… Oh, right! Congratulations on Kazusa getting accepted!”
As she attempted to glaze over her shameful reaction, Setsuna’s voice, which had jumped a good bit higher on its own, just added a whole new coat to the shame.
“…Yeah, thanks. You should tell that to her, though.”
“No, this is fine. I know that if I tell you, it’ll get to Kazusa!”
“You’re on your way to her place right now, right? To celebrate her acceptance?”
“Oh, um… well…”
“B-Bye, then! Thanks for the present! See you later!”
She wanted him to vanish from this place as soon as possible.
She wanted to escape from this place as quickly as possible.
Because, even in this cold, she was burning up.
Because there were limits to how shamefully suspicious she could act.
And because it still hurt.
Being with both of them, or just being with one of them.
…Knowing that the other two were spending time together, without her.
Why, when he called out her name, did her feet find themselves rooted to the spot?
“I have to start cleaning up… We can talk tomorrow.”
“It has to be now.”
“There are… only two hours of your birthday left, but…”
“I want the three of us to celebrate it together.”
She’d had a feeling.
She had a notion that Haruki might speak that taboo phrase.
“What… are you talking about, Haruki-kun?”
But there was no guarantee that having predicted it would keep her from experiencing the shock when it actually happened.
“You’re on your way to celebrate Kazusa’s acceptance, right? You have to be together with Kazusa today.”
“Why don’t we go to Kazusa’s place together, right now?”
“The three of us can have a party in her basement studio.”
The moment Haruki brought up that place, that holy ground for the three of them…
A scene from half a year ago revived itself vividly in Setsuna’s mind.
“We can celebrate your birthday, and Kazusa’s acceptance.”
A vocalist, a keyboardist, and a guitarist—an incomplete band, without even a drummer.
A snap decision, made with neither personnel nor skill nor time, the majority made up of easy-going optimists, relying completely on the genius of the minority.
Practicing, rehearsing, eating, chatting, arguing, dozing off, waking up again, practicing, rehearsing…
The three of them together, laughing, yelling at each other, rushing through with the peculiar high tension of the dawn after an all-nighter…
All of it happened in that room.
Those ecstatic days.
Those treasured memories.
“We… We can’t do that.”
But Setsuna mobilized all her powers of reason to cut off those memories.
“It’ll hurt Kazusa…”
Otherwise, all of her grief and tears from the past few days would have gone to waste.
“Kazusa always wants to be alone with you, Haruki-kun. Even more on an important day like this, right? It wouldn’t be right for me to be there…”
Because she had already given up…
“It won’t hurt Kazusa! I won’t let her be hurt any more…”
Because she had given up, nothing could sway her any more.
“What… does that mean?”
She would give her blessings to Kazusa and to Haruki, and continue down her own new path.
“Well, I mean… um…”
A road along which she might intersect with them a little, but wouldn’t have any deep association with them.
Yes, that was best. No more lingering regrets…
“I mean there’s… nothing separating me and Kazusa any more.”
Nothing connecting Haruki and Setsuna?
And nothing separating Haruki and Kazusa…?
The awkwardness in his attitude, more than his words, told her everything.
Told her that Haruki and Kazusa were bound by an extremely powerful link.
…That they had become tied together.
“Yes, I do like Kazusa.”
“But I want to be with you forever, too, Setsuna.”
She already knew that Kazusa and Haruki were lovers in that sense.
“Maybe that’s unfair, or cruel, but… You’re a dear friend to me. Could it work?”
But, when she heard it stated outright, by Haruki himself…
“Um, you know… Kazusa may be moody, and selfish, and cagey, and prickly, which makes it hard for her to get along with people, but…”
All of the heat steadily left Setsuna’s body.
“But she likes you, Setsuna, just like I do.”
Cold spread through her, eroding all the way into her heart.
“So, I know it might be a little uncomfortable for a while, but… Can the three of us keep going like this?”
Spreading, trying frantically to freeze over whatever feeling—its color unknown—was threatening to burst out at any moment.
“Can you keep being Kazusa’s best friend?”
Setsuna herself could no longer tell whether she was exploding, or perfectly calm.
“Maybe I’ve made the wrong call…”
Yes, you have…
“But, can’t we just try? If it fails, can’t we keep trying over and over again?”
You’ve mistaken me.
She knew that Haruki believed, purely, from the bottom of his heart, in their friendship.
“Is it too much to ask?”
And Setsuna also knew…
That, although Haruki seemed to understand, he really didn’t know anything at all.
How much Setsuna had cried, how much she had suffered,
And how much she had resolved herself to cast away—he knew nothing of it…
Setsuna smiled sweetly and took one small step toward Haruki.
And she returned the potted plant she had just received to him.
“Hang on tight, okay? You can’t let go of it.”
“Setsuna, what exactly…”
Of course, as he had been instructed, Haruki received the potted plant from Setsuna and held it carefully in both hands, so as not to drop it.
As a result, in that moment, both of Haruki’s hands were occupied…
So he couldn’t stop Setsuna’s hands, cupping his cheeks…
Setsuna’s body, moving in close to him…
Or Setsuna’s lips, pressing against his own.
I’m sorry, Haruki-kun.
I’m a genuine liar. An awful, wicked girl.
A traitor who doesn’t know when to give up.
Setsuna knew that this was a game with no chance of victory.
I’m going to make this an honorable defeat.
I’m going to throw away being friends, being the three of us, and let you reject me.
I’m going to disappear from your lives.
She knew that this would break the three of them.
She knew that all of them would be hurt.
She knew that, most likely, she would end up the most miserable of them all.
But… But, you know…
If there’s that millionth of a millionth chance…
A possibility that’s nearly zero, but not quite zero…
And, just the smallest bit…
She hoped that Haruki would make the worst choice of all…