21 days until the show
As I opened the soundproofed door, the faint melody that I had caught spilled out into the hallway.
When I slipped into the room, shutting the door behind me, the room’s inhabitant gave me a grouchy greeting, playing all the while.
“Why? The school’s music rooms belong to everyone, Touma.”
“Wrong. This one is mine.”
Her lips were rigid as she spoke.
“You’re disrupting my practice. Get out. I don’t need you cutting into my precious Saturday afternoon.”
“’Precious’? You’re the one who just skips class whenever you feel like it.”
She glared wordlessly at me.
“No, never mind. Uh, look, I didn’t mean to disrupt your practicing. I just need to talk to you about something.”
“I have nothing to talk to you about.”
“Urk…” Maybe I was being too hasty. “I guess I’ll eat in here, then.”
“You don’t get to do that.”
“I won’t be disrupting you that way. And you’re the one who decided to take this room over, so you don’t really have a leg to stand on. Oh, do you want some bread? I assumed you hadn’t eaten yet, so I bought extra.”
I pulled the convenience store bread out of my bag. Touma glared at me again.
She said no more. As she continued playing the piano, I watched her, biting into my bread.
Saturday, early afternoon.
I entered Music Room #2 for the second day in a row, and noticed all the instruments gathered there, which #1 lacked. Guitar, bass, drums, even a saxophone. Touma could handle every one of them. I was fully awed.
Of course, her main specialty was the piano she was playing right at this moment. For just a few hundred yen, I got a lavish lunch with a live music performance—even with just bread, I was satisfied.
I mean, this was Kazusa Touma.
“If you’re done eating, get out.”
After twenty or thirty minutes of continuous playing, her slim fingers quietly brought the tune to an end.
“Taking a break? Do you want some bread, then?”
“Do you ever listen to other people, Kitahara?” Touma finally faced me, exasperation plain in her expression. “How do you have the time to loaf around in here, anyway?”
“Oh, there’s no problem there. I didn’t come just to make a show of loafing around. I’m working on recruiting new members.”
“Oh, wow. I was sure no one would be wrong in the head enough to join your band this late, but maybe you’ve got the right idea.”
Touma repeated her words from the day before, as if mocking them.
“Yeah, that was amazing. Being the former—”
I almost said, “The former star of the music department,” but cut myself off.
She might not want to hear me talk about the past two years.
“Your piano-playing is really top-of-the-line. I can vouch for that, having played with you for so long.”
“That doesn’t mean much, coming from someone like you with no musical sense.”
“Also, just so you’re aware, I’m not the weirdo you’re looking for. Give up and go away.”
Touma cut me down in a single stroke.
After I had finally managed to get so close.
Finally demolished the barrier that separated Music Room #1 and Music Room #2.
Why? Why did I feel as though my “neighbor” were growing farther and farther away from me?
Why did I feel this indescribable sense of desolation, hearing this moving, elegant performance from Touma?
Still, I wasn’t going to withdraw now. I had asked Setsuna for her permission precisely because I thought this might happen.
“I almost gave up, once. But it hurt too much. I had to make the Light Music Club’s show a success, even if I didn’t get to play in it myself.”
I registered a tiny twitch of a reaction from Touma, and continued.
“Maybe I’m just a backup, but I’ve thrown so much of myself into doing this, being a part of this. I couldn’t let it just disappear.”
“But we’ve got Ogiso now. Setsuna Ogiso, you saw her yesterday. You might not know her, but she’s been Miss Houjou High twice. She’s really something.”
After listening this far, Touma wordlessly began playing the piano again—as if to say, “I don’t want to hear any more of this.” But I went on.
About Ogiso singing “White Album” up on the roof.
About how her image as Miss Houjou High, as some perfect princess, was nothing more than that—an image—and she was really just as ordinary as any of us.
And about how she loved to sing.
I kept on and on, trying, hoping to make Touma understand Ogiso.
“And then, when she took me to her favorite karaoke place, she managed to sing something like ten or twenty songs at a stretch. And she killed every one of them. I was shocked, finding out that the pampered Miss Houjou High was actually a princess of solo karaoke.”
“I doubt anyone would expect her to have a side like that. But, the fact is, Ogiso loves to sing. She’s hard-working, she’s earnest, she’s a great person.”
“I know, with Setsuna Ogiso being the way she is, you might get a little worked up, yourself. But you don’t have to do that. She’s very, very approachable. There’s nothing to worry about. I can confidently say she’s the best member of the Light Music Club, in several ways.”
At some point, the piano had stopped again.
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to go on that long. I did the same thing with Ogiso yesterday. I should be more careful about that…”
“Um, so, Touma… I know you might not like me or Takeya, but would you try being in the band, for Ogiso’s sake?”
“I know what you’re trying to say, Kitahara.”
Touma stood and turned to me.
“Really? Then, you’ll join—”
“In your… goddamn dreams!”
Thirty minutes later…
“Then… it looked like she was about to kick every desk over, so I ran away…”
“I see. That’s too bad.”
I lay in my own bed, the afternoon sun flowing in through my window, while Ogiso’s clear voice rode the electrical waves through my phone receiver.
Here I was, talking to Miss Houjou High on the phone, and yet the matter of our conversation was so pathetic that I could cry.
“Why does Touma have to rage around like that…? I’m really sorry. I made you let me tell your secret, and I still…”
“No, it’s not your fault. Don’t worry about it.”
Ogiso’s tone was devoid of blame for me.
Yes, she was clearly a good person. Though, something in her voice sounded oddly… happy? Maybe I was imagining that.
“I’m going to try to convince her another time. I don’t think I’m going to have any more luck today, so maybe on Monday.”
“Hey, do you think Touma-san went home after she got angry?”
“I don’t know… Although, after I ran off, I heard some absolutely furious piano playing, so she might still be at it right now.”
At that pace, she would probably skip lunch altogether. At any rate, if I could hear her rage through a musical instrument, then it must be something pretty monstrous, in a number of ways.
“Anyway, I’m not giving up. I’m going to keep at it.”
But what was I going to talk about, now that the topic of Ogiso, in which I had placed so much confidence, had proven insufficient?
“You really can’t give up on Touma-san?”
“What? No, don’t put it that way, that would invite misunderstandings… I’m just doing this for the Light Music Club. That means it’s for your sake, too.”
Yes. Now that Ogiso had decided to participate, I wanted to make it work, some way or another.
“Hmmm… Right. Okay. I get it.”
I didn’t quite follow, but Ogiso seemed to have convinced herself.
After she gave me a word of thanks and told me not to push myself too hard, I hung up and sighed slowly.
In spite of the bread I had just eaten, my stomach felt empty. Maybe from exhaustion.
Going out somewhere was too much of a bother, so I stood up to go look for some cup noodles or something in the pantry, thinking vaguely about my next move in my bid to win Touma over.
We needed to get into a shape that would allow us to start rehearsing, and quick.
Rehearsing. I had to go to Ogiso’s place and explain about the band. When should I… For that matter, how should I?
Setsuna had returned home, but after her phone call with him, she changed back into her uniform and returned to school.
Her target was Music Room #2.
When she arrived, the door was, surprisingly, opened from the inside.
She appeared, with a dejected look on her face, but gave a start when she noticed someone there.
As Setsuna greeted her with a smile, a wary look came into her eyes.
“Sorry to show up so suddenly. Um, I think we saw each other briefly yesterday morning. I’m—”
“Oh, you remembered my name! That’s nice of you.”
“Were you just about to leave? Oh, perfect! My timing couldn’t be better.”
“What do you want?”
“Right. Well, I’m here because I wanted to talk to you about something, Touma-san.”
As Setsuna spoke, wearing a friendly smile, she began to show clear signs of distress. Even so, Setsuna continued.
“You haven’t eaten lunch yet, right? Why don’t we go somewhere to eat together?”
“Uh, no, I…”
“Do you have something else to do? I can come back later if you do.”
“Y-You would come back again…?”
Her eyes darted around in bewilderment. Setsuna must be the only one who had ever been able to see her looking like this.
“I don’t know all that many restaurants, but, let me think, there’s a nice pasta place, a Chinese place, a set meals place… I don’t know if ramen would be right for a proper conversation. Oh, yeah, there’s a curry place, too. It’s super spicy, but it tastes amazing. What do you want to eat, Touma-san?”
“Is this a bad time? Then, some other time… Oh, maybe I should come back with Kitahara-kun?”
She remained silent for a moment before finally speaking.
“I don’t like spicy stuff.”
At her awkwardly muttered response, Setsuna broke into a grin.
“Ha ha! Understood. Why don’t we start walking? I’m starving, actually.”
Setsuna set off, and she followed silently.
When Setsuna changed her pace so they could walk side by side, she started walking faster, evidently not thrilled with this development.
Watching her with a strained smile, Setsuna looked anew at the person in front of her, pondering how beautiful she really was.
Long black hair. Pale, slender fingers. A finely featured face, tight, narrow lips, and—her eyes, cold enough to keep others at a distance, yet lovely enough that one could not help but be drawn in.
Her name was Kazusa Touma.
A special entity, with whom Setsuna must meet at any cost.
“Um… Touma-san, are you sure that’s all you want?”
They had finally settled on a diner, but while a full sandwich plate sat before Setsuna, all that sat before Kazusa was a single serving of pudding.
“Really? That’ll be enough?”
“If it’s not enough, I’ll eat another one.”
“W-Well, if you say so…”
She apparently had quite the sweet tooth.
“Well, let’s eat, then.”
After they had both eaten in silence for a short while, Setsuna decided to broach the subject at hand.
“So, um, I’ve actually joined the Light Music Club.”
“The club wants to play a show at the school festival. That means we have less than a month left to work together. Of course, even though it’s such a short time, we’re going to practice very hard.”
“Oh? Yeah, knock yourself out.”
“Yes, very hard. I’m on vocals, so I have to do my best not to drag everyone else down.”
“I think there’s another loser who’s more likely to drag you down.”
“Ahaha! He’s the one who’s putting the most effort into making the show succeed, though. With that effort, I’m sure it’ll work out.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“No? I thought you would know best, since you sit next to him.”
“I don’t know,” Kazusa spat.
“He’s working hard at it, but it’s not easy. We don’t have enough members to start with, and I haven’t even rehearsed with them yet. It’s not looking too good.”
“If you’re short on members at this point, you’re probably screwed. Why not drop it?”
“Because there’s a way to get through this without giving up. We have an immediate member prospect ready—someone who’s fantastic at playing the piano.”
To Setsuna’s affected wording, Kazusa gave an equally affected answer.
“Hm. If it were me, I would never join such a rickety band.”
“Oh, don’t say that. Maybe it’s rickety, but don’t you think you could set it straight?”
“No one would be weird enough to do that for you. They’d have to be a complete idiot.”
“I don’t think you’re an idiot. I believe you’ll join.”
“No, I won’t. There’s no reason.”
“Really? Kitahara-kun has his heart set on getting you to join.”
“Like I care. I’ve never cared about what he had to say.”
“He says he can vouch for your piano skill, since you’ve played so many sessions together.”
“I didn’t ask him to do that.”
“He says no one else will do.”
Setsuna looked up from beneath her eyelashes.
“It sounds like you’re the only option, Touma-san.”
“Still not interested?”
At Setsuna’s question, Kazusa broke eye contact.
“You came to me because Kitahara asked you? He’s really taking this far.”
“No, I decided to come. I don’t think it even occurred to Kitahara-kun to ask something like this of me. Maybe he wants to figure something out with you on his own.”
“I said I don’t care. He’s not luring me or anyone else in. Pain in the ass.”
“Well, he lured me in.”
“My condolences. You must be easy to scam. There’s gotta be something wrong with you if you’re going along with anything he does.”
“I was surprised when he first invited me. I didn’t think I could ever sing for a band, but my desire to try it out was stronger. When I thought over it honestly with myself, I came to my conclusion almost immediately. And, when I saw how hard Kitahara-kun was working, it made me feel like I wanted to work with him. I want to build a really great memory for the end of my time in high school.”
“Oh, I see. Your taste in men is terrible.”
“Well, in that case,” Setsuna said with a small smile, “yours is terrible, too, Touma-san.”
“You’ve been playing along with Kitahara-kun’s guitar this whole time. The whole time, even though he was bad at it. Even though you knew it was him playing, right? If you really hated him that much, you wouldn’t play sessions with him.”
“Why did that idiot have to open his mouth…”
“I don’t think it occurred to Kitahara-kun himself. He readily admitted that he’s kind of slow, ahaha. In fact, he said you hate him, of all things.”
“So, Touma-san, will you be in a band with someone who shares your terrible taste?”
Kazusa started to respond, got as far as opening her mouth, then stood up without saying anything.
“If you want seconds of the pudding, there’s a call button here.”
After paying the check, she stepped outside, where a cold, dry wind beat her cheeks.
“Wow, it’s cold today. Well, I guess it is November.”
“Which means there’s barely any time until the festival. What are you doing dawdling around here?”
“Are you worried about us?”
“I… No one cares about you. Shut up.”
“Heehee, you’re so stubborn. Oh, is my singing the part you’re worried about? We could go do some karaoke right now, if you want a test.”
“No, thanks. Not interested in getting stuck listening to you sing for hours.”
“Ahaha! So, you already know…”
“Kitahara told me all this junk without me even asking.”
“Yep, I know. I told Kitahara-kun that he could talk about it.”
“Kitahara-kun told you everything about Setsuna Ogiso, right? That was partly my fault. Sorry for irritating you.”
“You know, Kitahara-kun talks to me about you all the time. You’re such a great person, he really wants to get you to join, et cetera. I guess I got a tiny bit annoyed after listening to so much of that, which made me want to hassle you a little. Sorry about that.”
It was just a small trick, played on her and him both.
“This is the perfect little Miss Houjou High? You’ve got the whole school fooled.”
“The ‘perfect’ image is really just an image. You and Kitahara-kun are the only ones in the whole school who know the real me.”
“So, now that you know my secret, you’ll join the Light Music Club, right?”
“You chose to tell me yourself!”
“Honestly, what do I have to do to get you to join?”
“What do I have to do to get you to back off?”
Kazusa looked fed up, but Setsuna made her declaration.
“I’m not going to give up. I’m going to work just as hard as Kitahara-kun.”
“I don’t get it… What are you actually trying to do?”
“That’s obvious. I’m trying to be in a band,” Setsuna replied, smiling. “Also, I want to be your friend, Touma-san.”
“Yeah, your taste is terrible, Ogiso,” Kazusa muttered, then took off walking, her black hair fluttering behind her.
“See you later, then, Touma-san.”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
As she left without so much as a backward turn, Setsuna watched her, smiling, then gave a small sigh.
She refused to be honest.
That was Setsuna’s initial impression of her.
Setsuna imagined, admittedly somewhat self-indulgently, that Kazusa didn’t actually bear her any hatred. Since she spent so much time with her, she must have some sort of interest in her, in one sense or another.
But she refused to be honest. Because of that, any attempts to convince her through words alone were likely to be difficult.
After walking for a while, mulling everything over, Setsuna pulled out her phone.
With her heart fluttering slightly, she scrolled through her address book and pressed the button.
“Yes, hello… Wait, is something wrong? Your voice sounds a little shaky.”
“S-Sorry. I don’t get very many calls from girls other than Io…”
“I was surprised when you called me on Wednesday, too. I guess I’m still not used to it yet…”
So, getting a call from Setsuna made him nervous?
“P-Please don’t laugh.”
“Ah, sorry. I wasn’t laughing.”
She wasn’t laughing at him. It was just a smile that spilled over a bit.
“Anyway, Kitahara-kun, I’ve actually just been with Touma-san.”
“Huh? Wh-What do you mean?”
“We were just having a conversation. Touma-san is so funny!”
“Yep. It was a lot of fun.”
“Seriously? Ogiso, you enjoyed being with her? No way…”
“That’s not very nice to me or Touma-san.”
“Oh, no, I just mean that no one has ever exactly had that particular impression of Touma…”
“Well, you told me so much about what a good person Touma-san is, Kitahara-kun.”
“That doesn’t… Hang on, I didn’t tell you that much!”
“Er, hang on, Ogiso? I didn’t ramble on that much, did I?”
“Leaving that aside…”
“Leaving. That. Aside.”
“The thing is, she actually turned down my invitation to join the Light Music Club, too. But you’re not ready to give up yet, right, Kitahara-kun?”
“So, it’s time for a strategy meeting. Let’s meet up at the karaoke place from before in, let’s see, half an hour.”
“Okay? O-Ogiso, I don’t know about karaoke… Wouldn’t a diner or something be better for talking?”
“No, I was just at a diner. I’ll be waiting.”
“This is actually happening?!”
“Yep, actually happening! What, are you not coming?”
“Oh, no, I… All right. I’ll be there.”
“Perfect. See you then.”
“Right. Oh, hey, Ogiso.”
“Um, I just want to thank you first, for going to Touma. The whole thing about inviting her was my idea, so the fact that you helped really means a lot. Thanks.”
“That’s all. See you later.”
After ending the call, Setsuna played his final words over and over again in her head.
Words which, to him, were just a simple way of expressing thanks. Over and over.
She had been thanked.
She was working together with someone toward a shared goal. The reality of this hit her, and she smiled unconsciously.
“All right, let’s do this!”
As Setsuna set off, there was a lightness in her step that had never been there before.
“Hic… Hey, are you listening?”
At the same karaoke spot as before…
“You’ve gotta do it right, Kitahara-kun…”
I was being set upon by a drunk. A drunk named Setsuna Ogiso.
Why had things taken this turn?
“I mean, listen… You were the one who decided to get Touma-san in on this.”
“Then you’ve gotta be more forceful about it… Right? Hic…”
Her cheeks were red, her eyes fixed on me, her head lolling.
The ice in the glass Setsuna held clinked together.
The glass was supposed to contain oolong. Oolong was what she had ordered, at least.
But, as she drank, Setsuna’s tone had gradually changed, and now, here we were. It must have been an oolong highball, instead… But, how had she not noticed that while she was drinking, exactly?
“Listen, I’ve done plenty of thinking about this band, myself… Y’know, it’s because you’re like this that Touma-san is like that…”
And, for some reason, she kept blaming me for… god knows what. What about Touma?
Setting her glass on the table with a clunk, Ogiso stared into my eyes. She was… very close.
“You gotta really commit to it. Gotta do everything to convince Touma-san. You gotta.”
Ogiso was right. She might be drunk, but… No, the fact that she was drunk might have been what made Ogiso speak so forthrightly.
“I don’t know how to get her to listen to me, though…”
I wasn’t completely sure, but it seemed like Touma was furious with me.
“No, no, no… You can’t wimp out like that!”
“That doesn’t really help…”
“Hey, even if she won’t listen to you talk… There’s something else she can listen to, right?”
A small smile came to Ogiso’s reddened face.
“Well, I’ve got a great idea… Heehee.”
“I told you, this is… a strategy meeting.”
And so, after the drunken Ogiso had gone on at length about her “strategy,” without letting me get a word in, she suddenly flopped down onto the sofa.
She was asleep… This could turn into a problem, actually.
“G-Get up! Hey!”
Here, right in front of me, was Setsuna Ogiso herself, sleeping defenselessly… Whoa, what was with that thought?
I shook my head and moved to sit as far away from her as I could, and sighed.
“Well… She did do a lot of thinking about this, though.”
She had allowed me to tell Touma her secret, gone to see Touma herself, even come up with a strategy for us.
I couldn’t help wondering why she had gone this far.
Ogiso must want to make the show a reality just as much as I did. She truly wanted to sing. And I had to do everything I could to fulfill that.
For the next two hours or so until Ogiso woke up, I just sat, unable to leave the room or sing any songs, feeling something I couldn’t really define. It was far from the best two hours my mental health had ever seen.
When Ogiso finally came to, the drunkenness had completely worn off, but once she realized her own slip, she grew scarlet in the face for a different reason, frantically flapping her hands.
Of course, I did my utmost to clarify that absolutely nothing had happened between us.