10 days until the show
“…Hn… Nn? Wuh?!”
I woke to an unfamiliar ceiling, and sat bolt upright. It took me a few seconds to realize that I was in the basement of the Touma house.
“Shoot, did I fall asleep…?”
My back was a bit sore from lying on the wooden floor.
I had just been playing the guitar. How had I passed out like that?
“Why didn’t you wake me up, Touma? Don’t just leave me like… Touma?”
Touma was nowhere to be seen in the fluorescent lighting of the room. Instead, there was a blanket laid over me.
…A blanket? Had I been that deep asleep? Actually, what time was it?
I checked my watch. 7:50.
Okay, still not eight o’clock yet. I could head home now, shut myself up in my room again like usual—
Hadn’t it been past eight when we were chased out of school…?
With a building sense of dread, I hurriedly fled the basement and rushed up the stairs.
There, outside the living room window, was bright, streaming sunlight.
It was eight o’clock… in the morning.
“…Are you kidding me?!”
In an instant, my mind went blank, and I began dashing through the halls of this unfamiliar house, looking for Touma.
But, in a mansion this enormous, there were so many doors that I didn’t have the faintest idea of what led where.
As I passed by yet another door, I heard a noise from inside.
“Is she in here…?!”
Just to defend myself in advance, by this point, I was panicking slightly. I had also only just woken up.
So, hoping against hope, desperate to see Touma’s face…
I threw open the door in front of me.
And, indeed, there was the one I had been searching for.
“H-Hey, what’s the deal, Touma? It’s morning alre—uh?”
I had been in such a hurry to complain to Touma about the current situation that I only registered everything partway through.
Yes, Touma was there. However…
On top, she was wearing the shirt of our uniform, and on the bottom… she was in the middle of putting her skirt on.
In other words, she was plainly in the process of getting dressed.
“Gahhhhh! I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, I didn’t mean to!”
“Shut up! Don’t look at me! You stupid idiot! Die! Get out get out get out!”
Flustered, I rushed out of the room (shutting the door behind me) and stood in the hall, wheezing for breath. Was this Touma’s room? No, it didn’t seem like it. Maybe more like a washroom—oh, the bathroom, maybe.
“What a cliché I’ve turned into…”
This kind of situation had been showing up since time immemorial, but I never imagined I would experience it myself. Let alone with someone like this.
It was only for a moment, and I wasn’t really thinking straight, so I hadn’t seen much… Actually—it was possible I was just mistaking part of the shirt, but… There was something white…
“Gah! I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!”
When Touma finally appeared, she was dressed in the usual uniform.
“U-Um, I’m really sorry. Really. I was panicking… B-But, I barely saw anything! Seriously!”
“…Which means you saw a bit!”
“I didn’t see anything at all! I swear!”
That was a lie. Vague though it was, I had seen something.
“Christ, why did you have to wake up right then… Ugh, whatever. The longer we talk about it, the more we’ll remember it. Forget everything you saw, Kitahara… Got it?”
She gave me a piercing glare. But, in all likelihood, I would never forget this moment.
“Well, what were you panicking about, that you had to burst in on me?”
“Huh? Oh, right. It’s eight in the morning!”
“I know that. I’m about to go to school.”
“Wh-What about me?! I haven’t taken a bath, or changed, or… I didn’t even go home yesterday…”
“You could go now. Or maybe you should call home first? Since you had an unplanned sleepover.”
“…No, I don’t…”
Touma, seeming to have guessed my circumstances from my hesitation, mercifully ended that line of conversation with a “Well, whatever.”
Not that it was that big of a deal, anyway.
“What’s your plan, then? If you’re planning to go to school later, I’ll leave the key.”
“I’m coming with you. I’ve never been late or absent before, and I don’t want to start now.”
“So dedicated to something so pointless…”
“It’s not a matter of point or no point. Hang on, I’ll go get my bag.”
I hurried down to the basement, gathered up my bag and guitar, headed back upstairs, and exited the house.
I breathed in the outside air for the first time in roughly eleven hours, its smell cold and clear.
“Oh, should we walk a bit apart? I imagine you wouldn’t want people to see us showing up at school together.”
“I don’t care… Whatever you want.”
The way Touma muttered this, it seemed that she truly didn’t care; I dropped back three steps before following her.
I never would have imagined that I would spend the night at Touma’s house. Granted, I was just there to practice the guitar, but that still meant that Touma had carved out the time herself to give me this special training.
Touma really did have a good heart.
The best way I could think of to pay her back for it, the best I could manage, was to improve.
“Oh, yeah, Touma,” I said, jogging slightly to catch up. “Um, thanks for the blanket.”
“…At least you won’t get a cold. Stupid.”
The other thing I could do was thank her.
There was just no seeing him.
That was what Setsuna had been thinking for the past several days.
Ever since the Light Music Club had started practicing, her after-school rehearsals had just been her and Kazusa, while he practiced on his own every day.
That they were in different classes meant their opportunities for seeing each other were scant as it was, and being separated after school as well sealed it. She had tried suggesting to Kazusa that they bring the guitar in to play with them sooner rather than later, but the only response she got was that he “still wasn’t good enough yet.”
She wanted to practice as a trio.
The band wasn’t just one person, or two—it was three.
But she had no idea what shape he was in now. They barely had any time to talk.
So, Setsuna made up her mind.
She didn’t particularly care what anyone else thought.
She didn’t care what became of her image.
When she made her way to Class E at lunchtime, Kazusa was not present.
Ashamed of herself for being slightly glad about this, Setsuna walked over to the chair next to hers.
“Hn… Ah? O-Ogiso?!”
He had been staring into space, eyes half-closed, but now his face became one of surprise.
“What’s wrong? Is there something on my face?”
“Oh, no, uh… Wait, Touma isn’t here… Uh, um, what is it, Ogiso?”
He seemed to be a bit flustered by her sudden appearance. Maybe he was just surprised, since she had never stopped by during lunch before. A bit too surprised, she thought.
“Yes. Kitahara-kun, you normally eat lunch in the cafeteria, right?”
“Let’s go together, then. I mean, I brought a box lunch, but…”
“Huh? Together… Oh, no, I…”
“We’re in the club together, so I thought… Well, I guess Touma-san isn’t here, but we can talk about rehearsal. Okay?”
Though he seemed a bit thrown off by Setsuna’s proposal, he ultimately agreed.
Setsuna felt a little bit guilty for taking advantage of his good-natured aspect, but that was one of the things she liked about him.
Pushy, yet susceptible to pushiness himself, dedicating far too much thought to other people, trying to take care of people…
“…Kitahara-kun, the three of us will be able to stand onstage together, right?”
She posed her question as they walked side by side down the hall.
“If we all work as hard as we can… we’ll be able to play, right?”
“Ogiso…?” He looked a little mystified. “Yeah, don’t worry. We’ll be able to do it.”
He gave a small nod.
“I know how hard you’re working, and so are Touma and I, and Takeya, for that matter. We’re all committed to this, so it’ll work out fine. We have to show everyone here how well you sing, you know?” He smiled.
“…Yes, right.” Setsuna smiled in turn.
Things would be fine.
If he said they would, then they would.
There was no sense in fretting about it.
“We can all do this… Yawwwn… Ah, s-sorry!”
He became flustered, as though he hadn’t meant to let that yawn slip out.
As Setsuna chuckled, she felt a sense of relief somewhere within herself.
I can do whatever I have to, if it will make him smile at me, she thought.
“You do seem pretty sleepy, Kitahara-kun.”
“Yeah… I passed out at some point while I was practicing, and when I woke up it was already morning. I have no idea what time I fell asleep.”
“Wow… That’s impressive.”
As she sat facing me across the table, Ogiso gave me a look of astonishment. A pretty lunch box sat in front of her.
“You’re really working hard, Kitahara-kun. That’s very admirable. Here, as a reward, you can have this mini hamburger steak. My mom made all of the sides, but I made this myself.”
“Oh, ah… Thank you, Ogiso…”
Ogiso put the hamburger steak on top of my okayo-don, grinning.
At that moment… I felt as though the countless eyes that had been on me this entire time grew more intense all at once. Actually, they felt a bit bloodthirsty…
We were in the cafeteria for lunch break—as I had been spacing out in the classroom, trying to decide whether to sleep, Ogiso had suddenly shown up and invited me to eat with her. Remembering my sleepover from the night before, I glanced at my neighboring seat, flustered, but Touma was no longer there. She must have escaped on her own… Curse her.
“What is it? Kitahara-kun, do you not like hamburger steak?”
“Oh, I do like it, I just… Um, Ogiso, maybe you shouldn’t get that close to me…”
It wasn’t that I minded eating lunch with Ogiso—in fact, I was enjoying it—but this forthright behavior from her was disconcerting me a little… And embarrassing.
Of course, I already knew about this side of her—I had ever since we first went to karaoke together—and she always acted like this when she was with me or Touma.
But, around the other students, she generally stuck to her prim and proper young lady image, treating everyone in the same superficial way. Why did she have to pull this on me again…?
“…Did you not want to eat with me?”
“N-No, no! That’s not at all the case!”
I wished she didn’t have to look so sad while she asked me that. I could sense the collective gaze on me getting harsh again…
“Um, I mean, with everyone looking at us…”
“Kitahara-kun, listen. I’ve decided not to worry about that any more. I’m more interested in being myself than maintaining my image.”
“You… Are you sure? After you’ve worked so hard to keep it for this long?”
Even to the point of keeping her job a secret…?
“Yes. This way is so much easier, and… I have people who truly know me now.”
Her wording made my heart jump for a moment.
It was obvious that she was talking about both me and Touma, but the way she was putting it now seemed to risk being misunderstood.
I mean, how could it not? Here was Miss Houjou High, looking into my eyes, talking to me this way. Looking at it a different way, we could easily seem like a guy and a girl flirting… Well, this is how it was. To Ogiso, we were probably just fellow members of the Light Music Club interacting. That was partly a relief, and partly… a shame, somehow.
“Do you think I might lose the contest if everyone gets to know me for real, though? Ahaha.”
“I don’t know. I think there might actually be people who are glad to get to see a new side of you. And, also…”
“Like I said before, whatever happens, once the show starts, everyone is going to see an even more incredible side of you.”
Very few people knew at this point that Ogiso was singing with the Light Music Club. But that knowledge was about to spread—all the more quickly with the two of us doing this.
Even so, until the show began, no one would know everything. About Setsuna Ogiso’s true talent. About her singing voice.
Everyone would be stunned.
Knowing that moment would come already had me thrilled beyond belief.
“Kitahara-kun… Yes, you’re right. I don’t want to fall behind you, either, so I’ll keep it up.”
“Yes, let’s do it. Um… The stares are starting to hurt a little, so if we could go back to the classroom now…”
“Oh, would you like an apple, too? Here, it looks like a bunny!”
Something told me that, in this past half hour or so, I had earned the ire of the entire male student body…
And so, the ordeal of my lunch break came to an end.
Brief though it was, it reaffirmed to me that I had to keep moving forward and improving, for Ogiso’s sake.
Work, work, work. The show had to succeed.
I resolved myself anew.
But, there was just one thing… I hadn’t been able to explain to Ogiso about yesterday.
I had no idea where to begin, and seeing her smile made it more and more impossible to say…
But, at this point, I had no way of predicting the consequences that would ultimately bring.
“Hmm, okay. Let’s take a short… yawwwn… short break.”
Music Room #1, after school…
Having finished off Setsuna’s vocals, Kazusa suddenly yawned.
“You seem tired, Touma-san. Do you want to get a can of coffee or something?”
“…Our school only has it black.”
“Oh, right, you have a sweet tooth, don’t you?”
Setsuna’s pleasant tone made it clear that she found this charming, but Kazusa cut her off with a “Shut up.” She had never liked bitter or sour things. One could say that her palate hadn’t changed since early childhood.
“You know, Kitahara-kun seemed tired, too. You two must both be working so hard.”
Setsuna’s words didn’t seen to have anything hidden beneath. Which must mean that she didn’t know about yesterday.
Kitahara must not have told her.
“…Maybe I shouldn’t say this.”
“Well, I’ve said that people who can’t play don’t need to sleep.”
“Oh, wow… You’re so strict with him specifically, Touma-san.”
Kazusa didn’t like that wording. It made it seem like she was giving him special treatment.
“He said he would do it, so I’m making sure he does. That’s all.”
“I said I would do it, too, but you aren’t driving me that hard.”
“Your vocals and Kitahara’s guitar playing are at entirely different stages. And anyway, going too hard on your throat would be counterproductive.”
“Oh, nothing. I was just wondering whether you might go a little easier on him.”
This kind of help was not necessary.
“I’m sure Kitahara-kun would appreciate it. And wouldn’t you prefer that, Touma-san?”
“You have a habit of making assumptions, Ogiso. Do something about that.”
“Assumptions? What do you mean?”
Just talking about this was exhausting.
“Okay. Well, that aside, Touma-san, shouldn’t we start practicing together with Kitahara-kun soon? There are only ten days left before we perform… We’re running out of time.”
“It’s fine. Everything is still going according to schedule.”
“Really? We have the day off from school on Saturday, so we won’t be able to use this room.”
“Right, that… Ogiso, I assume you can’t rehearse any later than this?”
“Hm, yeah, this might be the limit. As you could probably tell when you met them, my parents tend to worry about me.”
Setsuna forced a smile as she said this, but nothing in her behavior showed that she actually resented it.
Yes, it was that kind of family. It was plain, now that she’d seen it with her own eyes.
Everyone always butting into everyone else’s business, and yet perfectly harmonious.
A bit of a pain, but also reassuring. A classic family.
The world Setsuna inhabited was different in every conceivable way from Kazusa’s own.
It made sense that their personalities would be such polar opposites, Kazusa acknowledged to herself.
“Why do you ask, though? Do you want to practice even later?”
“No, I don’t really—”
She shook her head, No. But why not?
At that moment, she felt something buzzing faintly in the inner pocket of her uniform.
“Ogiso, I’m… gonna go buy something to drink.”
“Oh, I have more energy right now, let me go get it for you. Do you want tea?”
“…Milk tea. Sweetened.”
Setsuna smiled in acknowledgement, then left the room.
Once she was certain she was alone, Kazusa slowly pulled out her phone.
Carefully, as though handling something fragile, she checked the message she had received.
“I’ll be waiting on the Iwazu-cho platform at 8:30.”
Kazusa spent several minutes reading those scant few letters over and over. There wasn’t anything particularly surprising there, and they had already talked it over this morning, but for some reason, she couldn’t tear her eyes from the screen.
“Ugh… It’s your fault for being crappy at this,” she muttered to no one.
Yes. She had invited him to her house to make him practice. She was having him use the space because there wasn’t anywhere else that would be suitable. She hadn’t called him there because she wanted to.
She was forced to spend this time with him, instructing him, because he was still terrible at the guitar. That was all.
That was all.
“Ogiso was just… making stuff up.”
This she muttered to reassure herself.
Every bit of this was for the show.
Because it was necessary to make the show work. That was the only reason. Not because it was him personally.
He was clearly earnest about the music, so she decided she could give him some guidance.
She had no other reason to be interested in such a lame, goody-two-shoes, boring guy.
She couldn’t acknowledge any other reasons.
With this in mind, Kazusa closed her phone… and her eyes.
There in the dark, she set her fingers on the keys, and let them dance how they would.
Unaware of the faint smile that had come to her face.
Unaware, until Setsuna pointed it out upon her return, that she had been playing “White Album”…
“Oh, hey, Touma. You’re a bit earlier than yesterday, I think?”
The time was 8:20 p.m.
As I sat alone on the platform bench, playing air guitar, Touma appeared from the third car, as usual.
“…Don’t think so.”
And she spoke with her usual sour look.
“Thanks, anyway. Also, I promise I’ll get out in time for the last train this time. But I did take a bath at home just in case, and I brought a change of clothes with me…”
“…’Just in case’? You sound like you’re fully intending to stay the night.” Now she looked exasperated.
“What’s wrong with being prepared? I mean, you never know what might happen.”
If I got too swept up in practicing, I might not want to quit. Having Touma there made a massive difference in the quality of my playing, and the chance of improvement was of more consequence than the risk of staying overnight again.
…Which was what I had meant, when I said what I said.
But, for some reason, she was glaring at me.
“Huh? What are you angry ab—oh, whoa! N-No, that’s not what I meant by ‘You never know what might happen’ at all!”
“Shut up, you idiot!”
I tried desperately to clear up the misunderstanding, but—evidently fully infuriated, and scarlet in the face—Touma spat out that she didn’t care, and began walking.
What happened to the kicking she had talked about before?
“Wait, please, I’m sorry!”
I chased after her, after her fluttering, glossy black hair.
I apologized countless times along the way, but even in the chilly outdoor air, Touma’s face showed no sign of returning to its usual color.
Why did I have to blabber on like that…? Stupid.
“Oh, hey, Touma, could we stop at a corner store? I want to get something for breakfast tomorrow, just in case… Oh, and a toothbrush… Maybe a razor, while I’m at it…”
“And you expect me to think you were planning to go home… Christ.”