3 days until the show
Wednesday, 7:45 a.m.
“Ha… Ha ha ha…”
There in her basement studio, Kazusa was unable to keep herself from laughing.
“I did it… I made it… Ha, ha ha…”
Her hands trembled as they gripped her notebook. Her body was overcome with a pleasant exhaustion, and an extraordinary sense of accomplishment.
“Maybe I am a genius…? Aha, ahaha…” Bright words leapt out of her on their own, aided by the high of having stayed up all night. “Genius… No, maybe this is what they call the fruits of effort… How long has it been since I worked this hard on anything…? Heh, heheh…”
“Even Kitahara should be able to manage this. I gotta say, I killed it… Aha, haha!”
“Oh, you’re awake, Kitahara? Hey, it’s eight o’clock. Hurry up or you’re gonna be late…”
She froze and covered her mouth. The voice that had just slipped out of her sounded completely unlike her.
“Huh? …Uh… Um? Is that… you, Touma?”
“O-Obviously. Do you see anyone else here?” Affecting a brusque tone, she hid the notebook on a shelf.
…Dammit. She’d gotten carried away on her own excitement.
“Oh, no, I just thought I heard… someone else, someone with this really cute voice… Fuahhh…”
He sat up with a yawn. Fortunately, it seemed like she’d managed to slip it by.
“Morning, Touma… What time is it?”
“7:45. You were playing until half past six.”
“So, I slept for a little more than an hour… No wonder I’m sleepy…” He stood up, rubbing at his tired eyes.
“Hurry up. You’re gonna be late.”
“Right… Wait.” As he folded up the blanket that had come to be for his exclusive use lately into quarters, he made note of Kazusa’s appearance. “You’re not dressed, either.”
Kazusa always bathed in the morning, changed into her uniform upon stepping out of the tub, and headed to school from there.
“Are you going to skip the bath before school today? There’s not enough time…”
“No.” Kazusa gave a small shake of her head. “I’m… skipping today, actually.”
“I think I’ve been driving myself a little too hard the past few days. I was just gonna crash today.”
Half of that was true—and half was a lie.
“We’ve got rehearsal after school tomorrow, yeah? I need to recover my stamina for that, too.”
“O-Oh, I guess…”
He shrugged, seeming to understand.
But, a moment later, he gave her a concerned look.
“Touma, seriously, are you okay? You’re not running yourself into the ground?”
“Heh. Don’t lump me in with you. This is normal. I’m just a little tired.”
“Oh, uh, okay. Um… Listen, if there’s anything I can do, just say—”
She didn’t hate having him worry over her like that, but she couldn’t tell him anything yet. Really, she would have loved to surprise him right now, but she needed to wait just a bit longer.
“…I’ll let you know if I need any help. Right now, though, seriously, don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine after today, anyway.”
Yes, prospects were looking good for tonight. And then—then she would absolutely stun him.
“I’m going to bed. When I wake up I’ll take a bath, eat something, and go back to sleep until rehearsal tonight. I will be fine.”
“You’re really going to sleep, right?”
“Yes, I am. I’m just as sleepy as you are.”
“Well… All right.” He nodded. “I’ll tell them you’re absent today. Call me if you need anything. Oh, for rehearsal after school—”
“You and Ogiso meet up and do it together. And take it seriously, even without me there.”
“We will, we will. Now, make sure you actually sleep. There’s some sweet stuff and a box lunch from the corner store in the fridge. If you think you’re up for it, you can go get something to eat from somewhere else…”
She sighed. He really never stopped.
“Just get outta here before you’re late.”
Now that Kazusa had given him the time and hurried him off, he quickly left the basement, in spite of his apparent reluctance, and ascended to the sunlit world upstairs.
“All right…” She unfolded and stretched her arms, and yawned.
She’d told him she would sleep, but that couldn’t happen yet. Though she’d made it in time, it was already Wednesday, which meant she had to completely finish and polish it before the day was over.
So, time to work.
She took a deep breath, withdrew the notebook from the shelf—and then…
Her field of vision wavered.
She stumbled over her feet, and threw her hand out to brace herself against the wall. But she couldn’t hold herself up that way, either. She slowly slipped to the floor.
What on earth?
She couldn’t understand what was happening to her… No, she didn’t want to understand.
Her hands were shaking.
Not from some intangible sense of accomplishment, either.
Chills. Pain, suddenly blooming in her joints.
A splitting headache.
Her whole body was screaming.
It couldn’t be…
“No… No way… Am I…?”
She had to finish this by tonight.
She had to surprise him.
But, against her wishes, Kazusa’s control over her own body continued to ebb.
She looked around the room for her phone, before realizing that she had left it in the living room.
The worst possible mistake.
Kazusa’s ragged breaths sounded through the quiet basement.
She couldn’t even stand up now. There was no way she was getting up the stairs.
Kazusa crawled across the wooden floor, desperately clinging to awareness.
Desperately, fighting the sense that her whole body was going to pieces.
And—she made it.
Made it to the blanket, folded into quarters.
With the last of her strength, she pulled it to herself.
And, just before she collapsed completely…
“If there’s anything I can do—”
His voice played in her head.
And, muttering his name, Kazusa passed out, trying, trying to feel a bit of the warmth that he had left…
Three days until the show.
Without my “neighbor” there to give me gumption, I wound up taking most of my time in class to recover my stamina. Meaning, I was asleep. While I realized that I had no right to hassle Touma at this rate, the thought that she was also asleep right now somehow allowed me to crash. In this way, I was able to make up for the scant hour of sleep I had managed before school.
In exchange for that (maybe), I applied myself vigorously to rehearsal after school. Maybe the quality of our practice was doomed to suffer without our absolute leader there. But I kept hard at it with my guitar solo, and Ogiso with her vocal exercises. We couldn’t let Touma accuse us of slacking off.
“Three more days, huh?” Setsuna’s breaths appeared white in the air as she spoke, on the way home. “That went fast!”
“Yeah. Rehearsal tomorrow, the first day of the festival the day after tomorrow…”
It hit me deeply how far we had come.
“Touma-san seemed super duper tired, though. I hope she’s okay…”
“She told me this morning that she would spend today sleeping, so I don’t think we need to worry.”
The only thing was that, since her exhaustion didn’t show in her face, it was hard to know exactly how much fatigue had built up for her. That was my one point of concern.
“’This morning’… Now I want to spend the night again, too.”
“You shouldn’t need to. Your vocals are already solid.”
“…That’s not what I mean.” Setsuna stared at me from the corner of her eye.
“Oh… Oh, yeah, it would definitely be more fun with you there, Setsuna. But I’m sure your family would get worried if you did it too much.”
“Maybe, but… B-But, well, I’m worried, too… About a lot of things.”
“Huh? About what? My guitar solo? Oh, about Touma? Yeah, I’m definitely concerned, but I’m sure she’s fi—”
She stared at me. That plainly wasn’t what she meant.
“…Haruki-kun, you’ve been staying at Touma-san’s house this whole time, right? If something, you know… happened… You’ve been there since last week… The two of you, alone.”
“Yes?” It took me a second for her meaning to sink in. “Wh-Whoa, what are you talking about? Of course nothing’s happened!”
“Really? Touma-san is gorgeous… You think so, too, right?”
“I’m not comfortable with that question—”
The look in Setsuna’s eyes said, “I’ll know if you lie.”
“All right, all right. …Yes, I do. I do think so. But this is Touma.”
“Wow, you just came right out and acknowledged that she’s beautiful…”
“You’re the one who dragged it out of me!”
There was no way for me to win this…
“Ah, I wish I took the train to school, at least,” Setsuna muttered, somewhat ruefully. “I always have to split off on my own when we leave…”
Yes, to an extent, I did understand Setsuna’s feelings.
Even though we weren’t making a secret of it, the fact that she couldn’t participate while Touma and I were rehearsing must have made her feel a little out of the loop.
And that might make Setsuna feel all alone again, which I didn’t want.
So, I thought…
“…Hey, Setsuna. Maybe I could walk you home?”
“Huh?” She stared blankly for a second. “Wh-Whaaaat?! N-No, no, you don’t have to go out of your way to…”
“It’s fine, it’s not that far. I know, I’ve been there before. It’s not a significant distance.”
“M-Maybe, but, Haruki-kun, I know you still need to practice…”
Setsuna looked flustered as she declined. But I couldn’t back down.
It could be that she didn’t want a guy who wasn’t her boyfriend walking her home, but it could allow Setsuna to feel this sense of connection for a bit longer, put her a bit more at ease.
And right now, giving her that sense of ease was extremely important.
“I can’t let you walk home by yourself at this hour, anyway.”
…Never mind that she already did that on a regular basis.
“Just for today! If I get there late, it just means Touma will be able to sleep that much longer, so you can think of this as being for her, too.”
It was, I had to admit, a pretty flimsy excuse, but after several “but”s and “I can’t”s, Setsuna finally said…
“Well, all right… If you insist…”
Her cheeks shone faintly red as the night breezes caressed them.
As pushy as I’d been, when we got to Setsuna’s house, she smiled—albeit a bit shyly—and thanked me for going to the trouble. That seemed to have worked well. I was glad to have taken her home.
After parting ways with Setsuna, I headed for the station, then realized that this was my third time traveling this path.
Circumstances aside, I had taken Setsuna Ogiso home, and she had thanked me. If someone had told me a month ago that this would happen, I never would have believed it… Well, it would be even more difficult to believe where I was headed now, following it.
Smiling wryly, I boarded the train, made a stop at home to pack a change of clothes, and returned to the train for Iwazu-cho.
I stopped at the corner store to get something sweet and a box lunch for my teacher, who (I assumed) would be hungry by now and waiting for me, walked the road I now knew so well to Touma’s house, and—
Something started to feel off around the time that I reached the gate. I was sure Touma must be here, but the windows were completely dark.
She didn’t pick up the intercom, either.
Maybe she had gone out somewhere, maybe she was just sleeping extremely deeply. Either way, I couldn’t get in… I thought.
I turned the front doorknob, just in case… and found that it wasn’t locked.
Maybe she had left it unlocked for me… But then, she probably would have turned the lights on. Maybe she had just forgotten to lock it, and she was still asleep?
Irresponsible, either way.
I called to her from the dark entryway, but there was no answer. I switched on the fluorescent lights, announced that I was coming in, and headed down the hall.
The living room, too, was pitch dark. I turned on the lights and set the corner store bag on the table.
I started to think that she might be asleep in her own room, but then I remembered that notebook from before.
She could have been shut up down in the basement this whole time, doing something.
Shaking my head, I made my way to the stairs to the basement, and then—
I saw someone collapsed before the stairs.
There was the explanation for the weirdness I had felt.
“Take care, all right?”
With the departure of the doctor who had come to visit, the spacious living room fell completely silent once again. There, on a futon laid out in roughly the center of the room, lay Touma, pain in her face.
About an hour before, I had found Touma collapsed in front of the stairs, panicked, and taken her to lie down on the living room sofa. After turning the air conditioner on full blast and calling the doctor, I thought it might be better to keep her somewhere closer to water, rather than carry her to her room; so I brought a futon from the guest room, lay Touma down on it, gave her an ice pillow from the freezer, and had her drink some water from a small teapot in place of a pitcher.
I wiped her sweat away, dithered over whether or not I should try to change her into other clothes, but, wait, was this really the time to worry about that?—Then, the intercom rang.
I was such an idiot.
I had run it through my head over and over.
I knew how hard Touma was pushing herself.
I had been with her every day. Surely I should have noticed.
But, really, my worry was all talk—in my head, I was clinging to this image of Touma as something superhuman. So, even if I’d been a little concerned, I hadn’t intervened any further. Some part of my heart had chosen to make light of the situation—oh, she’s probably fine. And I had forced that sense… onto Touma. Otherwise, I should have been able to come back earlier today.
A complete idiot.
I should have known, better than anyone, who was working the hardest.
“I’m sorry, Touma…”
I had lost count by now of how many times I had said this to her, to her fitfully sleeping face. Her skin, normally as white as a fine porcelain doll, had taken on a clear reddish tinge, showing—with a bit of irony—that Touma was not indeed a superhuman, or a robot, but a human like any of the rest of us.
After wiping the sweat from her face and watching her for a while, I replaced her ice pillow and checked her temperature.
She was still over thirty-eight degrees Celsius.
Still, her breath as she slept had calmed down a little compared to the start. Maybe the injection the doctor gave her had helped.
“…Sorry. I’m so stupid,” I murmured to her in her slumber. “You knew that, though. You’re always telling me so.”
Alone in the quiet living room, I spoke to my neighbor, who had no words to offer in return.
“But… But, you know, you’re pretty stupid, yourself.”
I shifted my gaze to the table.
To that which was sitting on it.
“Driving yourself this far, for something like that… It’s not like you.”
I had found it lying on the ground next to Touma.
She had barely managed to scrape her way up the stairs, but she must have kept her grip on it until the moment she passed out.
“Really, just… too stupid for your own good…”
It was the notebook Touma had been rooted to for this whole week.
I approached the table, picked it up, and found myself awash in complicated emotions.
Because I knew—I knew what was written in this notebook.
What she was running herself ragged for, fraying to pieces, flying into a rage just because someone had dared to confiscate it.
I knew what she had been so fanatically glued to for the past few days.
Touma, you’re an idiot.
But—I’m sorry. I really am. This is my fault, and I’m sorry.
And… thank you. For doing this, for someone like me…
There was no time to pause…
“Kazusa, try to understand.”
“I’m giving you this card. Buy whatever you need. Shibata-san will still be coming by to take care of everything around the house, so you don’t need to worry about that.”
No… Again? Why…?
“You can continue your lessons with Sakurai-sensei, or if you’d rather change, you can look for another teacher you’d prefer. Make sure whoever you find is someone you want teaching you.”
“And… Don’t worry about high school, either. I’ve requested that they put together a special set of exams for you. You should be receiving that schedule soon.”
“All right. It may be a little while before we see each other again, but be well.”
Stop… I don’t want to hear this…
“You have to understand, Kazusa. Taking you along with me right now would be—”
She sat bolt upright, finally understanding that it had been a dream.
What a horrid awakening.
Kazusa shook her head hard, in an attempt to chase the dream from her mind—
But a throbbing pain shot through her, and she instinctively pressed her hands to her head.
What the hell… Was this still part of the nightmare?
She looked around the room, realizing that it wasn’t her own bedroom. She seemed to have been sleeping on a futon in the middle of the living room, but she couldn’t remember lying down to sleep here. Her body was burning up, too. Completely at a loss, she started to stand up—
“I had a feeling there wouldn’t be any cooking ingredients around here… Hm… Oh, there’s a clay pot… Okay.”
Someone’s voice had reached her ears.
“Ready-made curry, a few cans of food… Huh. Well, there’s the box lunch that I brought here with me, at least…”
And that voice, coming from the direction of the kitchen, was…
“Just a standard box lunch. Two of them, I mean.”
“Okay. You can simmer the rice in the clay pot, then. I think that should give you something like rice porridge.”
“All right, will do.”
It was after ten p.m.
I stood in the kitchen of the Touma house, talking to Setsuna on the phone.
“I feel like it would be better if you got something ready-made from the corner store, though. You haven’t done much cooking, right?”
“Then—oh, I mean, I’m sure your home cooking would be great on its own, seriously, but for today, maybe you should buy…”
“I know. I don’t want to leave, though… I’m afraid of taking my eyes off her. She still hasn’t woken up.”
Yes, Touma was still asleep.
I wanted to have some dinner ready for her when she awoke, so I gave Setsuna a call.
“…Oh, okay… Listen, Haruki-kun, I’ll come over there. I can bring some ingredients, it won’t take long if I grab a taxi…”
“No, seriously, you don’t have to.”
When I first told Setsuna that Touma was laid up, she had declared without hesitation that she would be right over. But I declined her offer.
“Why? I’m pretty sure I’m more qualified as a nurse than you are, Haruki-kun.”
“Still. You can’t come here, Setsuna.”
“Why not? Are you… locking me out of the loop again?”
“No, not in the least. Touma’s health is enormously important, but your throat… That’s also important to us.”
Yes—that was the thing we had to focus on protecting the most, for the Light Music Club’s sake.
“I’m on guitar, Touma’s on keyboards… Even if we had a little bit of a fever, we would probably be able to play somehow. In an extreme case, we could be replaced. We do technically have Takeya, and that means we could program the whole thing if we absolutely had to.”
“But you’re the only one with your voice, Setsuna. Your voice was what convinced me not to give up on doing the show… I can’t imagine any other singer standing on that stage with us.”
“Haruki-kun…” She was almost whispering on the other end.
Afraid that my wording might have come off as pompous, I continued.
“Um, and also, the whole school apparently knows now… that Setsuna Ogiso is going to be singing with the Light Music Club at the school festival. If we brought in a substitute now, people would riot.”
“Ahaha… I don’t know about that.”
“They would. Everyone in our class has made that clear to me. So, like I said, let me handle things here.”
“Mm… Okay. I can at least help you with making that rice porridge, then.”
“Yes, please do.”
Everything was where it ought to be. This was the best way for the Light Music Club. And… I was more than a bit responsible for what had happened here.
“So, first you need to put the water in the pot. About three cups. Light the stove, and add the rice once the water is boiling. It would actually taste better if you used soup stock… Is there any dried bonito around or anything?”
“Nope… Just the ready-made curry I mentioned, and canned grilled chicken and mackerel and stuff… Oh, there’s an expensive-looking package… Instant udon? It looks kind of fancy… No MSG… Hasn’t passed its best-by date yet. There’s kind of a lot of it, maybe I’ll have this… Wait, I’ve got that lunch box.”
“Udon? Does it come with broth?”
“Yeah, there’s liquid broth with it.”
“You can use that instead of soup stock, then. Hmm, all of it might be too much, so…”
As this exchange continued, something like rice porridge manifested itself.
“Thanks, Setsuna. You’ve been a big help.”
“You can put it in the fridge if you need to, and just heat it up when Touma-san wakes up. Also, if you have any other problems, you can call me, even if it’s the middle of the night… Lucky Touma-san. I wish I could try your home-made rice porridge, too.”
“I wouldn’t call it home-made… You were the one who told me the recipe. You could make your own easily, right?”
“If it’s that easy to make, you should make some for me next time. I’m holding you to it.”
“Why? I mean, sure, but it would be faster if you made it…”
“Nope, you’re making it. I’ll be looking forward to it.”
“It’s not really anything worth looking forward to… Well, okay, okay. And thanks again.”
In spite of Setsuna’s odd fixation, I thanked her and hung up—and then I noticed something.
Touma was trying to sit up. She must have come around.
“Thank goodness. Are you okay? I just finished making some rice porridge, do you think you can eat… Touma?”
Touma had risen, and she threw a sharp glare at me.
Why was she mad?! What had I done?!
“Christ… Giving a sick person this garbage to eat…”
In spite of her grumbling, Touma continued to sip at her rice porridge. She was still pale, but it was good to see that she had an appetite.
“Yes, you’re sick, so I need you to tolerate it for now. I mean, if it’s that gross, I can toss it…”
“No one told you to friggin’ do that.”
She kept grumbling—fine, she would deal with this garbage for the sake of nourishing herself, though she still couldn’t believe she was eating something I’d made, et cetera. At least she had enough energy to insult me.
“Where are you finding the time to cook, anyway? What about practicing your solo? Have you got it perfect already?”
“Ah… No, not yet.”
“Then get back at it. Downstairs… No, go home. Stick around here and you’ll catch my cold.”
“No way. I’m not stupid enough to leave you alone here while you’re in this state.”
“If you end up with a cold and can’t play, after all this time you’ve spent practicing here… That would be even more stupid,” she muttered, looking away.
“Well, instrumentalists can be replaced. It could be a one-man show, with Setsuna singing and everything else through synths. But is that what you rebuilt the Light Music Club for? If you don’t get to play onstage… what’s the point?”
Had she heard me on the phone earlier?
“Go home. Go home, take some cold medicine, warm up your room, practice, and… play the show… with Ogiso.”
She looked far smaller and weaker than usual—maybe because of the fever.
Yes, what she was saying was right. From the moment I resolved myself to stand on that stage, I had dreamed only of making the show a success, and put everything into it.
“I’m not leaving.”
“Kitahara, seriously, you can’t risk all the work you’ve done…”
“I could say the same for you. Yes, I’ve worked hard, but what happens to the work you’ve done? And… It’s my fault this happened, anyway.”
“What? It’s my fault I caught a cold. I didn’t catch it teaching you guitar. Don’t flatter yourself.”
“No. If you’d just been helping me out with my practicing, you shouldn’t have been at any risk of working yourself into collapse. But you drove yourself to your breaking point… because of this, right?”
I set the notebook on the table.
“…What, you decided you could look in it? You creep.”
“Sorry. But you made your own decision, too.”
“…The club chief gave me something to laugh at, that’s all.”
Yes, she probably had laughed at it.
It was embarrassing, it was ridiculous. But Touma hadn’t let it end there. She had taken this trivial bit of selfishness of mine and done everything she could to make it something real. Sacrificing her stamina, her sleep, everything.
“I’m sorry, Touma. Really… I’m sorry.”
“I just told you not to flatter yourself. All I did was add something to our performance. It’s… nothing to do with you.”
“Then, I’ll just say what I feel like saying. That shouldn’t be a problem, right? I’m sorry, Touma. And… Thank you. I feel bad for making you push yourself too far, but… I appreciate it.”
Kazusa Touma—my neighbor in class, my neighbor in the next music room—
She had made this much effort, effort she never put into anything, all for me.
“After everything you’ve done for me… How could I just leave you here alone? It’s time for me to do something for you now. Let me do that much at least.”
Maybe it wouldn’t be enough to pay her back.
“Please. Let me… stay here.”
“…Uh-huh.” After a few moments of silence, Touma sighed. “Fine, whatever, do what you want… Talking is just making this taste bad.”
“I will do what I want, thank you.”
I laughed, tempted to say something stupid, like, “You mean it didn’t already taste bad?” But I didn’t, of course.
I washed the dishes Touma had used, and brought her her medicine.
“…What’s with this stuff?”
“Huh? Oh, I had a doctor come to see you. She gave you a shot, actually.”
“A shot?!” Touma shuddered. “…I’m glad I was asleep…”
What, did she not like needles? This wasn’t a side I had expected to see.
“So, uh… What did she say my deal is?”
“…Not the flu, she said…” I dithered a little, but decided there was no point in hiding it. “But… The fever might stick around for two or three days.”
Touma looked down.
Three days from now was Saturday… The day of the show.
“…Well, I’m done eating, so start practicing.”
But she didn’t touch on that.
“I will, I will. Once you’ve gotten changed and gone to bed.”
“Don’t talk to me like a kid, I… Hang on… Is this what I was wearing this morning?”
“Oh, um, I actually…”
“K-Kitahara, don’t tell me you…!”
Touma flung her arms across her chest and glared at me, her reddened face turning even redder.
“No, no! I didn’t do it, the doctor did! The doctor, who was a woman!”
She had taken the trouble to change Touma’s clothes in addition to treating her, probably able to tell that I was freaking out over doing it myself. I really got lucky there.
“So, since there were some clothes sitting in front of the changing room, I brought those…”
“…You brought my underwear, too?!”
“I-It was an emergency situation! What else was I supposed to do?! Don’t worry, I just carried the whole stack of clothes, I didn’t touch them! And I was looking away, too! I didn’t see anything!”
“Ugh, how much of a freak can you be…?”
She had seemed angry—but then she seemed to have forgiven me, after taking the circumstances into account.
“I’m going to get changed, then… And no peeking.”
“I know, I know.”
My response was light enough, but as I watched her walk away, unsteady on her feet, my chest grew heavy.
In this state, there was no way she would make it to tomorrow’s rehearsal—and then, the show on Saturday…
No matter what Touma said, I intended to stay by her until she fell asleep, at the very least.
After that… I would practice. Even harder, even more earnestly than I already had been.
For the sake of my neighbor, who had worked herself to pieces for me.
So that it wouldn’t matter how things fell out.
Whatever result might be waiting, I wanted to be able to tell her, with my head held high… how hard I had worked.
With that in mind, I looked out the window.
The darkness was cold, wordless, standing in silence.
Thursday was pressing in.