* 34 *

The day I got to see Hiiragi's smile was in the winter of my third year of high school, the day we had our graduation rehearsal.
Which means, yes, that for the three whole years leading up to her, I never once saw a smile out of her.

Graduation... Well, I'd be hesitant to say it was an emotional event for me.
There could be nothing sad about leaving that school behind, and yet I wasn't outrageously happy either. I just kinda thought "Man, what an awful three years."
I had so little attachment to the school I went to that I almost wondered if I was really a student there.

I kept thinking about it, and I didn't even feel like going to the rehearsal anymore.
While everyone headed for the gym, I slipped out of the line and went to the music preparation room.
Its door was always wide open. In my third year, I spent a lot of lunch breaks there.

I waited there for the rehearsal to be over. If someone who hardly seemed to exist didn't show up to it, absolutely no one would notice, surely.
Of course, by now I didn't care what anyone thought of me. It was almost graduation, after all.

The music preparation room was dark even in the afternoon. If you closed the door, it took a while for your eyes to adjust.
That's part of the reason I liked the place. I also loved how the instruments, once in the forefront, were now rotting in decay here.
Lots of "instruments we won't use anymore, but it'd be a waste to throw them away."

Sitting in an upright chair, resting on my elbows on the cover of a keyboard, I stared into space.
It took nearly five minutes to notice Hiiragi in the corner of my vision.

When Hiiragi and I met eyes, I can't really remember who smiled first. We always had sour looks, but for some reason we couldn't keep from smiling there.
I guess we were relieved to learn there was someone else who didn't feel a thing as graduation was coming up, and found it humorous that we both sought escape from it.

The ruins of something lost - that's the image Hiiragi's smile planted in my head.
Like there had once been this madly wonderful thing, and while it was now totally destroyed, she treasured a part of its ruins - kinda like that.

Of course, once we exchanged smiles, we quickly looked away and went to doing our own things.
I struggled to play a dust-coated classic guitar with no first string, and she played a sunbaked electronic organ with the volume set low.

I wasn't surprised to see Hiiragi playing like a natural.
There was a second-hand CD shop nearby which I'd often visit after school, not being in any clubs. And as I stood there with a CD in hand staring at a cover, Hiiragi would be standing behind me doing the same - silly, but that kept happening.
Since there was so little space between the shelves in that place, it made sense our paths would tangle. But we never said a word to each other about it.

I watched Hiiragi play the organ. I couldn't see her face, but even just from her back, I'd say she was slightly more at peace than in the classroom.
I had to admit, things were getting a little warm between us. You would probably think it natural that after all this, we'd be friends.
But as I've said before, to the very end, Hiiragi and I never had a single personal conversation.

Why did we always stay at such a distance?, I thought. At least for my part, I could probably just explain it as a lack of trust.
However, I wasn't distrusting of Hiiragi. What I couldn't put my trust in was, as ever, people's affections.
Because I'd been separated from Tsugumi, who I loved and vice versa so much in my first life. That ruined everything.
No matter how much we got along, they could someday leave me. So I was scared to even try getting deeply involved with anyone.
The friendlier the person, the more I feared their betrayal. Thus, I stayed just far enough away from Hiiragi.

It's as stupid as saying you'll never get married because you don't want to get divorced.
But I wouldn't change my mind. A relationship where we weren't too attached, just mutually looked down on each other from a distance, seemed best for me.

I remember that afterward, we were both scolded by a teacher for skipping the rehearsal.
"Think you can do whatever you like with graduation coming?" and so on, "How are you going to make it in college?" and so forth.
I listened in silence with my head low, embarrassing myself with the thought that the teacher might mistakenly believe there was a romantic thing between Hiiragi and I. Hiiragi looked the same way.
It was a stupid, stupid time, high school.

At graduation the next day, Hiiragi and I left the classroom right after the greetings. We were the only ones to leave that early, and as the only two in the hall, we naturally made eye contact.
I felt I saw her mouth the words "See you."

That's about it for my memories of Hiiragi.
And how it wasn't necessarily that I'd never found any girl "agreeable."

Chapter 35

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