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A Pallid Season

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When snow fell, it was the ash that marked the end of a blazing summer. With cold came the end of life. It rolled in with distant clouds, and all the leaves fell from the trees and the insects stopped singing. Everything that was alive either found shelter, or died. Death settled over the land and made the air its home. The light became scarce and sunsets turned pale and ghostly. A winter sunset—she remembered—was a precious thing indeed. Her mother used to say that, a long time ago.

…Just what was so precious about this faded imitation, anyway? —She thought, looking at it as it set into the horizon far past the river winding into the distance below. There was nothing right about this at all. Not the feeling of it. The look. The breaths. The tilt of the head. The hand, on her back. Her heartbeat, even. Wrong, wrong, wrong. And yet…hadn’t she chosen to feel this way?

And there was the swish of Reina’s skirt, a wide arc on the water as she turned, shrouded in darkness and submerged to her thighs. Gray like the covered moon. Pale like settled death. Her eyes were empty and still. Windows to a broken sort of understanding. Somewhere on the other side were memories of fireworks and the sounds of beautiful music. If Kumiko dived toward them, would she find those moments preserved? Could she settle in them, live forever in the idea of the feeling?

Overhead, the lights shut off and the stage too was submerged in an inky black water. She held her breath,
and the applause faded,
and the darkness,
finally,
went silent.

 

~

 

Kumiko woke up one December morning breathing hard and fast, tears welling in the corners of her eyes, but quickly forgot exactly why.

 

~

 

A cool breeze ruffled the leaves on the trees to the right. Evening sun was caught in the gaps that formed, and passed through in splotchy golden shapes onto the ground off to the side of the school building. There was the sound of a passing train rumbling in the distance—it blended in her chest with the vibration of her breaths until she could not tell the difference between the two. Her mouth pursed and her fingers made movements almost of their own accord. It was the sort of focus one could only enter into when they allowed themselves to concentrate on precisely nothing in particular. If she could be said to have been thinking about anything at all, it was foremost the fact that she was not alone—there was another standing beside her, observing intently, and she was mostly involved in a vague curiosity over what that person was thinking about what she was doing. There was little space left to worry too much over the mechanics of the action.

Even after all this time, there was still something so nerve-racking—or, no, that wasn’t quite right because she always felt her lungs open up and her heart slow down and an effortless sort of calm encompass her, rather it was something all-together…humbling—about practicing with Reina. Probably, it was because…because as much as she wished things were different, Kumiko wasn’t like Reina. Not really. Maybe it was…just being in high-school, some kind of immaturity, but Reina, and…and Asuka, and Kaori, and even Taki-sensei and all the people like them, they had always seemed…so above everything else. So utterly and purely determined. As if, sure, by the time she knew them they possessed such impressive talent, but if they had not been born with the skill or the drive they would have snatched the very qualities from the hands of god himself. They were the kinds of people that seemed to move the world simply with their intent, and Kumiko always felt like…like a vague blob in the crowd at their feet, somehow managing to stay within arm’s reach of them, to stay adequate, but never truly coming close to being so…special. It went without saying that Reina, in her eyes, was chief amongst them, and yet she consistently found herself on the receiving end of Reina’s undivided attention and tutelage.

When she really considered it, it was daunting. Especially because as much as she ever improved, she never seemed to really…improve. Not in that way. Not in a way that felt at all comparable to the people around her, who inspired her to play at all.

But, Reina never stopped. Never stopped practicing with her, listening to her play, teaching her things things that Reina didn’t necessarily know herself—Reina, after all, had barely held a euphonium, and yet she still often knew exactly how Kumiko could overcome some challenge or difficulty. Most of all, she never stopped treating her like an equal, when at times they felt like anything but.

Something along those lines of thought finally broke her zen as she breathed a measure too early, and in trying to correct the mistake she somehow ended up awkwardly coughing into her mouthpiece.

Reina turned to her, gave her a wide-eyed look and chuckled slightly.
“…What was that?

Of Reina’s different laughs, this one was among Kumiko’s favorites. If there was one thing she tended to take seriously, it was practice.

“I—uh—I…messed up.”

Kumiko could see a snarky remark hiding behind the mirth in the other girl’s expression, but Reina seemed to let it go and turned back to her music stand.

“This bridge…” Kumiko mumbled, staring at her sheet music, “I can still barely get through it.”
There was a fair amount of enmity in the admission, but she tried to stifle the frustration in her voice.

“That’s an exaggeration,” Reina retorted as if scolding her for sulking, “But we’ll have to keep going tomorrow. I have to take inventory today.”

When Kumiko looked over at her, she was already packing up her belongings. Well, maybe that was for the best. Kumiko had been…starting to lose focus, anyway. There came a point when it was better to rest on something than to keep beating her head against a wall—it was just never easy to admit she was at it.
“Ah…alright.”

She balanced her euphonium on her lap and took a deep breath, putting her arms up above her head and stretching her shoulders. The sun as low as it was, this was certainly the point at which whoever was still left in the school would be going home. The days were about as short as they ever got, and their practices often went well into the evening. As Reina kept track of club equipment and had to make note of what was where every so often, it’d be another fifteen or twenty minutes before she left.

“I’ll come with you,” Kumiko said as she reluctantly stood and began packing herself. She hadn’t moved much for the past half-hour, at least, but being constantly winded took its toll. Being on-edge all day did too, but that was another matter entirely.

…She glanced over at Reina, who was already starting back toward the entrance, and for what must have been the tenth time that day a question formed on her lips which she couldn’t quite bring herself to actually speak aloud. Instead, she grabbed her instrument and followed.

 

~

 

Kumiko crouched in the quiet darkness of the club storeroom, a low rack of instrument cases in front of her. On the sheet in her hand were corresponding inventory entries—all she had to do was verify that they matched up. Near the window to her right, Reina was assuming a similar position—there was a look of concentration on her face, and she gripped the pencil between her fingers with such perfect form it looked more as if she was about to sketch out a drawing of the room than mark down some simple numbers. Reina had that sort of effect.

They hadn’t bothered turning on the lights and the window did very little, so Reina—her hair jet black, clad in their dark winter uniform—almost melted away into the wall behind her. Kumiko had to focus on her face to see her—there was something ethereal about the sight, and maybe even…just a bit somber. It suited the moment. Suited the day. …It was difficult to contrast with the other Reina, the one that shone so brightly Kumiko could hardly bear to look. She looked anyway, of course, and the sight burned itself into her retinas.

At nationals, Reina had shouted ‘I love you!’ at the heart of the world (or at Taki-sensei, at the very least), and though the real meaning may not have reached him, her feelings did echo brilliantly across the stage of their final battle. Kumiko thought so, anyway. She’d saved them all from total silence and the utter despair that surely would have followed being the only group of students that failed to recognize the teacher that had brought them so far. Still…Kumiko couldn’t shake a certain…sadness. For Reina, who’d put herself so far out there, and received so little in return. For all of them, who’d done nearly as much and walked home with only the word bronze.

…Maybe it was presumptuous. Maybe it was narcissistic. Maybe, it was ungrateful—but she’d wanted more. They all had. In only weeks the word itself had become something of a sacred one—you didn’t speak it often, and when you did it was only to encourage, invigorate, and inspire to greater things. Not for looking back on what had happened already and could not un-happen. And yet…in the absence of such sentiment spoken aloud, it was as if the thoughts themselves were amplified many times over. And to top it all off, for Reina’s part, guarded whispers and hushed giggles now haunted her near-every step. It seemed the truth that had flown over everyone’s heads in the concert hall had sprouted up somewhere like an invasive weed and was spreading uncontrollably through the rumor mill of the wind ensemble. Frankly, it was annoying. To Kumiko, anyway. Most of the students talking about it weren’t doing so with bad intent, she knew, and it was…understandable that a declaration like that, to a teacher no less, would grab people’s interest. On the other hand, it was none of their business and it pissed her off. At least Reina wasn’t the type to be bothered by things like that.

…She wasn’t, was she?

“You know,” Reina suddenly said, as if in response, “It’s not really helping if you just sit there.”

She gently pushed Kumiko out of the way and began cataloging the cases in front of her. Kumiko sheepishly stepped backwards. She’d...been staring off into space for the last several minutes.
“A-Ah...sorry. I’m just...tired.”

“...Want to head home after this?”

“Not really,” Kumiko quickly replied with clear distaste. Reina seemed to be operating under the assumption that heading home would be more relaxing for Kumiko than their usual plan of finding a table or bench somewhere near their station and working on homework together. Kumiko’s sister and parents—well, mostly her father—despite having come to a sort of understanding regarding her moving out, still had a bit of a......tense relationship. As a result of some really ingenious remarks Kumiko had decided to make over recent dinners in regards to the situation, she’d more or less thrown herself into the proverbial ring of passive aggression. It sufficed to say that Reina was gravely mistaken, and Kumiko would be happy to whittle away as much of the remaining day as she possibly could.

It was around that time that the door opened without any warning whatsoever and Kumiko promptly sunk back into the corner and attempted to become furniture.

“Tsukamoto,” Reina said.

“…Ah, sorry, Kousaka,” Shuuichi said as he moved to return his instrument to its spot. “I lost track of time.”

“That’s alright,” Reina replied, and Kumiko hoped—oh, god, Kumiko hoped that—

Reina stopped whatever it was she was doing to shoot a quizzical look in Kumiko’s general direction.

Why, Reina. Why? Useless. She felt the betrayal palpably even though Reina couldn’t possibly have known what she’d done. There was a maddening scream echoing in Kumiko’s mind that she would have let out if she wasn’t busy doing her best impression of a shelf.

Shuuichi whipped around, somehow at once acknowledged and entirely ignored her, said “See you tomorrow”, and made his way back out of the room more quickly even than he’d entered.

Reina watched the closed door before turning back to her. She was ruthless sometimes.
“Having a fight? Or…something?”

“Something like that,” Kumiko grumbled very quickly and walked back across the room, leaving very little time for a follow-up question. ”Come on, let’s just get going.”

“…I’m not finished.”

“Well, then…let’s hurry up.”

“If you rush, it defeats the purpose.”

“…Not if it means we get to leave.”
She put a sharp edge on the final word and stared defiantly at Reina.

And Reina stared at her.

And Kumiko stared back.

“A fight, definitely.”

 

~

 

The last dredges of sunlight cast long shadows in the train car as it curved south toward Kowata. The handles, poles, and sparsely dotted passengers were distorted by the glare, and Kumiko felt that the twisted images were her kin. Sometimes a day was out of fuel before it was properly over, and this was one of those days. Reina sat beside her, silent now. Deceivingly impenetrable—it was her resting state, blank and a bit rigid. Opening her up in various ways was kind of a game—the more skill with which one did it, the better the results. The matter of doing it at all was becoming child’s play for Kumiko, so she sometimes challenged herself to produce uniquely well-executed maneuvers, when she had the energy. Again…this wasn’t one of those days.

“Reina,” She said, finally throwing away any remainder of pretense, “You…love Taki-sensei, right…?”

She could ask in such a way because Reina made a concerted effort to be direct about these things. Kumiko guessed she…felt it was more sincere that way. More significant. More…mature? Still, preaching something didn’t necessarily make it easy to practice, and Reina’s surprise at the question wasn’t exactly subtle. Her whole body twisted as it left Kumiko’s mouth, and she spent a long moment before answering. Kumiko just waited expectantly, trying in a way to signal that the question was…totally sincere, even if she already knew the answer.
“…Nn.”

“Then,” Kumiko continued, becoming less sure of herself, “You want to…kiss him, and…uh…everything?”

Reina’s mouth only opened slightly, but it was easy to tell she was kind of shaken by the line of questioning. Probably not the question itself, but the fact Kumiko was asking. If Kumiko hadn’t been dying inside every single moment she went on with this particular weight on top of her chest— flattening her lungs—this might’ve been the moment she second guessed bringing the topic up at all.
“Of course,” Reina answered, simply.

‘Of course’, she said. Of course.
Kumiko waited for a moment, but that was apparently all Reina had to say about it. She gave a slightly nervous laugh.
“That seems like what you’d say…”

“…Why are you asking?”

Those words were inevitable, but Kumiko deflated a little all the same.
“Ah…” She began, no idea how to continue.
She turned to look and…Reina was just gazing at her curiously. She whipped her head back to the middle of the train. And turned to look…and whipped back again. Reina was fully fixated now, so there was no way out. This was what she’d asked for. Ahhahhh. Come on. It wasn’t as if she could tell anyone else. It still…proceeded to come out of her painfully.

“The other night...Shuuichi…”

Her voice involuntarily rose. It’s pitch just kept going up, and lost all its air.

“Tried to…”

Her eyes darted back and forth from Reina’s face to various random spots on the ceiling, and she tried to pretend she was only listening to the sound coming out of her mouth rather than making it.

“……Kiss me.”


Reina didn’t even move an inch. She was like a statue.
“Hontou ni?”

“Nn.”

Kumiko watched her look away and settle back into her natural rigidity in quiet contemplation.
“How bold…”
She almost sounded…impressed.

“N-Nn…”

And then, Reina seemed to realize something very, very important.
Tried to?”

Kumiko winced and suddenly became very interested in the pattern on the floor.
“Ah-ha, w-well, I…kind of…uh, mmm…” She stalled, searching for a proper euphemism that did not exist. “……Ran away?”

“You…ran away?”

“…N……Nn.”

She let the full meaning of the phrase ‘ran away’ sink into Reina’s mind. There was no misconception to be corrected—it was exactly as bad as it sounded. Reina seemed too deep in thought to formulate a proper response to what she’d just heard, so Kumiko sat in silence like she was waiting for a doctor’s diagnosis.

The whole thing was embarrassing, but…it wasn’t altogether a bad feeling, watching Reina think—having someone else consider the predicament. She’d spent so much time going over the awful moment in her mind that the knowledge someone else simply knew was a huge amount of weight lifted on its own.

“Then,” Reina eventually said, “Earlier, you…”

“I...haven’t really talked to him since then…”
No, wasn’t that putting it a bit lightly? She’d been avoiding him, without a doubt.

“What happened?”

“…I don’t know.” Kumiko grabbed her head in her hands, clawing at her curled hair. “We—we just ran into each other, and I…felt like talking, that’s all! We ate some snacks from the store! It was…normal. Except, I guess—ah, well, we don’t really…talk as much, anymore, so it was…just a little weird, but…I didn’t think that—I really, really didn’t that he would, uh… There wasn’t anything special about it, I…think. We were just standing on the bridge for a while, and he…eh…you know…” She lowered her head and pursed her lips.

“I see. Are you…alright?”

Kumiko sighed.
“Yeah. …Probably. Maybe not, I…don’t know what to do. That was—well, that, I know that wasn’t the greatest way to react...h-ha...”
She didn’t know why she was trying to sound like she was joking around. She definitely didn’t feel like joking around.

“Kumiko…I don’t think you did anything wrong. If you didn’t want him to do that, then he shouldn’t have.”

“...How am I supposed to know if I want to…to kiss Shuuichi?!” She snapped a bit, though it wasn’t Reina’s fault—she was arguing with herself. “He’s…Shuuichi! I just don’t get this sort of thing. It makes me nervous. Everyone kept bringing it up, too, but…I wasn’t thinking about this at all. And I just…ran away? Ahah, it’s strange. I’m—I’m strange, I don’t understand it, so that’s why I just—I was wondering ‘How did Reina know?’ You know…that you loved…Taki-sensei.”

Reina listened quite patiently to her emotional rant, even nodding once or twice in a way that made Kumiko feel like she was making some kind of sense. When she was finished, Reina put a hand up to her chin.
“If I had to say, then...I just knew.”

“...Dayo neeee?
The question felt even more ridiculous after being answered.

“But—“ Reina quickly added. “I think you should only kiss someone if you want to. There’s no point, otherwise. And I don’t think the way you feel is strange, either.”

“…I’m glad you’d say that, but...it is, isn’t it?”

“It’s not. It’s how you feel, so what you think is all that matters. And Tsukamoto...isn’t a bad person, right? You can tell him what you just told me.”

...As she said so, Kumiko got the impression that if Reina were in the same position, that’s exactly what she’d do. But...she couldn’t help thinking if she used the exact words she just had earlier, it would be kind of...harsh... The thought made her stomach churn. Still, she did feel like Reina was probably saying, more or less, what she needed to hear. Reina tended to. And she did have a point, that…it didn’t really have to do with anyone else, despite how she sometimes felt when others around her were so caught up in the idea of love.

With the way people in high school talked about it, giggling quietly about who liked who and who were meant to be, she often ended up feeling like some kind of prude. Those kind of feelings just…never came to her. Not really. The only person she’d ever ‘confessed’ to was sitting right next to her, and even that she’d taken quite seriously in its own way. To do anything more, with...someone like Shuuichi…? Or more typically, with some guy in another class she barely even knew? The concept was bizarre, to her.

Why did it have to be so complicated, anyway? Who said any of this mattered, and why did everyone care so much how she felt about it, when she didn’t even know herself? Wasn’t the whole point to go with your gut? Deep down, all her body and mind were telling her was one thing—that kind of attention just made her…uneasy. Was it possible that there was something—Kumiko wondered then and there—wrong with her? Hell, sitting there slumped together in the train car, she’d have felt way more comfortable kissing Reina than Shuuichi.

She sighed to herself, less troubled but somehow even more nervous after their brief conversation. Perhaps it was because she was beginning to understand what she would inevitably have to do. This whole thing was making her tired—she almost wanted to plop down and fall asleep right there, but the floor of the train probably wasn’t the best bed, and the sun hadn’t even entirely set yet. She sat back and closed her eyes, but the dim sunlight filtering in through the windows on the opposite side of the train seemed determined to blanket her eyelids directly. And on top of that, Reina was now staring at her all wide-eyed, her face that particular shade of pink that meant she—

Wait.

Wait, wait.

“…You…you what?” Reina quietly stammered.

No no,
no no no. She hadn’t just
“Eh? N-nani?”

said that

“Uh...I…you just—”

out loud.

Right?

“You heard that?”

“…Nn.”

Looking in Reina’s general direction was suddenly far too much to bare and Kumiko became intensely focused on looking down at her bag in her lap. Part of her hoped if she stared hard enough she’d bore a hole down through the bottom of the train that would suck her in and crumple her up before she could induce awkwardness to the rest of her relationships.

“I-I just mean, you know, it’s—all I meant is, I mean, with Shuuichi it’s like, ah, I have no idea how to—be—it’s—I feel…weird, I just feel weird, and so…that’s all I meant! Because—because, you know, with us, we’re, you know…ah…you know! And that’s all I meant! You get it—hey, you get it, right?” Kumiko whipped her head back at the other girl and sputtered—her hands making strange involuntary motions as she tried to salvage the situation. Reina’s eyes shrunk back down to their normal size, at least, but the color on her face was still burning bright.

“S…sou.”

“Right. …Right. So…uh…” She pressed her hand against her forehead and felt a waterfall of sweat seeping down from her hairline. “Ah…what the hell’s wrong with me lately…”

“…Kumiko.”

This was too damn much. Why could she never quite say the things she needed to, but always said the things she definitely didn’t?!

“Kumiko.”

H-Hai?!

“Calm down. It’s alright, I do get it. …It’s kind of hot, right?”

Turning to look at Reina’s face, it was obvious the small grin wasn’t entirely unforced. It was probably a deliberate decision intended to save Kumiko from further embarrassment—but that, at least, got her to laugh.

 

~

 

Kumiko’s homework went a bit neglected that night and by the time she got back to school the next morning she’d thoroughly talked the situation out with Reina. It was the sort of thing that…she may have talked to her sister about, if her sister was still around, and she may have talked to Hazuki and Midori about, if Midori was at all capable of keeping a secret and Hazuki herself wasn’t…well…

Even her mom—assuming Kumiko would have even been able to bring it up, and assuming her advice would have been even a little useful—knew Shuuichi and his family well. She absolutely couldn’t be trusted not to blab about it! As it was, Reina was the only person she could really trust, and without her Kumiko would almost without a doubt have lost her mind.

In the process of working out her feelings on the matter, there was really only one thing that was abundantly clear—

She should probably talk to Shuuichi.

The problem was that there was literally no way that she could talk to Shuuichi.

And even worse, he was always…around. Somewhere. Band was an obvious problem, but at least there were lots of people—some sort of buffer, if an awkward one. But it was all-too-likely that a repeat of last evening could also occur, where she would run into him in an enclosed space, perhaps even alone. So, she’d spent the days, eh…on edge, recently. And of course, there were the third years as well…

As classes were divided up firstly by year, the time one most interacted with their upper or underclassmen involved club activities. Now that the third years had retired from the band, they had effectively exited the lives of the remaining members. Kumiko was no different. What remained were scarce glimpses of them in the halls, along the roads around the school, and at the occasional institution-wide event. In essence they had become like ghosts, the spectral after-image of people that once were, but certainly were no longer. It didn’t much matter that Kumiko had known them in life, she would still occasionally turn a corner and shiver at the ghastly site of their departed souls.

Between the third-years and Shuuichi, Kumiko’s every walk through the school was filled with a terrible suspense—she was just waiting for a jump-scare. A day passed like that, and another came, and her nervousness began to transform into a general malaise that she thought may easily never go away.

 

~

 

“Maybe…I’ll write him a letter,” Reina said some time after sectionals, almost under her breath.

“…Eh, who?”
Kumiko asked absentmindedly, washing out her mouthpiece.

“Taki-sensei.”

She turned the faucet off and looked up into lilac-colored eyes.
“…A letter?”

“A love letter.”

Kumiko’s entire life flashed through her mind. Maybe Reina’s life flashed through her mind—either way, she made an unflattering sound and tried rather futilely to conceal her shock.
“Ah—A-A love letter? A love letter, huh……”

“You think…I shouldn’t?”

“…I-It’s not that I don’t think you should, it’s just…so…direct…”

Reina’s signature brand of silent determination washed over her expression, and she seemed lost in thought for a moment.
“I have to be direct, or I won’t get through.”

…Well she was probably right about that, at least. By most ways of looking at, she’d already been…pretty direct. Exceedingly direct. Flamboyantly direct. And look how that had ended up. Of course, it hadn’t exactly been normal timing either… The result may well have been circumstantial.

Kumiko thought so, anyway.

A love letter just seemed…like such a drastic course of action, even for Reina.

She was trying to figure out how to express that as delicately as possible when Reina mumbled,
“…If he hears about it from anyone else, he won’t get the right idea.”

So, it had gotten to her.

Reina must have heard the group of second-years (who weren’t even members of the band) whispering about what had happened at nationals while watching the two of them climb the stairs just a few minutes ago. Kumiko was hoping she hadn’t.

“So…you’re worried about that,” She said.

“It might be different if anyone actually understood,” Reina said, “But they don’t. I…don’t want him to think it’s something stupid, or…some kind of joke.”

Still holding her euphonium, Kumiko walked over and awkwardly embraced Reina with half of one arm.
“Reina, if Taki-sensei even pays attention to stuff like this, there’s no way he’d think that. I bet if you ask him, there’s not a single more serious person in the band than you.”

Reina shuffled her feet—she was listening very carefully. This wasn’t one of those times when she’d already made up her mind long ago, it was…decidedly the opposite, and easy to tell.
“Sou...desu ne?” She managed to reply.

“Nn. But,” Kumiko chuckled lightly through her nose, “A love letter is definitely serious too…I just think…you should think it through. To be sure.”

“Of course,” Reina replied, with more certainty.

“If only,” Kumiko thought unpleasantly, “I could write a letter to Shuuichi…”

“…You still haven’t spoken to him?”

“Ah, well I’m uh…th-thinking up what to say?”
She was becoming way too used to her thoughts spilling out of her mouth.

Reina—seeming to settle down a little—began leading the way back out to the walkway where they were practicing.
“Sometimes, you just have to say it. You’re good at that part, anyway.”

Yeah, or so Kumiko kept being told. So why did she always feel like she was heading straight for disaster?

She sighed and decided to take a page out of Reina’s book and see if she could put her feelings into their practice. Maybe Shuuichi would understand her ambiguous unease through a euphonium solo.

…Yeah, maybe not.

 

~

 

Obaku. Obaku-desu.

Some time after Kumiko fell into her seat on the train early the next morning, completely dead in her shoes and lazily noncommittal to any of Reina’s questions, the train came to a short stop.

Reina stood at the announcement, and began walking toward the door—which, in itself was…rather curious, considering this station was nowhere near their school.

“Reina.”

She stopped at her name.

“…Where are you going? This isn’t our stop.”

“A good spot. Come on.”

Reina did not wait for further discussion, and Kumiko had very little choice but to follow.

 

~

 

Over the past several weeks it had become somewhat of a ritual for them to practice at school after club had officially ended, and then practice some more on the way home after parting with Hazuki and Midori (if those two had stayed around that late). Occasionally they’d then find somewhere to eat, and study together as much as realistically possible before heading home. Kumiko would’ve preferred to do that all the time, but her parents were usually annoyingly insistent on her being home for dinner. Reina often times didn’t have to worry about that—for reasons that weren’t exactly clear but from what Kumiko gathered over time had a lot to do with her parents’ jobs—but she did sometimes have to go to private lessons.

As a result of that routine, Kumiko ended up bringing her euph home more days than she didn’t, and she’d long since stopped being too prideful or polite to accept Reina’s assistance with the burden. As it was, one of them tended to carry her euph, while the other carried both their bags over one arm and Reina’s trumpet in the other, switching off whenever necessary. It was a nice system, and Kumiko found that she ended up barely minding the extra weight.

That is, at night.

Before she’d fully woken up in the morning, she’d just as soon have dropped the damn thing in a dumpster. Reina walking off at random stops without any explanation whatsoever didn’t exactly help matters, either. Scrambling to get off the train while hoisting the thing on to her back, she’d barely caught up to Reina before they were on the street.

This was obviously the behavior of a Reina with something very specific in mind, but, seriously…couldn’t she wait until later in the day when Kumiko had more energy for that stuff?

The walk that followed was long and involved, and cold in the winter morning air, but by the time they came to Reina’s destination, Kumiko basically understood.

The river that ran through Uji drifted westward as it moved north away from the city center, and apparently Reina had found that if one were to disembark at Obaku, a couple stations south of their school, and walk west, you eventually come to a stretch of river that the town itself had mostly not reached out to touch. Instead, the lone road that ran along it was bordered with long fences, open lots, and only the occasional small building. The riverbank was almost shrouded by tall wild grass, and low near its edge there were long stretches of overgrown shrubbery but for the occasional sloped opening to the water itself.

They stood on the dull, wintery grass of one such opening. The natural crevice which it cut into the land formed a sort of tunnel that nearly contained the sound of flowing water—which was not to say that anyone but those in passing cars on the road above would have been around to hear it in the first place. They could probably play pretty loudly here before anyone would even notice—Kumiko assumed that was Reina’s intent, anyway.

“It’s a good spot, don’t you think?”

“Nn.” It was—probably would have been better in the summer, but…

“Yoroizuka-senpai and Kasaki-senpai are fine, but it’s good to be alone sometimes,” Reina said, and it occurred to Kumiko that…they would have gone off to practice on their own either way. Maybe Reina was talking about a different kind of distance.

“…You like this place?” She asked.

“Nn. I used to come here in the mornings, once in awhile.”

Kumiko wondered when exactly that could have been.

Which…wait a second.
Wasn’t there a huge problem with that?

“Here? But…coming here, you wouldn’t be able to talk to Taki-sensei.”

A look of some sort of satisfaction came to Reina’s face, as if that was what she’d been expecting Kumiko to say all along.
“I’ve come here at times that I was…nervous.”

Nervous.
…Nervous, huh…
Wait, “Nervous?” She gawked, and it was only half-exaggerated, “Are you…sure you’re Reina?”

“…Just what kind of person do you see me as?”

Kumiko pointedly ignored the question and sat in the grass, unzipping her euphonium’s case. The fact that Reina would so often play her trumpet brazenly from a main walkway between Kitauji’s buildings, and other times would go well out of her way to come to a place like this, was…well, it was so perfectly her that Kumiko could do nothing but smile at the knowledge.

Reina stood next to her and began preparing her trumpet.
“I think when you’re nervous is when you know something’s worth doing.”

“That…sounds kind of dangerous.”

“Nn. That’s why you have to trust yourself. I don’t think there’s any other way.”

Kumiko…couldn’t exactly disagree. It felt like she was always watching Reina charge head-first into situations that could end very badly, but she simply did it anyway, because she knew that she wanted to. And she never seemed to regret it, either. On some level, Kumiko always thought that must just come naturally to Reina, but…maybe nothing was quite that easy.

A light fog drifted off the surface of the water below them, and a chilling wind blew against their coats as they played for a long time.

When they had to leave in order to make it to class on time, they started back toward the station—and Kumiko sent a text to Shuuichi.

 

~

 

“…Hey,” She said curtly, eyes slightly averted. It was lunchtime, and she stood at the spot in a corner on the side of the school where she and Reina often practiced—it had felt secluded enough.

Shuuichi walked up with an amount of confidence, but she saw him hang back and tap his foot a bit awkwardly in her peripheral vision.
“…Nn.”

“I…I just wanted to say th—“

“Listen, uh…I’m sorry I…did that,” He interrupted her, “…Out of nowhere…”

Kumiko fixed her gaze on the ground, so she could see only their shoes.
“It was mean to run away like that.”

“……Ah,” He said, with what sounded like actual surprise in his voice. “It’s alright.”

She bristled a bit. Was it that surprising she’d apologize for something like that?
“You freaked me out, though!” She let out with far more intensity than originally intended.

“…I-I understand. …Sorry.”
His voice was unusually weak. She sighed and kicked the dirt.

“…I wanted to apologize to you.”
Kumiko heard some students laughing loudly as they passed in the hall above them, and held her breath for some reason.

“You don’t need to. …It was my fault.”

Ugh. “You—you’re really not getting it!” She raised her eyes and voice at once—it was far too clear that her meaning wasn’t getting across. “I just…things…like that, you know, eh…d…dating, and…and whatever! I don’t…really get it. It’s like, uh…’Ah, I don’t get why everyone keeps talking about this.’”
…Hadn’t this gone way better when she was explaining it to Reina? Now she was just rambling. “B-but anyway, I don’t hate you…or anything.”

“…O..oh. I…understand.”

He kept saying he understood, but she couldn’t help but wonder if he did really, when she could barely understand the way she felt herself.
“Do you actually get what I’m saying?”

He blew out a long breath.
“Who knows. I never know with you anymore.”

“I’m saying, it’s really not your fault! So…don’t be…sad, or…”

“…No one but you would demand someone not be sad after flat out rejecting them.”

Kumiko winced. That was the word she’d really been hoping to avoid…

Shuuichi must’ve noticed her becoming uncomfortable —
“I do get it, alright? I…sort of knew, already. I think. I just…let myself get my hopes up. For a second.”

…There was a light blush on his face that made it hard for Kumiko to look directly at him.

“I’m…not angry, either.”

“Well…good, then.”

“But…it’s definitely awkward.”

“I-If you say that, of course it is!”

He shoved his hands in his pockets.
“I don’t think ignoring it’s going to help...”

Yeah, that was just like him. Try to solve something head-on that definitely couldn’t be solved head-on.
“Hey, you…” She said, the thought bubbling up from somewhere unknown, “Back at nationals, you…convinced my sister to come see us, didn’t you?”
She’d heard about it well after the fact, from Reina.

“That? Ah…” He sighed, like he was reluctant to admit it or something. “…Maybe. We were just talking, I wasn’t trying to do anything special.”

“Still,” She replied emphatically “…Arigatou.”

“…N-Nn.” He nodded and rubbed one hand against the back of his head.

Frankly, that sounded like him too. Obliviously helpful. Only…it wasn’t so oblivious at all—he only wanted to act like it was. In a way, that part was the most unsettling.

Shuuichi…had changed. He wasn’t the same as when they were kids at all. Sometimes, it was like he was…doing some poor imitation of that boy. Trying to pretend he didn’t understand something he clearly did. Trying to pretend he was far simpler than he actually was. She kind of hated it. Part of her wanted to be angry—something about it wasn’t fair. Wasn’t honest. In the change, she’d lost something. But…she’d changed too, and there was no way to deny that.

…Had he lost something in that change, as well?

At the thought, her legs felt weak, and her skin felt thick.

“W-well, we should go, or we won’t have time to eat,” She said.
It wasn’t the right thing to say, but she couldn’t come up with anything else—she wasn’t smart, confident, or kind enough to find something that would make any of it better. That would soothe the loss. Maybe that wasn’t possible—maybe that, too, would be undoing what was already done. Instead, she simply…walked away.

“…Kumiko.” He called.

“Nani?”

“I’ll see you at practice later.”

...She nodded.
“Yeah. I’ll see you then.”

 

~

 

Kumiko could not delude herself into thinking she’d handled the situation with any amount of tact. She was struck by the feeling that it was far too simple to crush another person’s hopes. It didn’t even matter whether she could understand why Shuuichi could possibly have come to see her that way—she couldn’t—it was easy to recognize when it was happening. A rejection. There was an intrinsic cruelty to the whole thing that she could not put out of her mind even if she wanted to. She put Shuuichi out of her mind a lot. She locked him out of her mind, even—had started doing that, at some point, and was never sure exactly why. Maybe she hadn’t wanted to know. Now finally, she couldn’t stop remembering it. Wouldn’t let herself. He seemed to take it well, and she had the horrible suspicion he’d done that for her sake. It really was cruel. The whole thing.

That was the feeling she was left with.

But, time went on. Shuuichi didn’t avoid her, and so she didn’t avoid him. Anymore. She almost wished it was different, that he could be angry, that he would hate her—it seemed like he should, sort of. Maybe, she wouldn’t have felt as guilty. But he didn’t. In some impossible to understand way, he didn’t seem to hate her at all, and that—at least—managed to validate her some, because it really was all a mystery to her. She was only more certain that she would be an awful person to date. If this was cruel, certainly...any other outcome would have only been worse. She was able to take solace in that, even if it was kind of pitiful.

Soon after their conversation, she decided and explained to Reina that it would probably be best not to mention the details of what had happened to Hazuki...or Midori...or anyone. For obvious reasons. The secrecy of it did make her feel immature—she’d always been told that high school would be more difficult, but she hadn’t expected it to be difficult in this way. On the bright side, at least, gossip about Reina in particular actually died down over the next few weeks. It seemed that many in the band were aware Kumiko and Reina were friends, and so they didn’t tend to talk about it in front of her—intentionally, at least—but she had a weird habit of walking up to conversations she wasn’t supposed to hear, and from what she could gather, one of the people most adamant that they shouldn’t talk behind Reina’s back was actually Yuuko-senpai. When she thought about it, it made Kumiko sort of happy. And...she would be lying not to admit that she was a bit relieved Reina never ended up handing a love letter to Taki-sensei. Too many disastrous outcomes of that were vivid in her mind’s eye.

...But then, maybe she had no right to talk.

 

~

 

“The band sounds so…hollow. Without everyone else. Don’t you think?” Kumiko lamented one day in January as they walked out of the school gate.

“Of course it would,” Reina said, “That just means we have to make up for it ourselves.”

“Hai, hai, Kousaka-sensei.”

“…Making fun of me?”

“Ehhh, not really. I’m thankful for your tutelage.” Kumiko put faux-sincerity into her voice and performed a bow mid-walk.

“Don’t thank me. You have a ways to go.”

With that Reina drove a proverbial stake through her heart, and she stumbled, miming out a dramatic death before they both devolved into small fits of laughter.

“I do think you’re missing the point, though…” Kumiko said, short on breath.

“I’m not missing it.” A gentle smile came to Reina’s face. “This is the point. They’re not a part of the band anymore, and soon they won’t be students. We’re still here. So, we have to learn, and we have to improve. Don’t you think that’s what the third-years want?”

“…Of course, but…I guess it just…doesn’t feel right.”
She could never get rid of the feeling that something was missing, no matter how silly she knew it was—nothing felt quite as satisfying as it was supposed to.

“It’s just different. Every single person is more important. After all, even two people can be a band. And next semester, we’ll have our own underclassman.”

“…Yeah,” Kumiko replied, having known as much, but she’d never heard it stated so matter-of-factly. “That’s pretty hard to believe. Kinda…nerve-wracking…”

Reina eyed her sidelong.
“I don’t see why. You’ll be a great senpai.”

Me? There’s no way. …Maybe I have more experience playing, but Natsuki-senpai’s much more…she’s better with…people.”
It went without saying that neither of them were any match for Asuka…

The utterly dismissive noise Reina made at that was rather annoying.
“I don’t think any of the people you’ve helped would agree with that.”

...The conversation was quickly becoming embarrassing, so Kumiko thought for a moment and said, “I’m definitely nervous for any new trumpets, though. They’ll be so intimidated…”

It was intended as a joke, but Reina answered with noticeable determination, “That’s fine. They can think whatever they want about me, as long as they don’t hold us back.”

“…From becoming special?”

“That’s right.”

“Reina…” Kumiko said after a long, considerate silence.

“What?”

“You’re a weirdo, you know?”

The blow seemed to catch the normally-composed girl quite off guard. She looked away to hide her face. A critical hit, even!
“…So what exactly are you, then?”

“Mmm...a dedicated student…of a weirdo, I guess?”

The understated glare which Kumiko received then was the signal that she may have gone just that little bit too far.

“You know, weird as in, spe—uh, like, unique. …ly…talented. Is what I meant.”

 

~

 

Not long after that, Kuimiko ran into Asuka-senpai for the first time since she’d left the club. She…only realized as she saw her face that she’d been wanting to the entire time. It was an odd feeling, and it was an odd feeling partly because Asuka herself didn’t seem any different. There was a part of her that almost couldn’t take it, wanted to run from it like that night she’d run from Shuuichi, only in the opposite way. And yet, she found that watching Asuka leave was…an awful feeling, too. The whole conversation, brief as it was, wedged itself in her mind like a pebble in her shoe—sometimes she was able to ignore it, but the feeling of it constantly remained. The feeling that, maybe, she…maybe she hadn’t…done her best, or something like that. Something stupid, like that. Like she was wasting time that could be used to change something that had already happened. Yeah. Stupid.

 

~

 

Kumiko’s favorite spot to play tended to be a patch of riverbank not far from her apartment building. It sat near a tree-covered walkway on the western side of the river, a ways south of Uji Bridge, and there were a couple benches from which you could see the island park that spanned some distance of the river’s length through the southern part of Uji’s center. Depending on the time of day, there weren’t likely to be too many people around, but it wasn’t isolated either—in comparison to Reina’s two extremes, it was probably somewhere in the middle.

It was getting cold enough that she and Reina practiced outside as little as they could, staying at school as much as possible, and as a result the intensity of their practicing died down in general. The fact she was now sitting on the bench in question playing, and alone at that, was kind of a rarity. Honestly, it was…hard to feel particularly guilty about that, given what she was practicing. The performances they were preparing for now—mostly school assemblies and community events—just felt…much less serious. Much less meaningful. She did have to admit, it could be…a bit difficult to focus, when practicing something they wouldn’t be playing in a competition.

Reina, as per usual, was her conscious in the matter, and often reminded her that one really shouldn’t truly learn to win, but should learn to simply become better…and ideally win along the way. It made sense—Reina had a passion for playing music and a passion for trumpet. Kumiko…didn’t have a passion for euphonium, per se—although she had grown to love it, but it was more like she was attracted to passion itself. She thought that she could probably be happy doing just about anything, as long as the endeavor seemed truly worthwhile. Maybe if her sister hadn’t been into music at the right moment, Kumiko would have been off somewhere else right then, practicing her painting or near-exhausted at some sports meet.

…Either way, she didn’t find the distinction to be much worth worrying about, or particularly worth mentioning. She imagined that Reina, at least, likely knew that about her already. She’d found where she belonged, at least for the moment, and if it felt right that was enough for her. She wished that everyone understood that in the same way, and indulged herself in the slightly-selfish notion that the world would be a better place if they did.

…Lost in that thought while taking a break, staring out at the river with her euphonium in her hands, she suddenly felt someone tap her shoulder and nearly fell off the bench in surprise.

“I knew it, Oumae-chan in the wild! Your sound is imprinted on my ears, so I knew it was you!”

Ah, it was Asuka-senpai.
“Ah, Asuka-senpai.”

This was kind of a weird place to see her…she was carrying some paper bags, so maybe she’d been shopping. Somehow, Kumiko didn’t quite want to give her the pleasure of asking. But…it wasn’t bad to see her again.

“What’s with that look on your face?” Asuka asked, “You’re always so ominous!”

“Eh? This is just my face.”

“That’s the problem, isn’t it? Relax a little, you’re a bass for a reason! Or…wait…are you?!” Asuka exclaimed with exaggerated shock.

Kumiko had absolutely no idea what that meant, but Asuka probably wasn’t insulting her.
“…You’re certainly still you, senpai.”

“Of course I am. Who else could I be?”
Asuka smiled gently.
“How are you doing?”

“…Fine, I guess. What about you, senpai?”

“Me?”

“How are you…feeling about graduation?”

“…Oh, that. Hmmm……excited! I think? It’s true that high school can pass by just like that,” Asuka snapped her fingers so loudly Kumiko could’ve sworn it sent ripples across the water. “But…I kind of feel like I’ve been here forever?”

Kumiko listened with curious captivation. There was something about Asuka that she could never ever look away from.
“…I don’t get it, but I get it,” She said.

“That’s Oumae-chan for you.”

Then again, Asuka could also be unbearably facetious.

“…Do you ever feel that way?” Asuka suddenly asked, her tone losing some of its typical humor. “Like…an instrument, playing the same thing, again and again? And again…”

“…What do you mean?”

Asuka slowly took off her red-framed glasses, and in doing so her face became that of a stranger’s. She wiped the lenses with the bottom of her coat.
“It’s never like you want,” She said softly. “Trying to live in a place like this. It rots, you know? You’ll rot too. Like this,”

Asuka dropped her glasses on the ground and grabbed Kumiko’s arm, quickly rolling up the sleeve.

Kumiko gazed in growing confusion as she did, at the place where the thin flesh of her wrist began to give way, intertwined in many meaty strands with a mess of golden brass tubes, the endless body of some awful unknown instrument rising up from the place her skin should be. Asuka kept pulling until Kumiko could see only her many veins pumping with thick blood under the jutting keys and valves that seemed to run up to her torso.

Below them, the river had risen far enough to begin washing away its bank. Thousands of sakura petals drifted placidly along the surface as it drew the land in, pulling things, places, perhaps even people downstream toward the ocean, where they would turn to clouds, fall back into Biwa-ko and begin the cycle again. It was natural. Reina’s still body, her hair flowing out in intricate patterns, her skin clear and pale and blue and logged with water, floated past them.

Kumiko began to whimper, and the sound that came from her throat was a concert B-flat.

 

~

 

She was startled awake shaking—a cold sweat sticking to her skin—and it took her some time to calm down. When she clumsily sat up in bed and gazed at her phone, she groaned.

 

Reina
5:48AM
Where are you?

 

Slightly apprehensive, she typed back—

 

5:53AM
(O_O)...I overslept...( ·ᴗ·̥̥̥ )

 

The response was no less punctual than Kumiko expected.

 

Reina
5:54AM
I’ll wait for you at the station, so hurry up.

 

She let the last residual tremble out of her breath, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and did as she was told.

 

~

 

“Aaa-ah…” Kumiko sighed one evening in early February, as she stared at the sheet music for Crescent Moon Dance. It’d been a while now since she’d seen it, but the band was planning a performance for the third-years around graduation, and it simply wouldn’t do to be rusty. …But, playing this piece… “It’s kinda hard to look at this again…” She muttered.

The reason for her dejection went unspoken, but Midori started in anyway, “That’s no good, Kumiko-chan. This feeling is proof of our struggle!” She enthusiastically lectured from across the table through mouthfuls of citrus tart, one hand balled up in a triumphant fist and a fork in the other, “One must face the troubles of the past to succeed in the future!”

“Ahh, is that how it is?” Kumiko answered absent-mindedly. The music—covered in notes and scribbles made by bandmates—was sort of like a car crash, or some similar disaster—tragic, but quite difficult to look away from. As happy as she was for Hazuki—who would finally be performing the piece and was sitting next to Midori staring at her own music in half-fearful excitement—the whole thing was making her sort of nauseous, so she stowed the music back in her bag and decided to focus intently on the menu in front of her despite having already ordered and subsequently finished her own dessert.

They sat in the small seating area of a confectionary cafe not far from Keihan Uji station, and she couldn’t help wondering would they think less of her if she ordered seconds? Lately, she’d been starving by dinner time. Maybe it had something to do with the cold. No, without a doubt, that had to be it.

Lazily scanning the menu, she allowed the internal debate to take over her mind. At least it was preferable to thinking about—

...Ahh, there it was again. Why did her mind have to be like this, anyway? When she was younger, her sister had sometimes brought her to shops like this as well—there was no feeling quite like watching the server walk away and realizing what you really truly wanted was precisely the thing you’d just decided not to order. It was a small, palpable regret that sucked a modicum of joy out of everything that came afterword, for a time. Only, that regret had occurred months ago now and near-whenever she thought about music all she could see was…Asuka-senpai’s face. Practically all she did was think about music, for god’s sake!

What did it really matter if they got gold next year, anyway? It was that same thought, every time. And there were so many times. She was no longer the person that she’d been when she asked Reina that awful question at the prefectural competition in middle school, but that wasn’t strictly because of her own…ambition, or anything. She never would have experienced the all-encompassing feeling of giving literally everything she had on a single decisive stage without everyone else, and in the same way, she never would have cared so much about the result without them, either. She did want to win…she’d wanted to then, so badly, and she still did, but...but it wouldn’t mean anything doing it alone, and…

She couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud, but, when she thought about…everyone…really, it was very much to her like they’d all already fai—

“Kumiko.”

—Distracted from that repetitive train of thought, she turned to her side to look at Reina, who gently pushed her plate of half-eaten strawberry-chocolate cake in Kumiko’s direction.

“Here, I can’t finish,” She said.
She said, as if it meant nothing at all.

“……Reina,” Kumiko breathily choked out, utter adoration clear as day in her voice. She spent a moment searching for a response that seemed adequately significant, but found that the words needed may not yet have been invented. Instead, she simply picked up her fork and bit in. Luckily, Reina seemed pleased enough.

“Ooo-ooh, ii ne! Ne?” Hazuki exclaimed at the sight, shaking Midori with one hand. “Ne, Midori-chaaaaaan~?” She cooed, grabbing her fork and beginning to stab at the plate beside her.

“N-no, no, Hazuki-ch—hey, hey! Stop! I’m not—“ Midori swung her arms out wide and attempted to block the aggressor with her elbow.

As a battle of wills broke out on the other side of the table, Kumiko gave Reina a thankful smile, took another bite, and tried her very best to savor the moment.

 

~

 

Several days later, she lost Reina at a supermarket in Kyoto City. It was near Midori’s place, who—evidently—intended to cook for them. As Kumiko watched the fascinating process that was Midori and Hazuki deciding which ingredients to throw into the cart, she began to have her doubts. She began to have serious doubts, indeed—but she managed to pull herself away in time to find Reina transfixed in front of a display at the end of a snack aisle. On it were various boxes adorned with colorful ribbons containing assorted chocolates, fancy paper, and decorative craft supplies presumably for creating one’s own card. Valentine’s day was only a few days away, after all.

Kumiko slowly inched over, walking side-ways, until she was directly behind the other girl.
“Thinking about Taki-sensei?”

Reina jumped and her hair fluttered around her face. She sighed.
“Sneaking up on me...”

“There’s no sneaking necessary if you’re that out of it.”
Kumiko grinned and elbowed her lightly.

“…I’m just looking.”

“Hontou ni?”
Kumiko walked over and picked up a small bag of heart-shaped chocolates, examining the different options. It was true that store-bought chocolates didn’t strike her as a particularly…Reina-like thing to do.

She turned back.
“Making your own, then?”

“I don’t know even know how,” Reina declared sort of dismissively, “I have no intention of adding a box to the pile anyway.”

…That was kind of a depressing way of looking at it, but it was true—Kumiko realized—that Taki-sensei would probably have no shortage of candy over the next few days. Reina stated her disinterest defiantly, but Kumiko had to imagine that the knowledge was…painful, for her. Even if just a little.
“…Ah. Well, I know how.”

“You…know how to make chocolate?”

“Nn. I used to help my mom make them for my dad. …Though he always ate it all, so I couldn’t tell you how it tasted.” She laughed to herself. In seriousness, she was…pretty confident she could make something at least presentable.

“……Hm,” Reina acknowledged simply, and slowly brushed some hair behind her ear.

“Reina…who cares how many girls give him chocolate? It’s what you want to do that counts, right?”

“……You think?”

Kumiko couldn’t stop herself from giggling a little at that.
“Aren’t you the one who’s always saying that?”

“…There’s nothing especially thoughtful about gifting chocolates on Valentine's day.”

“No, there isn’t—but you want to do it anyway, right? So I’ll help you.”

Reina blew air out of her nose like she was displeased, but Kumiko could tell she wasn’t.
“You’re insistent.”

“That’s just because you looked so lost. I can’t leave you alone.”

The corners of Reina’s mouth ever-so-slightly curved upwards.
“…Alright.”

 

~

 

That was how they ended up spending the next two evenings in Kumiko’s kitchen baking chocolate. The whole process was a learning experience in more ways than Kumiko ever expected, and her mother insisted on asking not one or twice but several times who they were making them for. It seemed to be much more anxiety-inducing for Kumiko than it was at all for Reina, who nonchalantly brushed off the question like she was making them for her grandpa or something rather than a teacher she apparently loved. The disparity was a bit annoying in and of itself.

When they were well and truly done, and many handfuls of chocolate were collected in small transparent bags sealed with colorful ribbons and adorned with decorative pins and stickers of mostly musical notation, Kumiko threw open the door to her room with Reina in tow and fell face-first onto her bed. She didn’t regret offering to help, but man—she was tired.

Her face half-buried in her comforter, she managed to look back and see Reina standing near the doorway gazing curiously at the items on her desk. Reina probably…hadn’t been there since Kumiko had gotten sick several months earlier.

“Tsukaretaaa~” She groaned with exaggerated weakness. “…You should be grateful.”

She pushed her head back down and allowed herself to relax a little. What she did not expect was to feel Reina collapse on top of her, her arms wide—apparently attempting to embrace the entire bed.
“Arigatou,” Was all she said.

Kumiko laughed at the sensation.
“Don’t mention it.”

Reina rolled over onto her side, then her back, and took a deep breath, her hair spilling out into many winding strands across Kumiko’s pillow. They stayed like that for a few silent moments, and without moving Kumiko watched the raven black tendrils intently. They were familiar, kind of nostalgic—they reminded her of something she could not exactly remember.

Eventually, Reina stood up and walked a few paces over to the shelf on top of Kumiko’s desk, picking up a photo that had been lying in a loose pile of prints next to her textbooks.

Kumiko had no idea how Reina had spotted it from so far away, but she was certain that she had—it was like the very second she entered the room, it had called to her. Why Kumiko had left it out was a completely different question. She…would probably have been more worried if she wasn’t feeling so tired—or, at the moment, so particularly trusting.

It was the photo taken by their middle school band celebrating the ‘dud gold’ they’d received at the Kyoto preliminaries. Up until a few weeks ago, it had been stored in a closet with an assortment of other things from the previous school year, but for some reason Kumiko had dug it out to look at it.

Reina was holding the flimsy thing between her thumb and forefinger, examining it closely. Back then they’d barely known each other, and this photo was taken maybe a half-hour after Kumiko had made light of Reina’s very real sadness. It went without saying that…Reina did not look particularly happy in it. She looked—in fact—devastated, in the purest sense, and seeing it made Kumiko’s chest physically hurt. So why did she want to look at it?

“...I’m not sure why I still have that,” Kumiko said, feeling after a while like she should say something. “It’s kind of a sad memory.”

Reina never looked away from the photo.
“Nn. But…without this, we wouldn’t be friends. Even though it took a while. I hope you keep it.”

Kumiko blew into her pillow, amused.
“So mushy.”

Reina placed the photo back and lowered her head, but her violet eyes fixed on Kumiko so thoroughly they may well have been seeing her soul, and a sly grin appeared below them.
“It was also the day I found out what kind of person you really were. It was bound to be traumatic.”

Kumiko gazed back with what she could only hope was a similarly knowing expression, laughed under her breath, and let her head loll back so she was staring up at her ceiling.
“Come lay down.”

It was a few moments before Reina complied—if she had any complaints, she didn’t voice them. Kumiko watched her settle down out of the corner of her eye, felt it with one side of her body.

Reina was always moving, and if she wasn’t moving she was at least standing.
“Sometimes,” Kumiko mused quietly, “I wonder how you’re not exhausted.”

The bed was barely big enough for the two of them to lay side by side. Reina’s shoulder rested on her own, and she felt the rhythmic movement of her breath.
“I go to bed.”

“…That’s all? I’m not sure I can believe it.”

“I…like to take a long bath.”

Now that was something that added up a bit more.
“That’s not really what I meant…but I believe it.”

Reina stretched her arms out, let them fall back, and closed her eyes.
“I don’t think you can worry too much about being tired if you want to get anything done.”

What a good kid. She’d whittle herself away to nothing for the right reason, wouldn’t she? Kumiko hated that as much as she liked it, somehow.

“But,” Reina said, “This is nice too…”

Kumiko shut her eyes as well, and breathed out until there was not a single bit of air left inside her.
“Nn.”

Faintly, in the distance, was the sound of her father watching TV, but other than that, for a long time, there was only quiet. They laid there for a while, and then a longer while, until Kumiko entered that place right between waking and sleep, almost losing herself to it. Unconsciously she collected the moment and stored it somewhere, because this was the kind that felt like a world of its own.

“You know,” Reina said, what felt like days later but must have been mere minutes, “I’ve never had someone like you before.”

The words were untainted with anything but sincerity. They were so very unguarded that to offer anything but the same in return would be some sort of sacrilege, Kumiko was sure. If she thought about it, she’d had many friends. In some strange way she still couldn’t exactly grasp herself, people liked her, or ended up liking her. Because of that, there were a lot of friends she remembered—but she also kept it contact with almost none of them. What was left in her mind were interactions, the left-over impressions from conversations or ideas—the concept of those people and what they’d done together. She’d be lying if she said she didn’t wonder how real any of that was. It just felt that way. There was also Hazuki and Midori, who...she felt a kind of innate connection with, maybe because they were all in something together—had entered a turning point in life at the same time. She could even admit that it was similar with Shuuichi. But, Reina...it wasn’t the same, in that...it was different. It was different, and it was different even if it wasn’t different—it made no sense, but she knew it was true because at the moment Reina was lying half-way on top of her pinning her in place and she had absolutely no desire to be free. It was comfortable, sure, but lots of things were comfortable. This was, like…...safe.

“…It’s the same for me,” She said, and thought that Reina must already know that—but she said it anyway.

“Kumiko.”

“Hm?”

“I’m really glad you couldn’t leave me alone.”

Kumiko smiled to herself.
“You’re very welcome.”

 

~

 

After seeing Reina off at her apartment’s entryway, taking a bath and brushing her teeth, Kumiko sat back on her bed and stared at the bags of chocolate left on her windowsill. Reina had insisted she keep a few, and they had certainly made enough—doubly so if she included yesterday’s, uh…’practice’ batch—but...it wasn’t like she had anyone she would give them to. As it was, she’d just be eating a bunch of chocolate when the sad truth of it was they’d both already eaten plenty. Maybe she would give a bag to her father like she used to, if only so he might seem happy for a day. Or a few hours.

She couldn’t help but wonder…how Reina really felt. It was hard to imagine her walking up and handing one of those bags to Taki-sensei, when she had no idea how he’d react. Then again, it was hard to imagine her screaming ‘suki desu!’ into a room full of hundreds of people, and she’d done that. Maybe Kumiko just didn’t have a very good imagination.

As she watched the bags of chocolate sitting there, inanimate, it began to feel like they were mocking her. Spelling out quite clearly her own immaturity. Or…simple-mindedness. She wondered…if Asuka-senpai had anyone she wanted to give chocolates to. Come to think of it, she wondered if Asuka-senpai would get chocolates from anyone. Did she even care about that kind of thing? Did she even care about anything but music?

…It didn’t seem so. It didn’t seem so at all. If Asuka could be the person she was, and not care about any of that, then maybe Kumiko’s problem wasn’t simple-mindedness at all. Or immaturity, either. Maybe she just didn’t trust herself enough. Hadn’t Reina said something like that? Maybe what she should really do was take one of those bags and give it to Asuka-senpai herself.

…Yeah. As if.

 

~

 

On the fourteenth, Reina went to school even earlier than usual—there was a limit to what Kumiko was capable of, so she hadn’t been there herself, but Reina told her later that she did drop the chocolates off in Taki-sensei’s mailbox. However, she decided not to put her name anywhere. Kumiko...couldn’t say she understood it, but...Reina seemed satisfied, and she was sure of one thing—Reina’s chocolates were without a doubt the first ones Taki-sensei received that day.

 

~

 

“I heard from Natsuki-senpai that Asuka-senpai got accepted by a school in Tokyo,” Kumiko said while they took a short break from post-sectionals practice one day in the week before March. Not because she thought Reina would be all that interested—more because she just had to say it.

“…Still worried about her?”

That struck Kumiko as a slightly odd question—she wasn’t worried in any particular way.
“Mm, not worried…I just thought…that that sounded like Asuka-senpai.”

“…Yeah. I guess her mother had nothing to worry about, after all.”

“Nn…”

She…did wonder, though. It wasn’t…it wasn’t worry, it was…just a fair question, wasn’t it? If someone like Asuka-senpai could really truly be okay with…this sort of outcome. But then, it wasn’t really about a career path or the result of a single high school band competition, was it? It was the simple principle of the thing. People always had to move on, and in the end, didn’t people always have to change? It didn’t much matter whether they wanted to or not. Maybe Asuka-senpai would be perfectly happy to study whatever path it was she was going to Tokyo for. Maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe it didn’t matter.

“Hey, Reina…”

“Nani?”

“…What are you going to do, when you can’t be in Taki-sensei’s band anymore?”

“Then I’ll go somewhere where I have to become even better.”

Reina said so almost as soon as Kumiko had asked. Kumiko hadn’t expected a different answer, either. Of course she hadn’t—but Reina answered…so very quickly. Wasn’t there…

…something about that,
too,
which was unfair?

Under Kumiko’s feet there was the dirt of the schoolyard, and pressed against her shoulder blades was the hard back of a classroom chair. In her hands was the smooth brass of her euphonium, and on her face was the lukewarm light of the winter sun.

It occurred to her in a tangible way that some day soon she may never be back in that exact spot ever again, regardless of how she felt about it. That was the way it was. There wasn’t a single person who wouldn’t move on eventually. Reina stood next to her chair, cleaning her trumpet, dressed in uniform and waiting to hear whatever Kumiko would say. It was like that every single day.

“…That sounds like you, too,” Kumiko answered.

She began to understand how even a winter sunset could be precious.

 

~

 

Playing Crescent Moon Dance one final time for the third-years was not really what she expected. She thought she’d be…sad, maybe, or at least that there would be a sense of closure. Finality. Instead, in the middle of it all she was filled with only a terrible sense of complacency. Her thoughts drifted for some unfortunate reason to Asuka’s mother, and once there they became bitter and pessimistic. She found herself becoming fixated on the concept of an adult, but not simply as a fully grown human being. More as…a person that was so concerned with learning from their own experiences, they were almost incapable of considering anyone else’s.

It may not have been a fair judgement, but that was the image her mind conjured up. The thought came to her with some amount of fear that every single person may be destined to become that way eventually. She thought right then that she’d rather die, and by the time the party finally came to an end she’d begun to want nothing more than to say as much to Asuka-senpai. Or…something to that effect, anyway. Much more to the point, that even though she could do nothing about it, Kumiko…wished things were different. That was all. There was no practical reason for it, and it wouldn’t change anything, but…she wanted to tell Asuka-senpai. She simply did. She…had to admit that much. To herself.

 

 

It occurred to her that as spring went, this was a lackluster one.

Reina watched snow begin to fall outside from a window near the music room in silent disappointment. On the other side of the school, the third-years’ graduation ceremony was wrapping up. This was the part of the year when various ceremonies started popping up all over the calendar—it ended up consuming a lot of time, but at least it gave them some places to play. Fortunately, it’d been decided that they would have practice today after all, but Kumiko probably didn’t know yet, so at the moment Reina was searching for her.

Kumiko was still having a hard time with the third years’ graduation—that was clear enough to see. Reina couldn’t exactly blame her—the result of nationals had been bitter, and it hadn’t been a pleasant way to effectively end that many relationships. She personally…wished they would’ve been able to prove that they were the best. She knew, deep down, that they could—she believed in their ability, and she believed in their intent. Most of all, she believed in Taki-sensei, and if he truly thought that they could do it then to her it was a certainty. The only remaining factor was a matter of execution—translating knowledge and thought to precise, deliberate movement. Daunting in its simplicity, but not at all beyond the realm of possibility—or the capability of Taki-sensei’s band.

Seeing the third-years forced to accept the outcome they had…was frightening in its own way, but dwelling on that wouldn’t help the rest of them avoid the same fate in the future. In the end there was nothing to regret, because they’d hadn’t held back. The results were only a message—good, but not good enough. She intended to take that message and return it thoroughly to its sender, in the process hopefully proving to Taki-sensei that she was capable of such an act.

She was sure Kumiko wanted the same—she just wore her feelings on her sleeve at times like these, and the transition was a little overwhelming for her. Reina had been surprised at first that Kumiko seemed to miss the third-years so fervently, but she quickly began to understand that it was almost more empathetic than it was personal. Kumiko could be so sensitive to what others must be feeling that she nearly lost sight of her own perspective completely—it was one of her best traits, and Reina wholeheartedly admired it, even if she herself wasn’t capable of anything similar.

Of course, Kumiko’s perspective tended to make itself known when it mattered, and Reina admired that too. There was actually very little she didn’t admire about Kumiko, which in her estimation had always meant that she had a responsibility to treat their friendship with care. They may have constructed it upwards from a strange foundation, but she’d grown to find the space inside its walls to be nothing less than hallowed—within, there was a comfortable warmth, a soft light, and a perfect reverberation of sound. It had started to feel like home, and that was not something she was capable of taking for granted.

On a day-to-day basis that sometimes meant looking out for the walking corpse that was Kumiko in the early mornings, or making sure she didn’t completely miss a club meeting in the afternoon. So, there Reina was.

Her search brought her from the practice building back around to Kumiko’s classroom. As she passed by, she glanced for a second time into the courtyard where graduates were still gathered in groups exchanging goodbyes with teachers and their underclassman. Kumiko wasn’t there, or in her classroom. It wasn’t until Reina made her way down to the main entryway that she finally spotted her, standing outside near the steps that lead up to the school building.

“…There’s something I wanted to tell you.”

Reina heard what was unmistakably Kumiko’s voice carried in through an outer door that was propped open as she passed by the shoe lockers. She’d intended to walk right out, but as she recognized the person standing in front of Kumiko with her back turned to Reina, she instead stopped short and stood partially behind an outer door frame.

“You were looking for me?” Tanaka Asuka said.

Reina did not dare walk out at this moment—this was important to Kumiko, she’d been waiting for it for some time now. Beyond being one of their most talented senpai, Asuka had become meaningful to Kumiko in a way Reina didn’t fully grasp. She wasn’t sure Kumiko fully understood it either, but many of their recent conversations had something or other to do with Asuka or her graduation, and Kumiko was not pleased with the way things were in the least.

“Nani nani? Don’t tell me it’s—relationship advice?”

“That’s right.”

Reina turned away from the two and leaned against the doorway, but couldn’t force herself to walk away either. It probably had something to do with the kind of person Tanaka Asuka was—Reina had never been able to fully discern her personality and she suspected the older girl preferred it that way. It was hard to know exactly what she would do or say in any given situation, and this being such a delicate one, Reina……well, she was apparently too concerned for Kumiko to stop listening.

At the moment, Kumiko seemed to be venting. Reina remembered the frustrations of which she spoke—she couldn’t herself agree fully, but she understood. She may not have been a part of the bass section—and as a result hadn’t ever spent much time with her—but Asuka’s sphere of influence was undeniable. Reina had always respected Asuka-senpai just as much as she deserved, which said something, but probably not much more than that.

Asuka laughed.
That’s what you wanted to say?”

“You think it’s funny?”

“Of course—I mean, I’ve always known that.”

“You don’t know at all!

There was a pained sound in Kumiko’s voice—it hurt just as much to hear it. Reina clenched her jaw.

“Because now, I…love you. You never show your true feelings, Asuka-senpai—it always felt like you were looking down on everyone. You’d even say that you didn’t care about your own friends! But…but now, I’m lonely. I want to hear you play again. I want to play like you!”

“…So that’s what you wanted to say?”

Reina’s mouth hung slightly open and she sucked through it a shuddering breath.

The words coming out of Kumiko’s mouth didn’t sound like her. They...made her think of...Taki-sensei, of the things she...wished she could say so plainly, hoped she could get across eventually, it was—

“I don’t want to say goodbye!” Kumiko yelled.

The declaration passed through Reina and took something with it. A simple foundational understanding removed. Asuka replied faintly but Reina couldn’t quite process it. When she was a child, she’d never fit in, but she did not let that consume her. There was a plethora of meaning in the world and living as the person you were was worth it even if you couldn’t reach that meaning as easily as others. She’d always, always believed that. People could not necessarily choose what they valued but if they respected themselves they absolutely could not give up on the things they did. It was a guiding mantra. It brought her first to music, then to Taki-sensei, and finally to high school. Whether her goals were easily achieved or not was of no consequence to her.

…Wasn’t any belonging that resulted a reward for that?

At home in her desk drawer was a carefully selected pad of stationery which she’d put back in its place because after all, Kumiko was right. One could even live in the pursuit so long as they were satisfied with what they’d chosen to believe in, and on some level she’d accepted that as far back as the third grade, even if it wasn’t always easy to remember. Even if wasn’t always easy to practice.

So why, right then, did she feel like an idiot for thinking something like that?

Kumiko made things that were difficult simple by unwittingly forcing them into the light. She did it because she literally could not resist. Reina admired that the most.

…But had she actually understood it at all?

Asuka said “See you later”, and Kumiko managed a “Hai”, but Reina realized it had been a long time since then. Kumiko was standing there now, but knowing her, she wouldn’t stand there forever. There really wasn’t time, so Reina took the explosion of restless unease within her and pushed it down into the dark, but she thought then that she could not leave it there for long, because there was no telling if the world would wait for her. It was spring now—or it was supposed to be, if the snow was any indication—and Tanaka Asuka would not walk these halls again. Taki-sensei had once been content to stay away from them forever, and there was always the possibility that day would return. She’d always known that, and she’d never much cared—devotion meant following through no matter where it took you. In Kumiko’s own confession was, distilled, a message—it wasn’t always possible to follow through forever. Isn’t that what Kumiko had been worried about all this time? Maybe being comfortable with the pursuit was just as dangerous a luxury.

If…Reina was left behind, then…what would she have left?

For the moment, she walked outside, stripped any anxiety from her voice, and shouted,
“Kumiko!”

 

 

Kumiko slept more soundly that night than she had in a long time.

 

~

 

Hazuki’s head dropped like a rock onto the surface of a desk in the now-empty classroom used by the bass section. She’d just been singled out by Taki-sensei for an intense lecture on the piece they were practicing for the closing ceremony at the end of the month, and Kumiko understood her pain. Frankly, it was a fear each and every one of them lived with every day.

As Midori delicately applied her soothing voice to the wound, Natsuki-senpai turned to Kumiko and said,
“I heard Asuka-senpai left on Friday without saying goodbye to anyone.”

…Technically, that was true, though not in the way Natsuki meant. Kumiko didn’t really want to correct her, so she just nodded and said “Nn” quietly.

Natsuki sighed.
“Totally disappearing right when everyone wants to see her...that’s way too like her.”

Kumiko had decided after the fact that no matter what she did or what she said, Asuka-senpai would have left. There was no changing that—she’d known it all along, but she hadn’t decided it was true until just then. She also knew then that watching Asuka leave was never going to be easy. She still felt like crying when she thought about it. But, she also felt lighter than she had in months—what she’d had to say was some kind of burden, and getting it out felt right. Maybe in doing so she’d just pushed the burden of her own dissatisfaction onto Asuka, or maybe it hadn’t had any effect at all—but she knew she never really would’ve been able to forgive herself if she let Asuka walk away without saying anything at all. At the very least, for a moment, they’d understood each other—the notebook now stowed away in a safe place on one of the shelves in her bedroom was proof enough of that.

“What’s with that tone?!” Hazuki exclaimed from far enough away that Kumiko could ignore it and not get involved, “I’m not some little kid, you know!”

Natsuki leaned close to Kumiko conspiratorially and whispered,
“Well, now that she’s really gone...when we get some new members, let’s try not to harass them so much.”

...
That was not what Kumiko had expected to hear at all, so the laugh that burst out of her mouth was followed by a loud snort.

Hazuki went silent mid-sentence and glared at her from across the room.

“Uh, wait no, that was—Natsuki-senp—that was a joke, hey, hey, you’ve got the wrong idea!”

Natsuki just grinned to herself, apparently content, and Kumiko had to wonder just what the coming year was possibly going to be like.

 

~

 

It was usually around the time sectionals were wrapping up that Reina appeared out of nowhere to take Kumiko off to one of their usual spots to practice together, but today she was late. She was usually so punctual with the routine that Kumiko could put it out of her mind completely and things would still continue on exactly as they should. Today, she noticed the absence. Official band activities continued to feel more and more extraneous as the school-year came to an end and the anticipation of new members and a new competition season mounted—Kumiko believed that Taki-sensei felt similarly, as they had more scheduled “off” days than usual and he wasn’t personally instructing them as much as he had been in prior months. Perhaps he was hoping some laid-back time now would buy him some leeway with the school administration when it came to the grueling days that would surely be necessary soon. Whatever the reasoning, they’d had no practice on Saturday, Kumiko had been busy visiting her grandparents on Sunday, and that morning Reina had decided not to go in to school early in order to see her mom off on some work trip. To put it simply...she hadn’t really gotten to see Reina in a little while, so she’d been looking forward to it.

If Reina was busy, she was fine going home with Hazuki and Midori, but it was relatively odd for her to break routine without notice, so Kumiko ended up walking around and checking their usual spots. When she had no luck, she went back toward the music room and loitered around until she spotted Yuuko-senpai and some other trumpets entering the storeroom—but Reina wasn’t with them either. She was always a bit trepidatious approaching Yuuko for basically any reason, but she’d actually been making an effort to break that habit lately—or, thinking about making an effort to break that habit, at least. Yuuko was the club president now, after all.

“Senpai,” She said as she followed them and approached way-too-casually, “Have you seen Reina? I’m looking for her...”

Yuuko looked at her curiously and then glanced back at one of the girls beside her—Kabe-senpai—before answering.
“Ah, you didn’t know? I think she went home early.”

“I don’t think she was feeling well…” Kabe-senpai added.

…Really? It surprised Kumiko to hear that—they hadn’t been able to talk much but Reina had seemed fine earlier before the band met…
“Ah—I see…”

Yuuko stood on her tip-toes, straining to place a cleaning kit back on a high shelf, and said,
“It’s possible that one’s human after all.”

“…Hah…”
Kumiko let out a general “thanks” and went back out into the hall.

Yuuko-senpai…was right in a sense, though. Kumiko…couldn’t remember a time when Reina left practice early, so it was weird. She pulled out her phone.

 

5:36PM
Are you sick? Yuuko-senpai said you went home early

 

She waited a little bit for a response, but none came, so she put her phone back, kind of confused, and made her way back to Hazuki and Midori who were already by the shoe lockers. On the way, she went back for her euph in the empty classroom and decided to leave it in the storeroom—whatever the case, it didn’t seem Reina was around and Kumiko wasn’t the type to stay and practice by herself.

Midori’s head tilted to one side.
“No Reina-chan?”

“She left early…or so Yuuko-senpai says. I guess she was feeling sick…”

“Oh no. Kawaisou…”

Hazuki dropped her shoes onto the ground with a loud clack.
“Maybe…we should get her something?”

“Mmm, good idea!” Midori replied, enthusiastic. “A sickness that could take out Reina-chan…now that’s something scary…”

It really wasn’t a bad idea—that sort of thing always made Kumiko feel better. Though if she’d really just gotten sick, she probably wouldn’t want to see anyone at the moment, so they’d want to wait until tomorrow at the earliest…

Kumiko kept glancing at her phone as they left school and started on the path toward the train station.

 

5:48PM
Hey, you should respond quickly at a time like this or I’ll get worried (꒪⌓꒪)

 

“….Hmm, really, yuzu flavor?” Hazuki was saying a while later, “I don’t see her as someone who would like—“

“Ah—“ Midiori interrupted, “—It’s Tsukamoto…”

They came around a corner and there he was, standing at a crosswalk not far ahead. Kumiko wasn’t exactly feeling in the mood for any of this.

He turned around at the commotion Midori was currently making and half-way raised a hand in greeting,
“Hey…”

The light turned just as they caught up, and Hazuki grabbed Midori’s arm and pulled her until they were walking a ways ahead, doing that annoying, completely conspicuous thing where they left her alone with Shuuichi but not so alone that they couldn’t leer from a distance. On the bright side it never seemed to faze him much, which was good because if it had fazed him it would’ve fazed her.

“Oh, right,” He said after a moment, unzipped his bag, and pulled something out. “Here. I’m supposed to give you this.”

Kumiko took it—it was a thick stack of small index cards attached to a key ring.
“…Hah?”

“For your mom.”

…Ah. Yeah, she did recognize it as he said so—her mom kept several of these little recipe books. She sighed and placed it in her own bag.
“They live that close, and still use us as messengers…”

Shuuichi nodded forward in Hazuki’s direction.
“That was kind of hard to listen to earlier…”

“Sh—shhhhh!” Kumiko shushed him with exasperation, “Don’t bring that up again, she’ll hear!

“Alright, alright, sorry—“

Kumiko watched closely, but it didn’t seem like either of them had heard him. She and Shuuichi walked on in silence for awhile. She understood he was making conversation, but couldn’t he pick anything better?

“…Is Kousaka okay?” He asked out of nowhere.

She confirmed once again there was nothing new on her phone—she was staring to wonder herself.
“Yeah, I think…”
But, wait...as casual as Shuuichi was all the time, how did he always know what was going on with everyone? Guys were bigger gossips than anyone ever acknowledged…
“Why, you’re concerned about her now?”

“Ah, well, I saw her leaving earlier and she looked upset, so...”

Upset?
“...Upset?”

“Nn. I was thinking...man, it must be something awful, like the band has no funding next year, or something...”

...What? No, that part was definitely impossible.
“Ehhh?”

“Yeah. Or—“ He spun around to look right at her, “Do you think—what if Taki-sensei got transferred? Yeah...” He said gravely, “That would do it, wouldn’t it...”

Aside from every other problem with that, sure, Reina would not be happy... But where was he even getting any of this?
“What are you even saying? It’s nothing like that, Reina only went home sick. I think.”

“Oh... Well...that’s not as bad as what I was thinking.”

Yeah, apparently.

“Though,” He muttered, like he was wondering aloud, “It definitely seemed like bad news, whatever Taki-sensei gave her.”

“...Gave her?”

“Nn. That’s what I mean, in the hall, before sectionals. That letter, or whatever it was.”

...Letter? Some sort of message from Taki-sensei? She hadn’t seen anything like that. Really though, for being such a gossip, Shuuichi wasn’t a particularly informative one.

They walked through the entryway into Rokujizo station and Kumiko considered what he was saying. It would be easier if Reina just texted her back, but... If there was some kind of truth to what Shuuichi was saying, she’d certainly be worried, and it was—

Wait, ‘letter’?

Letter...

Letter?

No, but...

First of all, there was—

Letter...

But she—Reina, when had she ever gone home early, that was—

That was—

An icy cold chill ran up along Kumiko’s spine and right into her brain. She literally stopped in her tracks and froze.

“...Eh—Kumiko?”
Shuuichi noticed and turned back after a few paces.
“Oi. Oi, Kumiko.”

His calls eventually got the attention of Hazuki and Midori, who stopped to look at her as well.

“...Daijobu?” He asked.

She felt like a deer in the headlights of a semi truck.
“A...A-ahhh, Nn, Nnnn, I’m—yeah. Fine, I—uh......I...have to go back. I forgot someth—Nn, I forgot something! I left, uh...something, so, I have to go back, so, don’t—don’t wait! See you tomorrow!”

“...K-Kumiko-chan? Hey, Kumiko-ch—!“

“No time! Mata ne!”

Kumiko shut off her auditory processing and walked out of the station, so stiff she may as well have been walking on stilts, and then she was outside, and once she’d been outside for awhile, well, then—then she started to run.

 

~

 

It was still cold enough to snow, and by the time she got back to the school building she was sweating. Kizaki-sensei of class 2-4 even yelled at her for running in the halls. She slowed-up some, but walked fast into the staff room calling,
“Taki-sensei—Taki-sensei!

She marched around the different teachers’ desks and tried to control her ragged breaths. The room was mercifully empty but for the person she sought.

“O-Oumae-san, are you alright?” He looked up from his desk, startled by her sudden entrance, and a set of headphones were pulled from his ears in the process.

“Sensei…Reina…recently, she—did she give you something?”

He stared at her blankly.
“Oumae-san…”

“She—she did, didn’t she? She…”
Kumiko…began to trail off, uncertain, because…he was still staring at her, and what if…oh god, what if she was completely wrong and now she—

“So you knew about that…”

Kumiko sucked in air sharply and gulped involuntarily.
“She…did.”

“…Ah, well, yes…”

“What…what did you tell her?”
She didn’t even know what she was saying, so carelessly, to a teacher—she couldn’t stop to think about it, couldn’t slow down right then even if she wanted to, the halls be damned.

“Oumae-san, I…don’t think I should talk about any specifics—“

“Sensei!” She was trying—really, really trying to fight it, but she was barely holding back tears now, “Sh—She went home, and she won’t answer me, and I…so you…you have to tell me. Please, you—please.”

Taki-sensei seemed to regard her panicked request with something like melancholic resignation. He deflated a little bit, as if he’d been puffing himself up to appear denser than he actually was, and adjusted his glasses on his face.
“You two…are quite close, aren’t you?”

Hai.”

He rapidly tapped his fingers against his desk, then ran a hand through his messy hair.
“To be honest, I’m not good at handling things like these. It’s just my impression, but...I think it would be best for her if no one else knew about this. Oumae-san…if I trust you with this, you can’t tell anyone else about it.”

“…H-Hai.”

He rolled his chair to one side and began rifling through a manilla envelope.
“Under no circumstances. If you’re friends, then…please don’t do anything that would upset her.”

Then he pulled out a crisp sheet of paper, and went to hand it to her—but stopped, placing it back on the desk, and folded it over in two halves. He pushed down and ran his finger along the crease, cementing the fold, and it felt like he was sealing something. When he turned back and finally held out his hand, she already knew what it meant.
“I’m trusting you,” He said.

She took it gingerly, and only halfway-unfolded it to glance at the contents. She did not have to read more than the first couple sentences to know for sure.

A small gasp escaped her all the same, but it wasn’t really of shock—it just hurt.
“I—I have to go, excuse me.”

“Go ahead.”

She hesitated—just for a second, like…there was something to say, but there wasn’t, nothing realistic, nothing responsible.

When she was nearly at the doorway. he called to her—
“Oumae-san.”

“…Sensei?”

“If you get the feeling you need someone’s help, please let me know.”

After a beat she affirmed that she would…but she had to wonder how she could possibly, possibly do something like that.

 

~

 

The last dredges of sunlight cast long shadows in the train car as it curved south toward Kowata, and Kumiko sat alone on the side of a bench seat. One of her ears seemed to be ringing and she couldn’t shake the feeling that the train was moving through syrup.

 

6:19PM
Reina, could you answer? are you at home?

 

So far Reina’s phone had rung several times, but there was no answer.

Kumiko would ride to Uji station, go to the main road but turn left instead of crossing the river, head up toward the houses across from that sweets shop they went to sometimes…but…she…uh…

Where the hell was Reina’s house exactly?!

She’d only walked by it with her a few times, but…damn…

It was close by, how did she—wasn’t this important information?!

She tried to calm down as she bounced her leg impatiently, reasoning that she’d have to figure it out when she got there…

If Reina wasn’t answering her phone, then most likely…most likely, she didn’t want to. So what Kumiko was doing…wasn’t polite, and it may not be welcome. She knew that much. But the problem, the real real problem was that Taki-sensei was right—Reina wouldn’t tell another soul about this. She was most likely...alone. Almost definitely, she was alone.

There was no way Kumiko could accept that.

She texted her mom and told her she wouldn’t be home for dinner, and she did not plan to pay attention to any objections. There was no time for that, and there was no time for the train to be moving so much slower than it always did. She nervously pulled on a curl of hair and hoped that would change the way time worked.

 

~

 

By what must have been the grace of a kind god, she only had to walk through a few blocks before she recognized it. Many of the houses in the area looked very similar, but Kumiko was able to confirm it thanks to the name-plate on the house’s front gate—she was in the right place. Also on the gate was an intercom with a buzzer, so she pressed it and waited for a while, and when no response came she pressed it again and waited for a longer while. After receiving no response the second time most anyone would have given up and come back another time, but how exactly was she supposed to give up and come back another time?

She opened the gate and walked up to the house, not because it felt like the right thing to do but because it felt like the only thing to do. She knocked, and after a period of time she knocked again, louder, and after that it was becoming clear that either no one was inside or only Reina was inside, and…ignoring it. She looked behind her and to the sides of the street—as if it made any difference whether anyone was there—and knocked again.

“Reina…” She said, thinking the voice that came out was going to be much louder

“…Reina!” She finally shouted, “Reina, are you there? It’s…it’s me. …Could I talk to you?”

“Please?”

“…R-Reina…” She trailed off. It was hard to yell in the middle of a neighborhood, and this…wasn’t working. Maybe…Reina really wasn’t in there…? But…

She sat on the small step leading up to the front door. If she gazed to the east and a little south, there was Mt. Daikichi, but it was hard to see in the fading light and over the tops of all the houses.

There…was no way, right?

But then…

Could she really sit there and wait?

Of course, Reina could be anywhere…

She—she even could be…

No, no.

Kumiko pulled out her phone and called again, but with very little hope.

She knew even before it went to voicemail that she definitely couldn’t just wait there.

Reina…after all that, she would’ve opened the door, if she was in there…

…Wouldn’t she have?

Mt. Daikichi was taunting her now. The flashes in her mind’s eye—the memory of Reina up there, playing trumpet into the void—made her uneasy. She was seriously, seriously considering hiking up there again, just on the chance

She was staring down at her phone looking at her messages hoping that would make one from Reina arrive…when it occurred to her. And…she just knew. So she grabbed her bag off the front doorstep of the Kousaka residence, tripped, stumbled, nearly face-planted straight onto the road, recovered, ran back to Keihan Uji station, boarded a train and disembarked at Obaku.

 

~

 

Kousaka-san,

Thank you for your letter. I appreciate you making things as clear as possible, and I apologize for not recognizing your intentions earlier. I’m incredibly flattered by what you had to say. You truly do not know how much your admiration means to me. I really mean that, Kousaka-san.

As far as your question, however, that isn’t something I can answer, for more reasons than I can count. I think, in some way, that you know that. Please don’t take this as if I’m disregarding the way you feel. I promise you that I considered every word you wrote, and if you chose to write them then I’ll believe they’re the truth. However, I think there’s also truth in the idea that when you’re young, you don’t always know exactly how you feel. You don’t necessarily know how what you seem to feel now will fit into the person you’ll become. I know that’s a frustrating thing to hear, but it’s something adults can’t help thinking. We think it because we know we had feelings we didn’t truly understand as well, when we were young. The thing adults don’t say is that, of course, we still have them. I don’t believe that people ever stop changing, Kousaka-san, and I don’t think a person can ever say for sure exactly who they are. The difference is that when you’re young, those changes happen very fast. So fast that to us looking back at you, you seem to be moving so fast that...we can barely keep up. It’s simple and amazing in its own way, and observing it is my favorite part of being a teacher. But, observing it is my job.

You and I are experiencing different parts of life, each with their own joys and challenges, and as grateful as I am to have assumed a position that grants me the privilege of witnessing yours, I can not (and do not wish to) reciprocate any of the feelings that you wrote about in your letter. I don’t intend to be harsh, Kousaka-san, I simply owe you as much clarity as you were considerate enough to afford me. It’s just what I think, but being any more vague would be unkind to you in the long run. Certainly, I have no intention of mentioning this to your mother or father (or anyone else), and while I don’t believe this is something we should discuss at school, I’d be happy to meet with you or give you my mail address if you have anything else you feel you need to say. Please understand, however, that my answer won’t change. On the other hand, if you decide not to bring this up again, you can expect the same from me.

I look forward to seeing you at school, and I hope you understand that there’s no need to feel embarrassed about this.

Taki Noboru

 

~

 

By the time Kumiko found her, the sunlight was gone and a light snow was falling from the darkened overcast above. West at Obaku, down the stretch of empty open road to a small break in the bush along the riverbank. Earlier Kumiko had been shouting, now as she approached she couldn’t bring herself to make a sound. Near her by the road was Reina’s bag, and further down the slope were Reina’s shoes. Reina’s back was further from her, and Reina’s legs were planted a ways into the water itself. She stood there, the water up past her knees, as Kumiko carefully, silently descended the bank. This close, there was a familiar smell—a musky, almost metallic humidity. In warm weather, it smelled like the memory of splashing around in a bathing suit as a child. Now in the cold, it just reminded her of the taste of blood.

“…Reina…” She softly called.

Movement. The girl in front of her jumped, a little—she was alive, wasn’t she?

Why didn’t she seem to be alive?

Her skirt swished as she moved, a wide arc on the water as she turned.

“…Kumiko…” She said.

Kumiko examined her face, in the dark—took it into her vision unabashedly. Without remorse. Without fear. Intruding on it. She may have been exercising some right she felt she’d earned—who was to say?

Reina’s eyes were empty, and they were still. Within them was something broken—this was Reina’s face, her arms, her legs and hands, those were her eyes, but—was this Reina the person? It was more like the outer shell of her, filled with a singular understanding, instead of a soul. Subsumed by it.

A narrow piece of the rising moon shone itself from behind a sea of blackened clouds, and there was altogether an eerie familiarity to the scene before her, like…she’d somehow known it was coming. Understood on her own some sort of inevitably.

As if…the more she’d grown to know Reina, the more she’d been able to see her—to see that her drive actually came from a certain sort of idealism, and her maturity was in truth a kind of…innocence. Reality, then, was destined to rear its head, one way or another.

Was it not?

…How long had Kumiko known that something was wrong, or…or would be wrong, and done nothing to help?

“Of course…you’d find me,” Reina said playfully—but it was not playful. Kumiko kept looking into her eyes, because they were the same as her words.

“…I know what happened.” She let the admission fall to the earth below her and tumble down into the water, because maybe that way Reina would hear it.

“…Sou…”

“I’ve been trying to call you, you know?”

“…Ah. Goumen.”

…What was—what was up with that? Why was she saying it like that? Kumiko didn’t like it, she didn’t…want to hear Reina say something like that. No, no, she didn’t.
“W-What’s with that? Don’t say you’re sorry.”

Reina looked away from her, and broke the contact Kumiko had with her eyes.
“…What should I say, then?”

What should she say? What should she say?
“Anything. Whatever you want.”

Reina leaned down a little and drew a finger against the water, as small flakes of snow disappeared on the surface. But…she didn’t say anything.

Kumiko was cold, but she was colder looking at what was in front of her. There was wet emotion welling up under her skin—behind her eyes, behind her nose, in her mouth.
Hidoi yo. No matter what. You’re…sad.”
Kumiko had no right to tell her what she felt, but she couldn’t stand there in the total falseness any longer.
“Taki-sensei…I don’t think he—“

“Didn’t you think it was stupid from the beginning?”

...At that, Kumiko’s heart sank down into her stomach. It too may have fallen to the ground and tumbled to the water.
“N-No. No. No, I just…didn’t know what to think. I thought that…you seemed so serious, but Tak—“ The name caught in her throat, “I—I’ve always…been worried. About you…because of that.”

“…Nn. That’s just like you.”

This wasn’t right. Why were they talking about this—this wasn’t right.
“Reina…could you come out of the water?”

Reina’s eyes met hers once again.
“It’s not like I’m lost—you don’t have to rescue me.”

What…did it matter? What did it matter? What the hell did it matter?
“Reina,” She whined, “Come out of the water!

“…It feels nice.”

“No it doesn’t! It’s freezing cold! You’re just saying that like you always do! I don’t want to hear that anymore!”

“No one told you to come here. Go home, if you want.”

“…Go…home? Home? …I can’t do that, Reina. That’s stupid! Of course I can’t do that! I need you! You get it, don’t you? I…everything’s different with you around, and there’s no way I could go back to how things were! Absolutely no way! I need you, so I can’t go home and I can’t leave you here!”
At the outburst, Reina’s head straightened and her body seemed to go rigid. Kumiko’s voice had risen to a near-scream, and the silence that followed was palpable. She waited, and rubbed at her quickly-filing tear ducts with her sleeve.

Eventually, Reina simply looked back into the water.

“AHH, MOU!” Kumiko stomped forward into the river, splashing cold water up in every direction as she did, quickly crossed the distance before her body could even react to what she’d done, and grabbed Reina by the back of her uniform.

“Wha—!” Was all Reina could say before she was hastily pulled backward.

There was nothing half-hearted about the action—Kumiko pulled with all the force available to her, but the added weight of both of their legs moving through the water combined with the incline up to the bank caused her to miscalculate a backward step—they were almost on dry land when the back of her shoe kicked hard into the slope and nearly lodged in wet mud. She felt the sudden panic in her chest of knowing that as much as she’d been the one to do it, whatever happened next was out of her control.

When she landed on her back—against the bank—it knocked all the wind out of her. She did not let go of Reina until far too late, and the other girl landed on top of her in a similar position—she could not contain a groan at the sensation of the simultaneous impacts.

“...There,” She coughed out. Blatantly uncool. Flagrantly stubborn.

Her legs were just barely above the river’s surface, and Reina—her head having landed against Kumiko’s chest—was shifting, turning over and inching upward. She felt Reina’s frozen skirt hang down and drag across her own, until arms were forcing their way under her shoulders, wrapping around, and Reina was holding onto her tightly.

Kumiko was still trying to catch her breath.

She didn’t know what to say, wasn’t sure if there was anything to be said. There was nothing comfortable about any of it, but the embrace brought her a physical relief. She lifted her own arms—mostly pinned under Reina’s—up at the elbow, and gently draped her hands on Reina’s back.

There was an amount of time before Reina started crying. The sound wasn’t particularly loud, and the cries weren’t particularly hard. She almost couldn’t hear it over the streaming water gently lapping against the land, but Kumiko didn’t believe Reina was holding back. She continued to weep quietly, and Kumiko could feel her squeezing, more and more, compressing them both.

Kumiko felt for the first time in a long while that despite any of the imperfect moments and actions that had come just before, and would surely come after, right then at that instant she was doing exactly what she was supposed to be.

Eventually Reina quieted until the both of them were lying their limp, breathing slowly. She shuddered and sat up, drawing her legs beneath her and bending her knees until she was straddling Kumiko’s waist. In her eyes now was what Kumiko had needed to see all along—the pure hurt, the shocked indignation. She recognized it, because it was the exact same face Reina had made a year and a half ago at qualifiers. This time, she understood its meaning.

Embarrassed,” Reina whispered, looking down at her.

Kumiko knew what that meant, too.

“Embarrassed, he said…embarrassed!” Reina shouted now, “‘Don’t be embarrassed’ is all he can say…” She mumbled through quick gulps of air, “I don’t get this. I don’t get it. I don’t get it, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be! All I wanted was for him to understand that I—“ A hiccup, nearly-drowned, “That I understand. …Why…why can’t he get that?”

...Why, she asked.

A gust of cool wind blew through the slight valley formed by the river and pushed Kumiko’s hair against her face so she could only see Reina with one eye.

And how could she answer?

That it was because Taki-sensei wasn’t Taki-sensei at all?

Because he was the idea of a feeling—he was something that was greater than everything else, because he did not compromise like other things did. Because he was the one that had given them all a choice—to coast through a year of high-school band, or to go to nationals and attempt to become the very best there was—when going to nationals was the real reason he had taken the job in the first place. That had not been a gamble that they would make the right choice in the end—it had been an act of absolute faith.

Taki-sensei was the knowledge that if one stood their ground firmly enough, built a foundation on which they would never move back, no matter how long it took, eventually, they would be able to move forward. Taki-sensei was the equation through which will became greatness, without question. To Reina, that was what he was. To Kumiko too, in some ways, and probably to others as well, but to Reina most of all—and he had probably been that for some time.

The only problem was that none of that was true.

In the end he was just a man, doing his best to accomplish the things he set out to. Doing his best to deal with the hand that life had dealt him. Somehow, Kumiko had grown to understand that over the past year. That was what he was, and he couldn’t be anything more. He was a part of the same world as everyone else, and he could not exist above it. Not for Reina, or anyone else.

…She looked at Reina’s face, scrunched up and red with tears, quivering slightly, and wondered how that could be her answer.

“…I don’t know,” Kumiko said instead. On her face, though, she was sure, was the truth, that of course she knew—and that Reina knew as well. That they would not be there—lying on the cold, mud-slicked riverbank—if she didn’t.

Reina sniffled.
“You’re a terrible liar.”

The words were grating to Kumiko’s ears—in a technical sense, it had been one, and as a rule she didn’t really lie to Reina. Not anymore. And she was fairly sure Reina didn’t lie to her, either. When it mattered.

“Then,” She said, long before her brain could completely catch her mouth, or her hands could shoot up to muffle the words in a futile attempt to conceal the truth, “Don’t ask me something you already know.”

For a moment there was only recognition in her eyes, the process of comprehending, but in the next Reina’s expression crumbled away to nothing, losing structure entirely. She lowered her head so her messy hair hung down and shadowed what was left, aiding the darkness that was gradually shrouding them both.

“...Do you think I’m an idiot?”

“I don’t. You’re probably the smartest person I know, you’re just so...determined, that...you’ll always hurt yourself eventually.”
The words spilled forth from her as if some arcane seal had been broken, truth begetting truth. It was, probably, not what Reina wanted—or perhaps even needed—to hear, but it was what Kumiko thought. Somewhere along the line, without ever saying it aloud, they’d agreed they owed each other that much.

“...How do you always know the worst thing to say?”

“Uh...it just comes naturally. And, no one ever stops me... But...”

“...But?”

“If you keep falling down, you can land on me every time.”

“...That’s way too cheesy.”

Kumiko allowed herself a small smirk.
“As if you ever cared about that.”

“...Then,” Reina said, a heartbreaking fragility re-entering her tone, “Do you...promise?”

“Forever.”

Reina sucked in a breath and rubbed at her eyes with her sleeve.
“I wanted to confess to Taki-sensei, you know, not get a confession from you.”

“That’s mean. You already confessed to me a long time ago, so you can’t take it back now.”

“...How conniving. And I didn’t fall down, you know—you pulled me.”

...

Had she? Well, what did it matter.
“It wasn’t a perfect metaphor.”

“I don’t think anything about this is perfect,” Reina quickly retorted, “Aren’t you supposed to say that everything’s going to be okay?”

“…Well, I doubt everything will be, but…you will be. Because…I promise you will. A-And,” She continued, having embarrassed herself a little, “Everyone else, too…Hazuki-chan, and Midori-chan and…even Yuuko-senpai and—“

“That’s nice, but…I don’t really care what anyone else thinks of me. Only you. And……” Reina’s sentiment trailed off into the wind.

Kumiko understood that in the silence there was pain—what kind of pain, she couldn’t know, because she hadn’t ever felt it herself. Maybe it was like receiving a dud gold, when you’d wanted nothing more than a real one. Maybe more than that, it was like going all the way to the end and getting bronze. But probably, it wasn’t. Probably, it wasn’t like that at all. If Kumiko could help in any way, it was only by being in the place she was. Other than that—there was nothing.

She felt again, distinctly, that she could not move from under Reina, because at the moment most movement would’ve sent her falling back down into the water—and Kumiko would be damned if that was going to happen. Reina always said that about not caring what anyone else thought, wore it like an armor—but there was much danger in that, too. She had once told Kumiko that if she played for anyone, it was herself, and Kumiko believed it. If for some reason Reina chose to believe in her, that just made it easier for Kumiko to trust her own intuition—Reina would be okay, but that wasn’t because she was some paragon of self-confidence or dedication—Kumiko simply thought she was capable of it.

Now, though, it was cold, and Reina was colder—they needed to move, but had to do it together.

“You’re cold.”

“…Nn.”

“Let’s get up, okay?”

Reina nodded.
“Okay.”

 

~

 

The spent a while walking along the dark road before they made it back to an area with street lights, but there was still a long walk ahead. With some difficulty, Kumiko had peeled off her now-worthless socks and let them hang with her shoes from her fingers as they walked. Hopefully—she reasoned—the shoes at least would dry some by the time they reached the station. Reina did the same, though she probably didn’t need to, considering she’d left her shoes up the bank. Perhaps it was out of sympathy, or guilt—Kumiko didn’t think either were necessary.

They stayed close together under the intermittent warm glow of the street lights above, and Kumiko’s mind wandered. She began to have the ever-increasing feeling that she’d said some extremely embarrassing things back there—but she tried not to think too much about it.

“Kumiko,” Reina said at one point.

“Hai?” Kumiko jumped a bit, turning quickly at the silence suddenly breaking.

“…I…need you too.”

“…Nn…” She nodded, sort of mesmerized by the gentle admission.

“I think…I was hoping you’d come.”

“Nn.”

What had begun as the occasional snowflake was turning into a steady shower—they were constant pinpricks on her skin, and the cold hard pavement felt strange under her feet. She thought that they had not left the riverside a moment too soon.

“But,” Kumiko added, “That was scary…so, answer your phone.”
It was a joke, but like a lot of their jokes, she also meant it.

“Nn. …If I don’t, you can kill me.”
—Reina said so, and Kumiko felt warmth radiate from the words.

“I really will.”

 

~

 

They had without discussion passed through several sparsely populated cars and settled in an empty one that must have been near the back of the train. Outside, darkened streets passed by, nearly obscured by the reflection of the dim, warm lights inside the vacant car. Kumiko sat leaning into the window directly behind her seat along the side of the train. Her legs themselves had mostly dried, but they were cold. The bottom of her skirt was damp with icy water and her shoes were unfortunately still soaked. Her skin refused to warm, even though Reina had at some point slumped against her and was now resting her head against Kumiko’s neck and shoulder.

All of the running Kumiko had done earlier was starting to catch up with her, and she felt herself melting into the seat as a palpable sort of relief came over her body. It was, altogether, a strange combination of discomfort and contentedness that she let herself sink into. She had found Reina, and for now, Reina was ok. There wasn’t much else she had the capacity to worry about at that moment. Instead, she let her eyes become heavy and focused on the sensation of Reina’s long hair slowly rubbing against her neck as she softly breathed.

...Wasn’t this pretty much the spot where—it occurred to her for no real reason—a while back, she’d accidentally admitted something ridiculous? Like…she wanted to kiss this girl, or something. Kumiko always accused Reina of being weird, but surely they were the same in that regard…

She sat up a bit, slow and careful not to move her much, so she could glance at Reina from the side. Her eyes were closed completely, and her breaths came in long, soft intervals. Was she asleep? …Or, was she always like this? So…slight, ephemeral…how was she so…loud, so utterly vibrant—when really, she was like this? As much as she understood the reality of what Taki-sensei said...it was also kind of hard to imagine how a person could be so callous as to reject someone like Reina… And it was true that…her lips curved, so perfectly with her face, and...for some reason, every once in awhile, Kumiko’s mind would aimlessly wander back to that odd, embarrassing conversation. She thought, sleepily, that there had been just a bit more truth to that slip of the tongue than she had let on. …And what was so wrong with that, anyway?

All she would need to do to find out what it was like was…sort of, lift Reina up off of her slightly, gently, hand supporting her back, lean down herself…a tilt of the head, open her own mouth, just a little bit, take a deep breath…and cross the final border, push up against it, shades of vermillion—pale, still, like Reina herself, like the moon above her, the world around them, yet…somehow, too, brilliantly colorful, an explosion of light and beautiful melody and...and softer than the softest thing Reina had ever said to her.

She leaned back having done so. At some point, Reina’s eyes had opened, and now they were face to face. She looked exhausted. Stunned, in place. Her lips…glistened, a bit, from the contact.

From…the contact.

From the…con…tact?

…From the contact…

From the contact.

From the CONTACT, WHAT HAD SHE JUST—

WHAT THE HELL WAS—

No, no, for sure, without a doubt, there was something totally, TOTALLY wrong with her! What…what was she even—at—at a time like this?!

Her heart went into overdrive. No, it sped up, turned over like an engine, accelerated her into a different state of being—she was fast now, but in turn she was aging—would probably be dead in several minutes. She stood up, because she could no longer sit. And…her legs followed, carried her off at high speed. Anywhere would do, away, the train was moving but she went for the door anyway, at least, at least if she could get into another

“Kumiko.”

She froze. Her name froze her. Take another step. Go on. You can’t look back at her don’t look back, get out get out get ou—

“…Where are you going?”

“I......uh,” Her voice quivered so deeply she could barely stammer, “I’m going to…stop somewhere, on the way back, so…mata…ne—“

“Please come back.”

She…

…At the sound in her voice, Kumiko turned, not...all the way, but, she did and…Reina…didn’t seem to be…like she thought, upset, maybe, or…there was more like some kind of…ambivalence, but not really, what was it? What was it? What was that thing on her face why couldn’t she—

Kumiko could not stand there in the threshold for a single damned second longer, she put her head down and sped robotically back to her seat as if that would make the whole thing impossible to notice.

She sat down and she did not dare look over at Reina, but she sat down. Back straight and rigid, proper form for a concert. At this rate she felt she’d be lucky to ever see a euphonium again, let alone perform with one.

She became a statue—didn’t even let her eyes move in their sockets, but she focused on the edge of her vision. Embarrassment was no longer a term that truly applied, whatever she was feeling went well beyond that—her thoughts were in such a panic that she couldn’t even stop to consider why she done what she’d just done. She was filled only with an awful suspense—a dread at being so strange out of nowhere at a time like this.

In that sliver at the edge of her straightened vision where Reina existed, she saw her shift and sit so she was facing Kumiko more directly. Her legs were at an angle from the seat and they bumped into Kumiko’s own, and she felt it more than she’d possibly ever felt anything before. Against any primal sense of fear, she could not stop herself from turning just a little—just to see Reina’s eyes.

She…she couldn’t tell what that was, in them. They weren’t empty—just devoid of anything particular. She looked almost…totally normal. Typically…blank.

Reina looked at her…and gently laid one hand on her shoulder. And then she scooted even further off the seat, leaned in, tilted her head sideways, and kissed Kumiko.

Right on her mouth. Just like that.

This time Kumiko felt nothing—in the pure confusion she processed none of the physical sensation.

Then Reina pulled away, sat up, and scooted back into the seat.

And sat there. Like nothing had happened.

Kumiko almost wondered if anything had actually happened.

“That’s interesting,” Reina said.

“…R-Reina…”

Reina raised her eyebrows, a little.

“I’m…uh…well, I’m...kind of—“

“Kumiko…come to my house.”

What?
“What? You mean…right—right now?

“Yeah, I think…right now. …No good?”

Kumiko no longer had a grasp on what was happening. She knew...what she’d done, the blatant fact, but Reina…that part didn’t make any sense, but wait, wait, did any of it? No—

Then she felt it. It was odd, it wasn’t that she hadn’t processed it, it was more like it had been trapped in some mental buffer. The sensation of Reina’s lips passed through her mind then, and despite all the cold around them, all the cold on them both, it had been warm. Really warm. And smooth. Delicate, forceful, instant but so slow, so many contradictions, so many problems, the sway of the train following the rail as it turned over the Keiji bypass—and her stomach turned from one organ into many. Dozens, hundreds of little pieces fluttering around in her abdomen.

She was the opposite of comfortable.

Further, if the question was whether she wanted to go to Reina’s house, then the answer was yes. It would’ve been yes any other day for the past nine months, and it was yes now. The difference was that, tonight, she knew that it was true more than she knew why it was true. But it was still true. And the thing was—she couldn’t lie to Reina.

“…Okay.”

She said.

 

~

 

The commute by train to their school wasn’t a very long one, and going south about half that distance from Obaku station was even shorter, but the remaining seconds felt long. Every time she thought up something to say, some probing joke or half-feigned declaration, she came very close to saying it, but ultimately could not. Reina often projected an air of welcoming silence—she was quiet, but it was like she was saying ‘if you want to say something, say it’. At the moment, it was different. Reina was quiet and she seemed to be sucking all the sound out of the air as well—there was an atmosphere radiating outward of something like caution. Kumiko herself was still contemplating the sheer gravity of what she’d just done at hundreds of miles an hour, but outwardly the moment felt almost curiously fragile—like neither of them wanted to break it.

When they reached the end of the line Reina stood casually and lead the way out of the train. They walked past the gate attendant—Kumiko could not even look in his direction—and through a mostly empty station. Out on the street, Reina walked a few paces ahead and Kumiko followed. It was strange that mere minutes ago, before boarding the train, Kumiko had been leading the way and Reina had been essentially glued to her. The roles shifted completely and Kumiko was intensely aware of it. She felt that she should do something, maybe anything, but also that she definitely shouldn’t do anything. The dissonance lead to a mental stalemate, and so she kept walking but she was also sort of paralyzed.

The snow had only gotten denser and her damp shoes squished with every step, but she was warm now. Parts of her were on fire. There was a milky haze to her vision, and Reina’s back seemed to waver in and out of solidity as she walked—following Reina was like the memory of following Reina as much as it was like doing it now. Eventually, the dreamlike illusion was broken as Reina stopped and dragged one leg out, perpendicular from the other. They were nearing the point where their paths home usually diverged, so she thought that maybe Reina was stopping to confirm she would follow—maybe going to ask a question that Kumiko would either be happy was finally out in the open already or terrified to hear spoken aloud, she wasn’t sure which, but Reina did nothing of the sort.

Instead, she gazed at Kumiko and waited for her to catch up, and when Kumiko came to a hesitant stop in front her—wondering what they were doing—Reina took one step forward, held lightly onto Kumiko’s arm, and kissed her. Again.

And then she kept walking.

Kumiko stood, frozen.

The physical feeling shook her again. Each time, it felt like entering a place she was not allowed—like breaking an intrinsic rule. This wasn’t normal. Reina had done it without hesitation—the action was perfectly deliberate. What was she doing?

Kumiko eventually had to run to catch up with her. She was more lost for words now than ever. They soon turned off onto the side street which lead to Reina’s house—the second time Kumiko had been on it that day. She was sure she would never forget its exact position again—every step was burning into her memory.

After some time, Reina stopped again, and Kumiko approached, again, but she thought, surely, that it could not be for the same reason, that Reina could not intend to do it again

But she did. Reina said nothing to her and kissed her twice more before they came to the door Kumiko had nearly broken down in front of earlier in the day. She felt like she may now be about to break down for an entirely different reason. Reina unlocked the door and held it open for her to enter, so…she did. It didn’t help her mental state that she was now literally crossing another border she never had before…

It struck her then how strange it was that she’d never been inside Reina’s house.

…Would it be presumptuous of her to say so? They could be the best of friends without Reina necessarily wanting her anywhere near there, she knew, but…well, if that had ever been true it clearly wasn’t any longer.

And, ‘friend’. That word weighed heavy, too heavy—she let it drop away before it dragged her down with it. She…had to say something, and if the past hour—let alone the past ten minutes—didn’t mean she could say whatever she wanted, then surely…surely, that time would never come. So,

“I...can’t believe this is the first time I’ve been here.”

“Well,” Reina said without looking back, “All you had to do was ask.”

Reina saying so made it seem obvious. Kumiko watched as she stepped out of her shoes and placed her bag and trumpet case on a side table in the entryway—it reminded her how eager she was to get out of her damp uniform. That was one of the things she probably should have taken into consideration before thoughtlessly following Reina home, but…she hadn’t.

“O-Ojamashimasssu…” She called faintly as she stepped up into the hallway.

“Don’t worry,” Reina said, “There’s no one else here.”

She…she hadn’t been worried about that at all, but somehow as soon as Reina told her she was grateful it was true.

They walked out from the entryway into a hall which opened up in two directions—a living room on the right, and a dining area on the left. Running through the middle and separating the two was a staircase leading up, and Kumiko could glimpse past the dinner table on the left a kitchen running around the back. The layout and furniture seemed mostly western-style, and altogether Kumiko had somehow imagined something…different. Not…better, per se, but Reina was like some sort of…princess, maybe? Not one from the ruling family, no, but…part of a long-forgotten family line, destined to retake the land that, in truth, belonged to them, but for now almost completely unknown, hidden away until the moment their people needed them most.

…That sounded weird, but Reina was like that, and Kumiko had always expected to see the signs. She imagined something formal but understated, a ‘normal’ house, but one with far too much space for only Reina and her parents—signs of music here and there, an appreciation for the classics and the aesthetic that came with them, awards, perhaps, belonging to Reina’s father and displayed without comment. Valued, but without vanity. Noble, but not nobility. Something to that effect.

…She’d apparently had a pretty concrete image in her mind of what the house would be like, but on the inside it was…well, certainly bigger than Kumiko’s apartment, but not by…an especially surprising magnitude? There was a second story, at least, but it really was a normal house—and she did not see any awards, from near the entrance, anyway. For some reason, she was relieved. A little.

Kumiko stood a bit awkwardly in the middle of the hall—once Reina had flipped several light-switches, she opened a door near where Kumiko was standing to a closet from which she handed her a towel.

“Arigatou.”
Kumiko padded it against her skirt, but the dampness that was left was deep. It didn’t do much.

“You can take a bath first. I’ll get you some clothes.”

…A bath? A bath, huh. Well, this was when one would take a bath, that was true. It was the only practical thing to do.

Still…
Still, the idea brought that fluttery feeling back.

And anyway,
“Me? You—you’ve got to be much colder.”

Reina smiled at her.
“I’m fine. You’re the guest, so go first. If that’s not enough, do it because I want you to.”

The words weren’t really necessary—

Kumiko would’ve agreed after the smile alone.

 

~

 

Rinsing off and slipping into the bath felt so very good that it was almost enough to evaporate the lingering strangeness. Almost. The fact remained that she was in Reina’s bathroom, and the fact remained that…

Well, other facts remained.

She wasn’t as...uncomfortable. As she had been. Part of it was to do being out of her uniform, that was undeniable, but Reina…was so…calm. Or at least she appeared to be. It sunk into her, made her feel calmer. Even if there was no real reason to be. Even if by any sane account, there was nothing to take lightly about what was currently happening.

What was currently happening?

She sunk down into the warm water until it was covering her mouth, and lazily blew bubbles into it.

She’d seriously done it. After…after doing so well, too! Half-asleep, what, she’d decided it was the perfect time to test kissing with Reina?

It wasn’t as if she couldn’t imagine wanting to do it, but…it hadn’t exactly been thought-out. It was almost like muscle memory for something she’d never done before. No consequences came to mind until after—what the hell was up with that? Now Reina…had reciprocated multiple times.

Kumiko thought that…eh, well, certain images had always stayed with her, in a way others never quite tended to. Reina on Mount Daikichi was one. Reina screaming ‘I love you!’ was another. Even the feeling of Reina’s hair in her hands as she tied it up—it was slightly electrifying, but it wasn’t this. It wasn’t uncomfortable, it wasn’t anxiety-inducing. It was nice, and those images were nice, too, and she thought about them. Yeah, she did, sometimes, remembered the way Reina’s legs looked in that dress that wasn’t at all appropriate for hiking up a mountain—the silhouette of them, through that thin fabric, from the light of a smartphone’s flashlight. The way...her hands felt when she placed them on Kumiko’s face. The curvature of her spine under Kumiko’s fingers, as Reina hugged her fiercely—the strap of her bra, under her uniform, which caught Kumiko’s fingers as she stroked her back. The way...her smiles looked, when they were excessively genuine.

Kumiko thought about those things more than she thought about a lot of things, but that was just the way Reina was. Reina was special, even though she was human—no, because she was human, and also she was pretty…in the purest sense. Anyone who had been there to experience any of those things themselves would remember them just as vividly as Kumiko did—it was just that for the most part Kumiko was the only one who’d been there. The only one who put up Reina’s hair. The only one whose face Reina touched.

Wasn’t it only natural for her to cherish memories like that?

...Or had she been missing something really, really important?

The thought was unsettling.

She hadn’t been soaking for very long, but she didn’t like the idea of Reina waiting, so she soon got out and dried off. In the laundry area before the bathroom, Reina had left her a pile of folded clothes—a pair of black shorts with a stretchy elastic band, and a long-sleeved shirt with a couple buttons at the top. It was a dark, muted red and made of a thick material, almost more like a sweater—very comfortable, and also unlike what she usually saw Reina wearing outside of school. Maybe this was the kind of thing she wore around the house. Kumiko imagined that it must be, and the thought was satisfying...in some way.

It didn’t feel right getting out of the bath and putting on the same underwear, but at least they’d had mercifully little contact with the water. Also—there was no way she could ask Reina for that.

And also

It wouldn’t work for lots of reasons.

 

~

 

Kumiko’s hair was typically annoyingly poofy, which meant that when wet it hung so low she seemed to have grown several inches of it in an instant. She always thought the effect made her look like a completely different person—long, straight hair was beautiful, and she wished she possessed it, but actually seeing something similar around her own face was...embarrassing. She looked sort of like a tiny kid in an adult's clothing—she couldn’t exactly pull it off. Normally she’d blow dry it, but on the one hand she didn’t know where Reina’s was, and on the other she was acutely aware of how much time she was taking. She applied a towel thoroughly and then wrapped it around her neck so it was hanging off her shoulders, hoping that would mask the weirdness, somewhat.

When she walked downstairs, Reina was sitting at one end of the large table in the dining area, looking at her phone. She’d already changed clothes, so Kumiko didn’t have to feel too bad about that, at least.

“I’m done…” She called lightly.

Reina’s head snapped up and her eyes went wide.

What? Was she surprised?

“Ah…okay. Are you hungry? I was thinking we could order something…”

She was hungry. She was really hungry. She also wasn’t sure she was capable of eating anything at the moment.
“…Nn. Sounds good to me.”

Reina stood up and walked toward the back of the room.
“There should be some delivery menus around here.”

When Kumiko followed, she saw her on the other side of a counter in the kitchen looking through a drawer.

Her hunch had been right. Reina was wearing a very similar, simple outfit—although her sleeves were short. Was she really not cold? Kumiko had rinsed actual mud out of her hair—there was little chance Reina was comfortable right now. Was she just trying to be a good host? It wasn’t necessary. If it was as simple as ordering food, Kumiko could do that herself…

She nonchalantly walked past Reina and looked around the ample-sized kitchen. Now this was where she really felt the difference between an apartment and a house. There was room to make so much at once… On one of the upper cupboards was a whiteboard where several of Reina’s results from their latest exams were displayed. She really was the best type of student…

“…or this? What do you think?”

There was also a program pamphlet from nationals, and several photos of Reina and her mom.

“Kumiko? …Hey, Kumiko.”

“Haa—Ah, hai?”

“What do you want to eat?”
Reina had two menus in her hands and there were others on the counter.

“Ahh…”

Something stupid came to mind—for some reason, she really wanted to… She looked around the kitchen again, as if to confirm there was a fridge. Of course there was a fridge.

“I…could make something. If you want, nn—I could make something.”

“…Hontou? You don’t have to go that far—we don’t have much to cook with…”

“That’s okay…I’ll make something easy. That would be good, right?”
She…just felt like doing something. She thought it was a good idea.

Reina smiled again.
“Then, please do.”

Reina said a few other things and showed her where they kept the pans, but Kumiko wasn’t very focused. For a moment, everything was just as it usually was and nothing was out of the ordinary—until Reina smiled. Then she questioned her own motivation for even suggesting she’d cook.

She was still dazed by the afterimage when Reina stopped at the foot of the stairs to look back at her.

“Kumiko—let me know if you can’t find something, or if you need anything. You can talk through the door.”

“…N-Nn.”

Reina went up the stairs, but Kumiko wasn’t able to gather her thoughts until she heard the bathroom door close.

She then began to investigate the kitchen—Reina was right that there wasn’t much in their pantry, but there were a few boxes of pasta. If she remembered right, then in her bag there should be…yeah. A collection of her mom’s recipes. She looked through it until she found an obvious candidate—something carbonara-like would probably be easiest, but she couldn’t find any mushrooms… Her mom’s pasta usually had mushrooms. However, they did have some salmon in the fridge. If she could pull together a cream sauce, then…that would work, wouldn’t it? And there were onions! She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to find every other called for ingredient, but there were eggs, there was butter, and there was cheese—she could improvise.

Plus…

…Reina…

…Reina really liked pasta, so…

She started preparing along those lines, and once the water was boiling and she’d found her most important tools, she settled into a more or less familiar rhythm.

It was when Reina had been well and truly gone for several minutes and Kumiko was alone with the cutting board that it really started to hit her again. She closely examined her own hand—lifting the knife, bringing it back down, up and down, again and again—it was the same hand she’d had all her life. There was the small spot on her palm that had once been a big gash when she’d ridden her bike into a railing and skidded onto the sidewalk—the slight discoloration had never gone away. She was still the same person, in the same body. If she were to go home, her parents would still be there, and tomorrow at school she would see her friends, and life would go on, because she was still living it. This felt separate—a break in the timeline that was her existence. Part of her wondered how it could be real—every second that passed since Reina had left her presence, a part of her was waiting impatiently for Reina’s return. She felt like she needed to see her—to keep seeing her. But, she couldn’t quite call it…a good feeling. There was doubt in it. There was a hazy sense of foreboding—she wanted the moment to come quicker, but was worried about what would happen when it did.

It was the same feeling she got before every one of their performances. Yeah, that was it. It was exactly the same.

…She didn’t like that.

She didn’t like that at all.

Probably—probably, she had to do something. It was weird, but be honest. …Something like that? Maybe?

She never really came to a solid conclusion, but she did manage to cook something that looked nice. It was simple, but she knew at least it would taste good—the rich mixture making up the sauce made it more or less a certainty.

She was nearly finished when Reina returned—as she tossed the final mixture in a sauce pan, she felt her approach but purposefully pretended not to. Reina looked over her shoulder.

“Pasta…”

“Nn.”
Don’t question it. There was pasta in the pantry—no reason to question it.

Reina didn’t—
“It looks good.”

Kumiko focused on the stirring. Well, she didn’t, but she tried to appear to.
“I hope so.”

“…I put our uniforms in the wash.”

“Oh—thanks.”

“Do you want some help?”

“…Ah, I’m almost finished, but if you could get some bowls…”

“Sure.”

Reina opened a cupboard and brought them to her, then helped hold the pan as Kumiko scooped portions into them. This wasn’t the first time that Kumiko had cooked something that Reina would eat—even the work she’d done to salvage Midori’s tonkatsu only a few weeks earlier was more impressive—but it felt different. As she added a few final pinches of seasoning to both dishes and carried them over to the table, she felt almost embarrassed that she’d decided to do this at all. She placed the bowls at different ends of the table and Reina gave her a few drink choices, but she ended up sticking with water because she was incapable of actually making a decision.

It was only when they’d sat down that Kumiko realized that they were…just sort of…sitting across from each other. Just looking right at each other, from across the vast no man’s land that was the middle of the table, the house totally silent. She wasn’t sure if anything could have felt weirder in that moment.

“…Itadakima...” She trailed off as Reina suddenly stood up and carried her bowl and plate over to the side of the table and sat in the chair closest to Kumiko.

“It’s better like this.”

“…Nn.”

It was better, but…

...

Clearly, they both felt it. Whatever it was. This atmosphere. She could barely, barely take it. Reina deftly twisted her fork and brought some of the long pasta to her mouth. When she was finished chewing, she smiled.

“It’s good.”

How many times had she smiled like that? Did she always smile this much? How come Kumiko couldn’t remember in the slightest? They were together all the time—how was it possible that she couldn’t remember?
“Ah, I’m glad,” Her mouth managed to form beneath that torrent of thought.

She started eating, because if she was eating she didn’t have to decide what to say. The problem was that while she was eating—and it was good, at least there was that, and god she was hungry—all she could think about was what the hell she should say. The silence wasn’t comfortable, but it also wasn’t…awkward, exactly. It felt like a break. A breath—a half rest at the end of the phase before coming in hard the next measure. It couldn’t be misplaced or awkward because it was required, it was a natural part of the piece—silence, too, was music. In the right place. But, that air was far too absolute—too telling. The sense of suspension simply became suspense, and finally it was just too much. She couldn’t do it anymore. She had to come back in, or drop out of the piece all together.

“Reina...”

The other girl looked up from the table, but didn’t say anything.

“...Why...did you bring me here?”

Reina lowered her gaze again and was silent for a while, a time that probably felt longer than it truly was. She opened her mouth, then shut it again, and finally said, “It was like...if you got off the train by yourself, I might never see you again. ...Or something.”

“......S-sou.”
But...there was no way that would have happened. There was no way. She wanted to say as much right then, but her tongue felt like liquid. Every word she had spoken for the last half hour had been a struggle to get out—it was like she needed to learn to talk all over again.

“…Want to leave?”

“No!” The question broke her train of thought in half and Kumiko shouted without thinking at all. “…Not…not really. I was just…thinking something like, uh, ‘What’s...going on here, exactly?’. Something like that…”

“…Oh. Me too.”

“…Ah, really?” She laughed quite weakly.

“Nn.”

‘What were you thinking is going on?’
……is what she thought about asking, but…but

“Kumiko.”

“Hai?!”

“…Want to try again?”

Again, she said. The subject was left unstated but the intention was hard to miss. Kumiko unconsciously lifted two fingers and placed them near her chin.

There was a slight blush on Reina’s face, but that had been there since she’d come downstairs. Maybe from the heat in the bath. Maybe not. The uncertainty was hard to accept, because this was Reina—that thought kept bubbling to the surface of the tumultuous waves in her mind. It would not be easy to say it, but she had to—because it was not easy, and that wasn’t right.

“Kissing, you mean?”

She really wasn’t sure how Reina would react to the question—but she somehow hadn’t expected to find Reina’s eyes locked to her own, relentlessly piercing.
“Nn.”

“Okay,” She said breathlessly, and didn’t know she would until she did. There was a recognition in it—the response was as much to herself as it was to Reina.

Neither broke the eye contact, and neither moved. It was some sort of stalemate.

“Do—do you want to? I don’t know why, but it’s reallyhard…to—“

Reina stood up and stepped around the corner of the table to the side of Kumiko’s chair.

Kumiko almost gasped at the motion. She sat very still—could probably not have made herself move. She couldn’t look Reina in the face anymore, couldn’t lift her head up to do that—but Reina leaned down. Put a hand on the table for support, and lowered her whole body. Kumiko had to look. All in all, they were maybe a foot or two closer than they had been—but they were so much closer. Reina’s face was right there, and the deep lavender pools in her eyes were filled now. Kumiko searched them, and found that she could finally tell what was there—curiosity. Fascination. A search, in its own right.

She wondered—if she could see her own face, reflected in those pools…would it look the same?

There was no time to consider the answer—Reina moved forward to connect their lips, and her eyes closed somewhere along the way. Kumiko was left staring into the side of her face—she could see the edge of Reina’s ear very near in front of her, half-covered by shimmering strands of damp hair. There was the taste of the pasta sauce she’d made—had that simply been left on Kumiko’s mouth? Did it come from Reina’s? She didn’t know. The feeling of the touch was new again—it was new every time. She couldn’t get used to it. Reina was…pushing, just a little, and she realized that she wasn’t doing anything. What should she do? What should she do?

Reina held the position for a long time—it must have been the longest time yet. Kumiko had to close her eyes, couldn’t keep them open like that. She didn’t know what to do, so she lifted a hand up from her lap without knowing where it would go—thinking, maybe, that she would know by the time it reached something. That didn’t happen, so it defaulted to the last thing in her mind’s eye—clumsily went to the side of Reina’s head and lightly pushed the hair off her ear with the backs of her fingers. Tucked it behind. A familiar motion, mirrored. The same but completely different.

There was a strange sound—almost a little click—when Reina pulled away and Kumiko’s vision returned. Her hand was just resting there on the side of Reina’s face as she straightened herself. Kumiko let it fall, but was careful to do so slowly. That was important—she just didn’t know why.

“Definitely…” Reina near-whispered.

“…What?” Kumiko responded in kind. If they hadn’t been nearly on top of each other, she doubted there was any way they would’ve heard one another.

“It definitely…feels good.”

“…Yeah.”

It did. It felt good.

“Reina…”

“What is it?”

“I...I’m not sure why I—why I did it.”

“…It didn’t bother me.”

It was warm. She was feeling way too warm.
“What…are we doing?”

Reina leaned back a bit, but not too far.
“…I don’t know.”

“N-Nn.”
Right? Right? Was Reina feeling the same way she was?

“But……I don’t mind it.”

That struck her in the chest. She felt a heavy impact, and her heart began beating harder to keep her alive. Something became real. Or…like real?

“…Kumiko wa?”

“...Nn. ...I-I mean, me...too.”

...

“Again?”

She nodded.

This time when Reina bent down, Kumiko pushed up. They met somewhere between, and the distance wasn’t great—Reina was a little shorter than her. Kumiko proceeded through the same stages of wonder she had several times now, and settled into the feeling. Considered it deeply. Then—something happened. Reina’s mouth opened. Slightly. There was little movement, but she could feel it. Feel her own lips sinking in. What had almost become familiar suddenly changed—at the same time, or near enough, Reina’s free hand found her arm. With her eyes closed, it surprised her. It slowly ran up the length to her shoulder, then rested on her neck. A thumb drew so lightly on the skin above her collarbone. There was a shuddering as Reina removed her other hand from the table, and adjusted her balance. It went to Kumiko’s other shoulder, but the thumb wandered downward—no, the whole hand did. Slid down until it was spread in the middle of her chest. Right over her beating heart. Could Reina…could she feel it?

She was overcome then with a different feeling. That...this was—in some way—irreversible. That there was no way she could ever go back and convince herself, or anyone else, that Reina was simply the best friend she’d ever had, who she wanted to stay with forever—or at least die trying.

Perhaps—it occurred to her with brutal clarity—that had been kind of suspicious all along. …It was starting to feel like it’d been suspicious all along, and she knew—knew that this was a point beyond return. This, too, was a thing that could not be un-done.

Reina’s hand pressed on her chest and began to move to the si—

“Wait—wait, wait, hold on—“

Kumiko broke away and gently put her arms up. Reina slowly withdrew her hands, eventually letting them drop to her sides.

“...What’s…going on?” Kumiko asked, but coming out it sounded more like a whine—she didn’t like the sound, wished it was different.

“…It just felt right.”
Reina’s face was flushed, and her wet hair was slicked back off of her forehead. Kumiko could still feel Reina’s hands, though they weren’t on her anymore.

“Is this...real?
Why…didn’t it…seem to be? Though she was entirely overwhelmed but what was happening at that moment, her mind wouldn’t stop racing through thoughts of everything else they’d ever done together. She felt tears welling up in her eyes.

“…It is.”

This was bad. This was really, really bad. She could tell that her face must look like she was scared. It was shaking—she couldn’t stop it from shaking. She didn’t want Reina to think she was scared, she was just...scared.

“Dai...jobu? I’m sorry—Kumiko, I’m sorry—I…won’t do anything else.”

“Don’t—don’t say you’re sorry.”
She was sure her face—or whatever was left of it—was red, but somehow she was cold.

Reina pulled back until she was standing straight again.
“...Alright.”

Kumiko tried very hard to collect herself. Took a deep breath that shuddered on its way in, and quickly wiped her face with the back of her hand.

“I think no matter what you wanted me to say, I’d say it. …Because it’s you.”

She whimpered. She couldn’t even say why she was crying, but every word Reina spoke made more tears bubble up.

Reina eyes began to dart around, and she looked toward the other side of the room.
“I…I’ll go get you some—“

“Wait! …Wait. Don’t go anywhere else.”

“……Okay.”
Reina turned a bit, and placed a hand on her chair. She pulled it around the corner of the table—so the two were facing now, nearly touching—and sat on its edge.

Kumiko sniffled through her nose—felt ridiculous. She was sure she looked terrible. She didn’t want Reina to keep staring at her like that, but she really didn’t want her to look anywhere else.

“I…want to know what you’re thinking.”

What was she even thinking? Was she thinking at all? Her heart was beating so fast it kind of hurt, but time seemed slow and deliberate. She felt that she had to be very, very careful, but why? If…they were kissing, then…everything was different, wasn’t it? Or…maybe it was the same, maybe they were the same way they’d always been, but now it was more honest. She couldn’t tell. She really couldn’t tell. Either way—something that she had valued immensely, but taken as an absolute, had either changed, or not been exactly what she’d thought from the beginning.

It was frightening.

In essence, dramatically, exorbitantly, in some ancient eldritch form—

“I’m…nervous.”

Reina had once told her that meant something was worth doing.

“…Sou,” Was all she said now.

Kumiko realized that the last time she’d been this nervous, she’d run away. Left that person alone. It wasn’t exactly different—it hadn’t been a different kind of change. It hadn’t been a different kind of fear. Probably.

But…it wasn’t exactly the same, either, was it?

Because the truth was, Reina had also been right—
this didn’t feel wrong.

She was still afraid—how could she not be? But if she was honest…

This didn’t feel wrong at all.

“Kumiko…” Reina said after who knows how long, “…I…won’t be mad…if you—“

Kumiko lurched forward in her seat and threw her arms around Reina’s back, placed her lips back where they’d been—she tasted the salt of her own tears and ignored it, stood up and brought Reina with her, grabbed her so tightly they stumbled backward into the wall of the dining room.

She was too focused on the execution of the action to enjoy it—but it felt right. When she came up for air, she said,
“I don’t want to run away. I don’t want to. This is what I want to do. You have to believe me.”

“I believe you.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never done this.”

“I know.”

“I can’t believe this. I never thought you—I never thought that you—”

“It’s the same for me.”

Kumiko gulped and focused on staring right in Reina’s eyes.
“I like it.”

“Nn.”

“There’s no way you’d never see me again. I want to see you forever.”

“Me too.”

“Even if you hated me, I—I couldn’t leave you alone—”

“That won’t happen.”

“—so it’s scary.”

“Then trust me. Didn’t we make a promise?”

“No matter what. It’s okay. We already promised.”

“Yeah.”

“Or we’ll both die.”

“Nn.”
Kumiko had begun to realize she was basically pinning Reina to the wall, and hesitantly gave her some space.

Reina followed her—refused to allow that space to be created.
“I have no intention of dying so young.”

There it was—that small grin. Kumiko was enthralled. Utterly consumed by it.

“…Do you want to come to my room?”

The answer came more easily than anything had all day—
“Nn. Yes.”

 

~

 

It wasn’t until she’d reached Reina’s bedroom that Kumiko’s mental image of her home proved truly accurate. The place was spotlessly clean—flawlessly organized. It reminded her of a photo advertising a house more than a place someone actually lived—which was not to say that it was hard for her to tell this was obviously where Reina lived.

From the brief glances she’d given it, the tall bookcase to the left of the door was filled almost completely with music books and orchestral CDs—although there did look to be some novels and even manga near the bottom. On the other side of the door was a dresser atop which sat several framed photos of Reina at various ages posing with different people, many of which Kumiko couldn’t name—although she was holding a trumpet in most of them. Of course, there was also one with a child-sized Reina, a man she didn’t recognize—probably Reina’s father—and a comically young Taki-sensei. She wanted to examine it further, but didn’t. In the middle of the room there was a low table of dark wood, and on three sides of it there were perfectly placed matching cushions in a deep purple color that was not the same but still reminded Kumiko of Reina’s eyes.

Off to the right side of the table against the wall was a small TV stand with more books on its sides, and behind the table across from the door was Reina’s bed. On it was a fluffy-looking comforter that matched the pillows on the floor. It was pushed horizontal against the wall, and in its middle the wall gave way to a deep windowsill on which Reina seemed to keep a power strip and phone charger. To the left of the bed in the corner of the room was a desk similar to Kumiko’s own, but larger. Atop it was a laptop and a big set headphones that looked more expensive than any Kumiko had ever owned, and a small black tower on three legs which Kumiko recognized as what must be a trumpet stand. Past the desk against the middle of the room’s left wall was some sort of electronic keyboard—Kumiko knew Reina could play a little piano, but not so much that she’d have a keyboard in her room. The walls themselves were a warm off-white color, and they held a couple more picture frames—one of them had sheet music in it.

Kumiko sat on the edge of the bed and felt satisfied because this was without a doubt Reina’s room. It wasn’t that she thought it could be a fake, or something—it was just that she would’ve known without being told, and that was comforting. Reina stood in the hall just outside the door with her phone to her ear—apparently, her mom liked her to call every night if she was away. When she’d said that, it made Kumiko wonder how often it happened. She also made a point of saying it wouldn’t take long—which wasn’t something Kumiko had been worried about. She was kind of content, sitting there.

She used the opportunity to check her own phone and found a message from Midori and several from her own mother that had piled up earlier without her noticing.

 

Midori-chan
7:49PM
Did you hear from Reina-chan? If she’s out tomorrow, we should go visit her! ✧٩(ˊωˋ*)و✧ ¡¡¡( •̀ ᴗ •́ )و!!!

 

…Ah…Yeah…She…had no real idea how to answer that, at the moment. So…she simply didn’t. More urgently problematic were her mom’s texts, which she also didn’t know how to answer… There hadn’t been any calls yet, she had some time before that, but once those started…she’d have to say something.

If it were up to her…

Well, then…

…She’d probably just go ahead and say she’d be staying at Reina’s…

She definitely didn’t feel like leaving.

But…ah…

...To actually say that was another thing. Is that what Reina wanted?

As she watched Reina leaning against the wall speaking softly into her phone, she had to admit to herself that she…still wasn’t sure exactly what this meant. She wasn’t sure if Reina was, either—couldn’t tell if their understandings of what was happening were the same or not. …But, she’d begun to believe it wasn’t a bad thing. That it couldn’t be—because neither of them would allow it to. She trusted that way more than she trusted anything else.

She thought about sending something that would simply buy time, but couldn’t come up with anything before Reina got off the phone and came into the room—shutting the door behind her.

“Your room’s so nice…it really suits you.”
Reina crawled onto the bed past Kumiko and went to put her phone on its charger. It was hard not to stare at her as she did, but Kumiko felt like she shouldn’t—something about the position…

“Thank you. It’s nothing special, though.”

“Uu-un. It’s so mature—I’m kind of jealous.”

Reina turned around on all fours and crawled back to the edge, sitting not far from Kumiko.
“…You were wrong back then, you know.”

“Back then?”

“At camp. I’m not that mature. And we’re…not completely different.”

“…Ah.” Kumiko…remembered, at least. She couldn’t exactly agree…but she understood what Reina was saying. She didn’t think she’d been wrong, back then, but…she hadn’t really been right, either.
“I guess…I didn’t say it right. You were wrong about that. I don’t know why everyone thinks I’m good at speaking my mind or something—I can never get things across the right way. I’m not sure if it’s maturity, and maybe we’re not...totally different, but…I always admire you. That’s all.”

Reina smiled again.
“It’s not different at all. With you, I feel the same way.”

“With me?” Well, she found that hard to believe, but…she couldn’t exactly avoid feeling happy if Reina said that.

“Nn.”

“...But, you can’t say I’m wrong—look how clean it is in here,” She blatantly changed topics as she started to get embarrassed and made up some sweeping gesture with her hands, “Why don’t you prove it by making a mess?”

Reina followed Kumiko’s motion with her gaze and looked around.
“It’s normal. That’s too harsh—I already didn’t do the dishes.”

…Ah, come to think of it, that was true. They were still sitting on the table downstairs. Kumiko put her arms out behind her, palm-down, so she could hold herself up and sit back on the bed.
“Mmm…but that’s because of me, right? I’m just a bad influence…”

Reina shook her head slowly.
“Not really. I just thought it could wait. So I could bring you up here.”

Kumiko hummed in acknowledgment. It struck her for no particular reason that she should take in the entire moment. Something about being there, in Reina’s room, after so long, without anyone else knowing about it—something about the two of them, it was like…she wanted to remember everything, the tangential things. She wanted to focus, if only for a moment, on the sound of the air conditioning unit blowing warm air into Reina’s room—on the occasional car passing by outside, tires slick from the snow-dusted pavement. It occurred to her that through some strange sequence of events a moment like this had become possible, and she felt gratitude for that.

“What are you thinking about?” Reina said. Reina was watching her—had been watching her. She felt like she didn’t mind. She didn’t mind at all.

“…Everything, I guess. Maybe…nothing.”

“Sou.”
Reina seemed to copy Kumiko’s motion, but then just let herself fall so her back was lying on the bed. Kumiko followed her lead and turned her body so she was looking up at the ceiling but could still see Reina.

“I wasn’t sure what to tell my parents, since they keep asking when I’ll be home.”

“Ah…”

“I was thinking I’d stay here.”

“Yeah.”

She turned completely. Reina was on her side too.
“If that’s alright.”

Reina…reached out with one arm, slowly…and brushed the hair out of Kumiko’s eyes. She nodded.

“…Nn.”
Kumiko brought her phone up from where she’d dropped it on the bed near her waist, and held it between their faces. She began to speak slowly along with every word she tapped.
“I’ll…be…staying…at…Reina’s…house. ……We…kissed…a lot.”

When she pressed send (without that last part), and dropped the phone again, there was amusement in Reina’s eyes.
“Are you taking this seriously?”

Was she? She had no idea.
“…I’m not sure.”

Reina held one hand up and repeatedly curled a finger inward. The meaning was ‘come here’.

So, Kumiko did—shuffled her torso across the distance until they were as close as they could get.

“I want to tell you something.”

“Okay.”

Reina opened her mouth—closed it—opened it again, then somehow drew even further in and lifted her head—whispered almost directly into Kumiko’s ear.
“When I saw you in my clothes, I thought, ‘Wow…that’s hot’.”

Then she pulled back a little and returned her head to the bed.

Kumiko felt every tiny little piece of the motion.

“Hontou?”

“Nn.”

She averted her gaze and felt an uncomfortable heat rise up onto her face, but she didn’t attempt to stop it.
“I think I felt the same when I put them on…”

“…Kumiko.”

“…Hm?”

“Onnanoko…suki?”

…That was a difficult question.

…When had that become such a difficult question?

“I don’t know. …Maybe. I…never thought so, but…”

Reina didn’t say anything—just watched her.

“…Reina wa?”

“...Tabun.”

“T-Tabun?”

“Nn, there’s no other explanation.”

...
Well...that did make sense, but...
She seemed to be looking at it a bit...scientifically...

“...Watch,” Reina said.

She did, as Reina came close and pressed her lips against Kumiko’s once again. It was quick—finished as fast as it’d begun. She felt a vague sense of annoyance that it was over.

“See? I don’t think...that’s an ordinary feeling.”

Ah...yeah…
She...saw Reina’s point.
“...Let me try.”

Reina nodded.

When Kumiko pushed forward, it was not with hesitance—rather, it was exploratory. She didn’t feel anything in particular could happen that Reina would hold against her, so she didn’t worry about that. She did what came to mind, and before the kiss had ended she’d held onto Reina’s sides and pulled her in while pushing herself up and over. As a result, her legs dangled off the bed on top of Reina’s, and she gazed right down at her. For the second time that night, one of them was lying on the other.

She felt more like feeling than looking, so she plopped her head down and smushed it into the bed next to Reina’s neck.

“...That’s what I mean.” Reina said. It sounded breathy.

“I get it. I definitely get it.”

“...Keep going.”

“Keep......going?”

Reina turned her head and nudged her face into the side of Kumiko’s—rubbing, a little. Kumiko could feel her eyelashes.
“Keep going...if you want.”

“Reina…”

Reina’s warm breath drifted against her cheek.

“Do you think…this is...dangerous?”

“...No,” She whispered. “If you feel like stopping, we’ll stop. And...if I feel like stopping, we’ll stop. That’s the way it is.”

“...Nn.”

“It’s only me...and, it’s only you...so...there’s no problem.”

Kumiko shivered. She wasn’t cold—the words were just too clear. Too perfectly audible.

“…Don’t…” Reina continued, “…You think?”
There was not certainty in the question—Reina was asking because she wanted to know.

Nn.”

Kumiko rose up off the bed and then fell back down in one steady motion to kiss Reina one more time—it was at the top of the arc that any lingering apprehension left her, and...floated off somewhere else.

Maybe, right then, she didn’t need it.

She kept going for a long time—

And never felt like stopping.

 

~

 

In the period of time that followed, Kumiko lost herself more than once—felt that she was not sure exactly where she began, or where she ended. Wasn’t sure it mattered. At other points, she was acutely aware of herself. Distressingly so. She questioned things she’d never thought to question—learned things she’d never realized she didn’t already know.

On the one hand, it was a natural process. Movements made up actions that came naturally, because it was about feeling as much as thinking. On the other hand—

she had no idea what the hell she was doing.

It wasn’t as if she hadn’t—wasn’t, like, she…like she didn’t know how it worked…herself. Even if this wasn’t exactly...how you were supposed to do it, she...understood, because...well, they were obviously both…

...

But. But, that didn’t change the fact that…that she wasn’t doing it alone, and…

In that, there was doubt. Not…not necessarily in what she wanted to do, but…in how to do it…in whether it was the right thing…

Those types of things kept coming to mind. There were questions that passed between them, and there were also answers. Kumiko fell into a habit of asking before she did just about anything, for a time.

At one point, Reina said—
“You…don’t have to ask permission.”

There was such sincerity in it—such blatant factuality, to that glimmer in Reina eyes. It wasn’t ‘you don’t have to’, more like…’you don’t have to’. There didn’t seem to be any question of that, to her. It was almost frightening—she made the prospect of Kumiko doing literally whatever she wanted to such an immaculately beautiful girl sound exceedingly more casual than it actually was.

Permission went hand in hand with responsibility, and…she had no idea what she was doing, first of all, and second of all that girl was Reina, and thirdly she could only barely be trusted to understand these things about herself. And…that girl was Reina!

She did the only thing she could do—

She more or less admitted as much, and told Reina that for now, she wanted to ask anyway.

The simple, unabashed hum of acceptance that came at that almost felt better than anything else.

Well, almost.

…Alright, maybe not almost.

 

~

 

There was no alarm going off as she woke up. That wasn’t right.

She couldn’t tell what time it was, either—there was no clock to her side, and her phone wasn’t next to her.

Those were the first things she noticed.

There was a curve to the disorientation—a slowly climbing confusion which began as a question and progressed to an understanding that she was no longer sleeping—could not be dreaming—and was not in her room. She was somewhere else. It was only after that acknowledgment that some familiarity with the place she was returned to her.

Other uncertainties arose from the break in routine—

What day was it?

Did she have school?

Had she even set an alarm—had she slept through one?

Most of those suddenly became much less important when her waking mind finally connected the pieces of her memory from A to B.

She remembered a sensation in darkness which was the same now as it had been then.

She was lying on her side with her face in a pillow, but, pulling it up a little confirmed the sheer truth of it—

For one thing, this was Reina’s room.

For another, this was Reina’s bed, and for another still, Reina was sleeping next to her on the side of the bed nearest the wall.

As she’d awoken, Reina’s comforter was nearly-over both of their faces, so she could only see the top half of her head, but, without a doubt—that was Reina.

As far as what she could see, that was it. A very subtle cool light came in from the window past Reina and bathed a section of the room, but it was still dark. It was early.

As far as what she could feel

Those strange shapes intersecting her legs below the comforter were no longer as confusing as they had been—those were Reina’s legs, tangled with her own.

The skin was quite warm.

Reina was still sleeping peacefully—she didn’t seem to show any signs of waking.

Kumiko had to chance it, just for a second. She had to—no matter what she remembered. No matter how little sense any other explanation would make—she had to see it right then to fully understand.

So—still groggy, and trying to move as little as possible, she pulled her arms up and lifted the comforter near her face, peering down.

She was naked under there.

Reina was naked under there.

She let it fall back, and let her head rest again against the pillow.

Well, yeah.

…That was how they’d fallen asleep, after all.

She knew that.

After…they…

Well, in particular after Reina

Had just been…

She felt herself go stiff as reality came in and out like waves crashing steadily against a shore. At some point they’d drifted off to sleep, but…nothing had ended in her mind. Her dreams had continued playing off the overwhelmingly exciting things that had happened…to an exaggerated degree, but…coming out of sleep, it was almost hard to untangle what was real from what wasn’t. The most important part, though…this…

This was beyond real.

The only thing that came to mind was…

Holy shit.

And she really had to pee, but no, much more importantly—dear god.

Seriously.

How had this happened?

She remembered everything leading up to it, but…

It was like waking up as a totally different version of herself. Was she even capable of something like this?

She…she must’ve been—it happened.

And Reina…Reina…looked…like she always did. Her hair was a mess, but…

That was…Reina, the Reina who played trumpet to Kumiko’s back right and walked next to her every day. That was her. She could tell—there was no way she wouldn’t be able to tell!

She felt a familiar fear rising up—she remembered it from the night before. This…changed everything, didn’t it? Reina was…without a doubt, Reina was her best friend. She’d meant everything she said on that riverbank—their friendship was immensely important to her. Of everything that had happened over the past year…becoming friends with Reina was probably the thing that mattered most.

How could this not change that?

The approaching morning light, to her, was the blunt assurance that life would go on—was going on. Regardless of the two of them. There was no way this could be ignored. They would have to go on living after it. Which, was…kind of a problem, because…

She didn’t know what that meant.

But…

Even then, in the budding day—it could’ve been worse. At a point, last night, it had felt worse. Something now was tempering her anxiety—no, it wasn’t any one thing in particular, it was the idea of a feeling—it was the way Reina had been looking at her. It was the way Reina had been kissing her. It was the way…Reina…had touched her. It was the way she had touched Reina back—it was the way they’d both grinned and laughed when she said that one thing that came out…completely…wrong.

It was the fact that, when Kumiko looked at her now…

Despite the sheer importance of what Reina had already been to her,

Despite the intrinsic reality of the looming sun,

She…

…didn’t want to take any of it back?

No…no, she didn’t.

She didn’t want to take any of it back.

Actually, she still didn’t even want to move.

…But god, she had to pee.

The process of actually getting from her current position to the bathroom, though, was a problem… She couldn’t think of a way to get up that wouldn’t wake Reina. Whatever she did could also have no effect, but…was Reina a deep sleeper? Was she the opposite? Kumiko didn’t know. She did seem to be sleeping pretty deeply at the moment…Kumiko was mostly lying there staring at her. It was a little bit creepy, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. Reina’s sleeping face was alluring, in a way…she didn’t usually look quite that relaxed. It felt like a rare sight, so Kumiko didn’t want to look away.

…But, she was really nearing the point where none of those concerns mattered.

And…there was the other problem, which was...

…she was naked.

If she could turn over and see the rest of the room, her shirt was…over there somewhere. …Or, rather, Reina’s shirt was over there somewhere.

There was no other way—she gently flipped over, but did so quickly, thinking that her best shot was to move quick. In the process, she mostly untangled her legs, but the motion hadn’t exactly been smooth—there was a little tugging required. It wasn’t a good sign.

She spotted it quickly—the shirt she’d been wearing was lying a ways from the bed near the chabudai in the middle of the room, and the shorts…may have been under?

Her underwear…she couldn’t see. If she remembered correctly, then they should be…right off the side of the bed, but she couldn’t know for sure.

She was just about to slip out of the covers when Reina made a little noise and moved her legs. And…she wasn’t going to chance that, so she did not get up and turned onto her back instead.

Seeing her, it was clear Reina was waking up. Kumiko had probably woken her up. She rubbed one cheek—maybe unconsciously, eyes still closed—and opened her mouth for a long breath. Kumiki laid very still. She was trying not to draw attention to herself. Obviously, that was impossible, but…if Reina were to be startled and freak out, or something, that…wouldn’t be good. So, she didn’t say anything yet. Not that she thought that was a likely reaction, but…still.

Soon Reina’s eyes fluttered open—seemed out of focus at first, like they weren’t really able to see anything, but after a moment they fixed on her and Kumiko knew Reina was understanding the situation.

“Hey,” She said, as tenderly as she could.

“…Hey.”

Kumiko stretched her neck against the pillow—leaving some buffer. Letting Reina wake up. But…it was hard for her not to talk in situations where it felt like things should be said.
“Kind of…startling, right?”

“…Nn. A little.”

She watched as Reina flipped over and picked her phone up to check the time—it was a little after the time they usually woke up to practice. Her bare back was visible as she propped herself up on an elbow, and Kumiko couldn’t help looking at it.

“This is early for you to be waking up on your own…” Reina mumbled sleepily.

Well, that was true. She never really woke up in the morning without an alarm…
“I…have to go to the bathroom, but I was trying not to wake you…”

“…Oh. That’s alright.”

“You remember where it is?”

“Nn. ……It’s just, uh…feels, you know…weird, to pull the blanket up…”
It was really dumb—Reina had…already seen everything there was to see. Well before this, even, in dressing rooms. Now she’d…done more than just see. There was no logical reason to be embarrassed.

“Oh. That’s okay—I won’t look.”


Something about that didn’t quite sit well with her either…
“No, I’m just being stupid...It’s not like you have to close your eyes.”
It was a band-aid tearing situation. She just had to do it. She psyched herself up, and was really, really just about to, when—

“Here,” Reina said, and fully sat up. Her torso came out of the comforter, and she pushed it off of her legs—the action mostly uncovered Kumiko as well. “It’s easier if it’s both of us, right?”

“…Yeah.”

Well, it was definitely easier.

She quickly looked away and stepped out of the bed, but—for a second there, she’d let her gaze get away from her.

As she moved to the middle of the room, she was aware that Reina was behind her, but the image of her stayed in her vision like the afterglow of a sudden bright light. …Frankly, any embarrassment within her got a bit lost when Reina came out from under the covers—It was hard to think about anything else.

She slipped the shirt Reina had given her over her head and the shorts up her legs, without worrying about underwear for now—she may have to take the outfit home and wash it herself before returning it. Or…or not? She…wasn’t sure. If this was the kind of thing they did now, then probably…letting Reina touch some clothes she’d been in…wasn’t a problem.

Was this the kind of thing they did now?

As she left the room and made her way to the bathroom, it was that question that floated around her, twisted and re-formed in different ways. Simplified and shortened. At the heart of the matter was the issue at hand—their relationship, more or less…

There was an obvious conclusion—friends…did not do this kind of thing. Best friends did not do this kind of thing. Of course they didn’t.

...So wasn’t it pretty simple?

But…

…if they weren’t friends, then…

Maybe…this was the kind of thing they would be doing? And…that was just how it was. And it was fine.

If…

If.

She was just going in circles in her head. Mostly, it was things like ‘if Reina thinks this, then that’. To her

Well, to Kumiko, it had felt right—it didn’t feel wrong, that was still true. But she couldn’t go on without worrying about the details at all. She had to know. When she re-entered Reina’s room, is was with acceptance of that in her mind. The challenge was that she had to ask something so hard to ask—the saving grace was that she only had to ask Reina. There was a limit to how nervous she could be to do that, because…it was still Reina.

From the doorway, she saw that Reina was lying in her bed, but she’d dressed as well while Kumiko was gone. She felt, uh, an odd mixture of relief and—kind of—disappointment...

She approached tentatively.

“Hey, so...” She started, trying to sound deliberately casual, “Do you think…we’re still…friends?”

Reina’s head seemed to twitch a little before it tilted up.
“I think...if that’s what you want, then it’s fine with me.”

“…If that’s what I want? What...does that mean?”

Reina looked away from her.
“Just what it sounds like, I’d say.”

Eh? Kumiko didn’t get it, but she knew she didn’t exactly like it—she got closer and sat down on the edge of the bed because Reina seemed almost embarrassed or something.
“I’m asking what you think, though…”

Apparently feeling her sit down, Reina turned back and Kumiko managed to hold her gaze, which felt significant.
“To me, you’re important. It’s not the same as… Well, I’m not sure if friends is the right word. But...I thought that even before this.”

…So to put it another way, Reina had been wondering the same thing…

“The word I would pick,” Reina suddenly said with noticeable confidence in her voice, “Is love. Just like back then.”

Reina was staring at her, and Kumiko’s brain turned soggy.

Back then?
“…That—that wasn’t the same thing.”

“No. But…it wasn’t that different. I didn’t realize, back then.”

“And…now?”

“…Hontou. Aishiteru.”


Aishiteru, she said. Aishiteru.
The phrase echoed as soon as it left Reina’s mouth. It was…true that…a lot of their jokes had meanings too, but…there was nothing particularly playful, or…characteristically dramatic about the way Reina said it. She sounded as if she simply meant it in exactly the way the word implied.

“I don’t think it’s very complicated. I think…if I’d been smarter, I could’ve figured it out sooner. You’re…not like anyone else, to me. So that’s just the way it is. But, if it’s different for you, that’s okay. I won’t go back on that promise, no matter what. Because you’re important.”


What was she saying?
If Reina ended up feeling that way, on her own, about two different people in as many days…that would definitely be a problem. That was why the whole thing was so reckless on Kumiko’s part—the timing of it more than anything. She’d…let herself be comforted by the things Reina said, but… Once they left the river, Reina had been thinking way more about Kumiko than she was about herself. She saw that clearly now. It was kind of strange, to hear her talk like that…if Reina wanted something, she usually went after it without relent. She was being direct, but didn’t seem willing to put Kumiko under any pressure. It was kind of unlike her. Maybe…it was because of what had happened yesterday. With Taki-sensei. Some…wound…to her confidence? Or, maybe it was really just that…the relationship they’d already had meant as much to her as it did to Kumiko, and she didn’t want to put that in any sort of danger? Kumiko didn’t know for sure—couldn’t tell. She wanted to know. Really, she felt like she had to find out. But…not right then. Not right away.

It was lucky—it was really, really lucky—that there was no need to worry about the consequences that would have come from a difference in feelings.

“Reina…of course I feel like that too,” She said, pulling her legs up and lying flat on the bed next to Reina. “Last night, I was thinking…I’ve never—ever—felt that good before. Really.”


Reina looked at her blankly.

And, she…realized how they may have sounded

“I—I mean, in…general. In general! You get what I mean, right?”

Reina nodded and it made a sound against the pillow.
“Nn, I get what you mean.”

Kumiko sighed—why was it still embarrassing to talk about that? After what she’d been able to do, that was ridiculous…

“Kumiko.”

“Hm?”

“…What about the other part?”

She shuddered and froze—felt her face preheating to about 400 degrees.
“Ah—uh, well I…I liked…that part too. That’s obvious.”

The slight glimmer in Reina’s eyes had turned into noticeable amusement and a small grin.
“Cute.”

“…Hey, aren’t you making fun of me now?”

“Not really. I liked it too.”

Kumiko would have come up with something biting if the simple agreement hadn’t pushed her well over her safe operating temperature.

Reina shifted onto her back and took a deep breath—it almost sounded like relief, or satisfaction…whatever it was, Kumiko was happy she’d caused it.
“So, you…feel that way too…”

“…Nn.”

“Then…” Reina let out into the air, something kind of hesitant in her tone, “From now on, we’re…going out?”


Going out. Going out.
Kumiko couldn’t contain a small giggle.

Reina turned her head to look at Kumiko from the side.
“…What?”

“Well…isn’t this definitely the wrong order?”

“Mm…you…may be right. …It just happened that way. I don’t think there’s any problem.”

“Me neither,” Kumiko said, but it was still pretty funny and that lingered in her voice.

Reina waited a bit, then said,
“You didn’t answer me, though.”

“That’s because you already know the answer.”

“…Say it?”

Oh, god. Now that was cute.
“…Hold on.”

Kumiko flipped over so she was facing out at the room, took a hugely exaggerated breath, then flipped back over to Reina.

“Kousaka-san. The truth is…I like you. I really like you… So, please…go out with me.”

Reina chuckled through her nose.
“Nani sore?”

“I had to say it properly.”

Reina matched her with a feigned meekness and spoke quietly,
“Well, I don’t really know about that kind of thing, but......if it’s you, then…I might be okay with it.”

Kumiko snorted.
“Wait wait wait, isn’t that reply way too innocent? We’re already in your bed here, you know.”

Reina smiled.
“Maybe so.”

She laid back and looked up at the ceiling, so Kumiko did too. There were only a few second before she felt Reina’s hand touch hers and intwine their fingers. It was a quick, nonchalant movement—like Reina somehow knew exactly where her hand was without looking.

“…Kakkōī…” Kumiko said,

And they both laughed—and neither of them let go.

Kumiko closed her eyes and they laid there for a while, but…she doubted she could go back to sleep. For one thing…she could feel her heart beating rapidly, but it was in a different sort of way. More familiar. This was…

Well, it was pretty much just happiness, wasn’t it?

Yeah.

She was really happy.

She squeezed Reina’s hand just hard enough to be sure she’d feel it.

“I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, but…” She said without opening her eyes. “…I’m really happy right now.”

She felt Reina let go and move—looked and saw her shift onto her stomach, but come much closer in the process. One of her legs ended up on top of Kumiko’s again, and she draped her whole arm over Kumiko’s torso.
“…Me too.” She said.

And, the feeling was…god, it was…it was just perfect. There was something instinctive about it…Kumiko couldn’t place it, exactly, but she felt like holding on to Reina as if someone would try to take her away. She…couldn’t quite think of anyone who would do that, but she wanted to anyway. What came out, rather than an explanation of any of that, was a quick laugh, and—
“You’re so touchy-feely, Reina.”

“…That’s only natural, isn’t it?” Reina mumbled into the pillow, very closely below Kumiko’s ear.

Maybe it was.
Well, she wasn’t complaining.

Kumiko responded by leaning over and doing the same—the result was essentially them lying in the bed and hugging. It was still a new sensation for her—she wasn’t 100% confident in the action, couldn’t act completely familiar with something she wasn’t very familiar with, and that bit of apprehension may have come across. But, that wasn’t something Reina would mind. She could tell.

She wasn’t sure how long it was they held that position—she savored it, because it couldn’t last too long. They would have to get up soon. But—she realized, feeling a surge of warmth—that it wasn’t so bad, because they could do this again.

Because they were going out.

The thought sent her into a contented daze, and somewhere in the back of her mind she hoped that Reina was even half as delighted as she was right then.

Eventually, she came down to reality a little and reluctantly began to consider how to get from this newfound sanctuary back into the day to day which they still needed to participate in. She…probably needed to stop by home before going to school, so they needed some extra time for that, and…in terms of getting ready, she also felt…

“Mm…” She muttered, pulling back a bit, “Do you feel…kinda sweaty?”
…There was a point at which it had started to build up, last night…

“Want to take another bath?”

She kinda felt like that was a good idea, but…
“Kind of…but I’m not sure there’s enough time for that.”

“I think it’s fine. I don’t feel like getting to school too early today.”

Right, yeah. Well, that made sense. That she wouldn’t. Given that…

“And,” Reina continued, “We have to do our homework, anyway.”

Ah—

As the words left Reina’s mouth, Kumiko seemed to recall in an instant that homework even existed at all. It did—it certainly did, and they hadn’t done theirs. Just when would they have done it? Those were extreme circumstances. Hard to blame herself—it would’ve been hard for anyone to blame her, surely. Anyone reasonable. Anyone who she could tell exactly what had happened.

Which, all together, was..

no one.

She groaned under her breath,
“Ugh, I totally forgot…”

“I know,” Reina said. It was almost annoyingly certain, but she sounded kind of pleased, so Kumiko didn’t mind much.

“I’ll…accept that offer, then.”
Kumiko suddenly felt way sleepier than she had moments before. Having to do homework right after waking up…yeah, that was a fresh hell.

“A bath?”

“Nn.”

Reina hummed and gazed up at the ceiling.

This was all well and good, but…in some way, with how fast everything had happened, Kumiko hadn’t really stopped to consider the fact that Reina…well, that going back to that school…continuing on with band…wouldn’t it be hard for her? She was anything but the type to back down, but…still…

It was hard to imagine that she would be completely comfortable with it.

“Hey,” Kumiko said, the troubling thought making her oddly bold, “Do you want to go in together?”

Reina’s eyebrows raised slightly and a space appeared between her lips.
“…The bath?”

“…Nn.”

She brushed some messy, tangled hair hair off her forehead and let her hand run all along the side of her head.
“That’s only natural, isn’t it?”

 

~

 

The bath was something different, too. They washed each other’s backs, and she ran shampoo through Reina’s hair—touched behind her ears and rubbed her shoulders. The warm light in there was…different than the mostly-dark of Reina’s room. She…felt like…looking at a lot of things, and…it seemed like Reina did too.

They spent a long time there before getting out.

 

~

 

By the time they’d dressed, gotten ready, came downstairs, did last night’s dishes, and were eating breakfast—just some toast because despite everything Kumiko was still too sleepy to do anything more involved—she found that she couldn’t stop smirking every time she looked at Reina. And…she wasn’t doing much but look at Reina.

The more she thought about it, the more she realized that nothing about this should be shocking to her. Or, the only thing that was legitimately surprising was that Reina was okay with it—that Reina actually wanted to…have this sort of…relationship, with her. She couldn’t honestly say that, if the idea had seriously come up before any of this happened, she would’ve…been against it. It was the same feeling that had frightened her the night before, but...it was the simple truth. Reina…was like that, to Kumiko. She had been for a while, it was just…not the kind of thing that happened, so of course she hadn’t entertained the idea—hadn’t truly even considered it. But now…she was beginning to realize quite clearly that if it were up to her, this was…not only preferable, but exactly what she wanted.

Reina was everything that Kumiko cherished about the world. She was…incredibly genuine, endlessly driven—deeply caring but utterly realistic, effectively practical but captivatingly idealistic. And…mesmerizingly beautiful…

She was also the only person that Kumiko had ever trusted more than herself, other than…maybe, her family. Maybe. She was the best friend that Kumiko had ever had, and the only one that had ever honestly made her feel like…she could truly be herself, no matter how terrible that person really was. There was no overstating how much that meant to her. How much any of it did.

Reina was really important to her.

That morning she was realizing what sort of importance it actually was, and the revelation—given the circumstances—was practically blissful.

The word…girlfriend, came to mind. She didn’t even care how ridiculous it was that she’d ended up with one rather than as one. Or, more accurately...girlfriends? The syllables were so smooth in her head—they came to mind and then kept coming to mind. It came to her mind over and over and over and over again.

She didn’t say it out loud, but…

Yeah.

It was there.

As Reina walked around the kitchen cleaning up she would occasionally glance up at Kumiko—sitting there with what was surely was a stupid grin on her face, hand propping her head up from the table—and give her one of those ‘I don’t get it’ expressions, before going back to what she was doing.

“…That’s a strange face you’re making,” She simply said eventually, “I hope that means you’re happy.”

“Yeah, it does.”

“…Well, we have to leave soon. You won’t finish in time if you keep staring at me.”

…Yeah, they’d been working on homework while they ate…

The pages themselves seemed to have a lot of gall to even exist at a time like this. She thought. Luckily, Reina was probably one of the best people at their school—maybe in the whole city—to study with. She had a natural ability to explain complicated concepts, which Kumiko always appreciated, even when she’d rather be doing most anything else. It was…easy to understand how Reina had come to place so much importance on Taki-sensei when one saw the similarities between them. If Reina ever ended up teaching, Kumiko thought that their styles would be very, very similar. Reina seemed to effortlessly walk a perfect middle ground—able to help her understand the path to an answer, without simply giving that answer away—all in all, Kumiko was pretty sure her grades had risen a fair amount on average since they’d started doing school work together.

That said, today…well, today, Reina’s assistance was bordering a bit on……well, flat-out cheating, but, again…these were extraordinary circumstances!

Kumiko supposed Reina was watching the time carefully, because at a point after she herself had finished entirely and Kumiko had begun an english workbook section—the last assignment she had to worry about—Reina stopped nearly-telling her what to write and went back to letting her figure it out herself. Apparently she thought there was enough time for that.

Problem was, paying attention to homework while Reina told her what to do was a very different endeavor than paying attention to homework while Reina did something else ten feet from her. At the moment…that was asking a lot.

“If you say you don’t like me staring at you, then I’ll stop.”

Reina gave her a steely-eyed look.
“It’s more like I’d feel bad if you ended up getting scolded by a teacher because of this.”

“Well,” Kumiko thought, “That already happened yesterday…”

“Yesterday?”


Damn it.
“Ah, yeah, just—just for running in the hall...”

“…Running?”


Come to think of it, she hadn’t told Reina exactly how she found her…
If Reina’s face was any indication…
She was coming to the same realization…

“Kumiko...exactly what happened yesterday?”

So…Kumiko went on to recount it in detail. She didn’t particularly want to—she thought that there were a lot of things Reina probably didn’t want to remember about it—but she did anyway, because it was obvious Reina wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less. She didn’t say very much as Kumiko spoke, but she did walk over and sit down at the table.

When Kumiko stopped talking, Reina sat back and assumed a tired-looking posture.
“I see,” She said.

As Kumiko had run though the events in her mind, certain things came back with unfortunate clarity.
“I wasn’t thinking it through at all…I was really worried, but, I can’t believe I yelled at him…”

“It just happened that way, right? Taki-sensei…wouldn’t punish you for something like that.”

She could only hope. Reina was probably right, but…she could only hope.

“…Most likely, he understood. I’m not surprised he’d tell you. You’re easy to trust, so he’d figure that much out.”


“You’re giving me too much credit, all I did was act upset.”

“Because you were, right? Even though nothing bad happened to you. That’s how it is with you.”

She wasn’t comfortable listening to Reina say that—that kind of thing sounded better as a justified action more than a regular habit…

“Well, I love that about you.”

That caught her off guard and she felt the embarrassment show—if Reina noticed, she didn’t seem to care. It was hardly true, anyway…if something bad happened to Reina it may as well have happened to Kumiko too.
“…You keep saying things like that, and expect me to focus on english…”

Reina stood up and went back to whatever she was doing.
“Won’t you just have to get used to it?”


Maybe she would.

 

~

 

In the entryway—just before they left—Kumiko stopped Reina and initiated a kiss which she let last for some time, because she did not know when they would next be able to do so again.

She walked out without waiting for a response, because it felt like a tiny bit of payback.

 

~

 

The inches of snow that had fallen during the night were not able to sustain their form in the morning’s warmth. A melty sludge coated the sides of the roads along which they walked, and accented the gray skies above them. It was a dreary, damp day, and it did not much matter—to Kumiko, it was a more vivid one than almost any that had come before.

They walked on the side of the main road that became Uji Bridge further south, as the world woke up around them. She held both their bags in one hand and gripped Reina’s hand in the other. It was pleasant in several different ways. Part of her wondered how long they could keep it up. If she kept holding on, even after they stopped at her apartment—on the train to school and through the front gates—would Reina keep holding on too? Was she brave enough to try it—start some game of chicken that could easily result in a question from someone they knew that neither of them were likely prepared to answer?

Or, would Reina answer something like that without any trouble at all?

She really didn’t know.

For now, there was a little time—they were headed to her apartment building in order for her to change certain articles of clothing. As it was, she was still wearing Reina’s casual clothes under her uniform…

Which…was nice in its own way…

They reached Uji Bridge and were nearing its center before Kumiko formed the whispered question,
“Hey, did you…actually know…you would, you know…do something…with a girl…?”

Reina didn’t seem to react in any noticeable way, but…Kumiko wondered if that had been a slight tug on her arm.
“Not exactly. It’s not really that I knew…more like, I was thinking that it might not matter to me. If…someone was a boy or girl. I didn’t know for sure.”

“…Sou.”
Well, that did sort of seem like her. Though…it was also kind of surprising. Reina wasn’t the type to shy away from something simply because it was unconventional, but it also…never seemed like she would’ve thought about girls that way. But then, it never seemed like she thought about anyone but Taki-sensei that way. If they ever talked about things like romance, it was usually in that context.

“But…” Reina continued…and apparently had trouble wording whatever was supposed to come next.

“But what?”

“It’s not like it was a huge shock to me. I’ve thought about those things, so…”

“I…get it.”

“…Isn’t it like that for you?”


She sounded oddly confident of that. Kumiko didn’t mind, but…
“Maybe. ...Well, you know that I’ve never really understood this…”

“…Hontou? Do you…maybe…only like girls?”

Ah—
—wait, wait, why was she saying that so clearly?
“What—what makes you say that?”

“No…real reason. Sorry if I’m wrong. I guess…I might have got that impression?”


Reina had that impression of her…really? For how long?

She…well, she couldn’t definitively say it wasn’t true, but…she wouldn’t say it that certainly…

“I can’t…exactly say you’re wrong, but…” She got a bit embarrassed, but had to continue, “…I really don’t think I’ve felt that way about anyone but you.”

The look Reina gave her was a weird one, sudden and inquisitive—what, she thought Kumiko had always liked girls but was surprised the only girl she probably would’ve liked was Reina herself? Kumiko didn’t really get it. Hadn’t she already told her that she never thought about this kind of thing?
“…What’s so strange about that?”

“Nothing’s…strange about it. I guess it’s just not what I expected.”

...
“How long have you thought that about me?”

Reina took a long second before replying.
“Maybe...since the fireworks festival?”

T-The fireworks festival? But…that was...
“That—that’s forever ago! …Why then?”

“...I don’t know, I just did.”

Kumiko felt…kind of shaken. She didn’t think what Reina was saying was true, but…it was almost as if Reina saying so was convincing her it must be.

“Don’t worry too much about it. It was just a guess. It doesn’t bother me either way.”

“Okay…” She said, but it came out pretty defeated-sounding.

“Why do you sound sad?”

She sighed.
“I don’t know. It’s not you—I just wish I had a better answer, I guess.”

“There’s nothing wrong with what you said.”

“Nn. But…”

She’d mostly been staring at her feet as she walked, but glancing up, Reina was watching her very closely.

She suddenly got slightly nervous, but continued anyway,
“I just…I don’t think I said it earlier, but…I’m pretty sure I love you too. I…uh, well, the problem is that I don’t really get…the difference between this feeling or that feeling, but…I don’t think the word ‘love’ is wrong. …Probably. Even before this, I always thought about you. I can never forget anything you say, and sometimes I…make myself depressed just thinking about what it would be like if we…couldn’t be friends anymore, or something. I don’t know. I always end up feeling like I never want to be away from you. It’s not like I planned for something like this to happen, but, it did, and…I did really like it, so...if the question is whether I like girls, then, I really can’t say for sure, but…with you, I’m pretty sure…well, that this feeling is…what people mean by…that kind of love.”

When she finished speaking, her own rambling words washed over her—it was at once what she’d wanted to say and way more than she’d wanted to say. Reina had to pull on her hand as they turned a corner because Kumiko was so engrossed in what she was saying she almost went the wrong way to her own home. When Reina did it again, Kumiko almost thought she’d been about to take another wrong turn, but this time Reina just pulled her all the way into her arms, right there on the side of the street.
“’Pretty sure’?” She said into Kumiko’s ear, “Isn’t that a terrible thing for the person who kissed me first to say?”

Her words didn’t match her tone at all. There was such comfort in the way she spoke—Kumiko had heard that voice enough to know when Reina was happy.
“…Nn, you’re right. I decided I can’t lie to you, though. It’s too hard, and it never works. So it’s your own fault, but I have to tell the truth no matter what.”

“Nn.”

They slowly pulled away—Kumiko didn’t want to stop, but she couldn’t get the fact that they were on the side of the road during the busiest part of the morning out of her head.
“Sorry, I just felt like I needed to tell you that. I hope…it’s not too different from what you meant.”

Reina’s narrowed her eyes and her face became blank.
“Of course it’s different. I love you without a doubt. It’s easy to tell.”

Eh—
So…so harsh…

“But,” Reina said, as she pulled on Kumiko’s arm and began to drag her stunned body along, “I’m glad you told me. I’ll have to do my best to convince you fully.”

“Hey, it’s—it’s really not that different—you don’t have to convince me of anything.”

“Is that so?”

“Yeah. I’m pretty su—”
Ah—no, wait—

“Hmm.”

“Didn’t—weren’t you saying it’s normal to be uncertain about this sort of thing?”

“Nn. But I’m not uncertain at all. I love you.”

...
“But—what about Taki-sensei, then?”

...

She really, really hadn’t wanted to bring that up! At least not yet, why did she—damn it.

Reina turned around and gave her that look. That very satisfied one—that almost smug one. The one that was like ‘I finally got you to say it’.
“How do you think I know what it feels like?” She said, and lead on down the street.

Kumiko—it was becoming clearer and clearer every day—truly had no choice but to follow.

 

~

 

They reached Kumiko’s apartment, and she changed in her room. After an unnecessarily long fuss, her mom gave her a bento (…which she usually did), and then insisted on handing Reina one as well, saying something like ‘Please thank your parents for having her’.

…After a quick bit of eye contact, they wordlessly decided not to mention that they’d been alone at Reina’s house. Even though Kumiko wasn’t exactly sure why. In general, they’d both walked into the apartment and acted like nothing was at all different, but…it wasn’t something they’d agreed upon beforehand. It just happened.

And…the more she thought about it, they tended to be together all the time anyway, so…in some ways…wasn’t nothing at all different? Except for the parts that were totally different, but no one would know about that.

She supposed that eventually, it could be hard to keep it a secret, but…was it a secret?

It wasn’t unusual for people their age to be going out, but it would be unusual for Kumiko to be…and on top of that, obviously…it wasn’t exactly ordinary…

They were walking out of her apartment building’s outer doorway when she asked, “Reina, this is…a secret, isn’t it?”

Reina’s mouth opened into a small oval for just a second.
“If you want it to be.”

“…If I want? Why’s it only up to me?”

Reina glanced at her like, ‘Don’t you already know?

And she…supposed she did, but…wasn’t there a limit to not caring about what anyone else thought? It wasn’t like she much wanted to have to worry about anyone else’s opinion, but…

If she thought about…well, her parents, for one…she…had no idea how they’d react. Every once in a while, her mom liked to bug her about whether there was anyone she wanted to date. She thought she was much funnier than she was, but that was always about boys. Obviously. This…if she had to guess, they…probably…wouldn’t be very happy? She really didn’t know. She wasn’t sure how she could know. Did Reina?

“…What about your parents?” She probed.

Reina went quiet for a little while.
“Well, I’m not completely sure, but…it’s not like they’d be able to change my mind.”

The thing about that was when Reina said it, Kumiko really believed her. She did think she herself could say the same, but…she’d be lying to say the idea of it didn’t worry her.

At least Reina seemed to be somewhat conflicted as well. She continued after a few moments, unprompted,
“I…guess I wouldn’t tell them. But, if someone asked, there’s no way I would deny it.”

Kumiko hummed but it came out intermittently—sounded more like a laugh.
“Hontou?”

“…Nn.”

“You could just deny it, though. I wouldn’t mind, since you keep telling me the truth.”

“What’s the point in that?”

...
She probably should’ve expected that response from Reina. It wasn’t really that Reina didn’t see the point in things like that as much as that she actively disliked them—facades, for other peoples’ sake. Reina had a problem with that sort of thing.

Kumiko was sure that if someone had told Reina that it was wrong for her to love Taki-sensei, she would’ve gotten in a fight then and there. She’d once nearly gotten in a fight with Kumiko and Shuuichi for much less. That was the high regard in which she held the people she, well…loved. But…if someone were to tell her it was wrong for a girl to love a girl, then…would she get in a fight for that too? The thought wasn’t as amusing. It sort of scared Kumiko…what if that person were to fight back?

She really didn’t like the image, so the thought of Reina defiantly standing her ground against anyone who dared to ask was less than desirable. Not that she’d ever want that part of Reina to change, but… Maybe it was okay for there to be some exceptions to things like that.

Since last night, she’d sort of been allowing herself to believe that Reina was more…experienced with this than she was, but…that wasn’t really true in reality, was it? At a certain point, wasn’t it undeniable that they’d entered upon ground that was new to the both of them? In the same way it always was, it was comforting to think that Reina simply knew what to do, but…that wasn’t fair, because this was unexplored territory for her as well.

She wondered if maybe when it came to this, it would be helpful if she held them back, just a little…if that would make it easier for Reina, too. Reina didn’t necessarily like things to be made easy for her, but…for now, at least…

“I do get what you’re saying,” Kumiko said after a little consideration, “It’s not that I’m embarrassed about it, really…”

“I know,” Reina replied quickly, and her expression was deeply gentle. Kumiko became more confident in her choice.

“But, uh…” She failed to stop her voice from climbing a bit above its usual octave, “This kind of, uh…relationship…some people really dislike it...”

“Nn,” Reina attentively nodded—obviously, she knew that. Kumiko wasn’t sure why she was explaining it.

“It’s just because I’m not sure what would happen, I guess. For now, it just seems like…maybe we should try not to let anyone know...”

“Wakatteru,” Was Reina’s answer. “That’s okay with me.”

Kumiko could tell it was the truth.
“Ah—nn. Arigatou.”

“…You don’t have to say thanks. It’s not anyone else’s business, anyway,” Reina added off-handedly.

To Kumiko, that dismissiveness was exceptionally comforting.

 

~

 

Obaku. Obaku-desu.

The force of the train slowly stopping made Kumiko lean from her seat into Reina, and she did not fight against it. Oddly enough, she would’ve been sitting closer if there were fewer people packed into the passenger car. Much closer. Down in other cars and standing at the stations they passed she spotted other students their age, some of them in Kitauji uniforms, so…she tried with great concentration to act casual.

As if appearing from nowhere, Hazuki walked through the opening doors.

“Ohayo, you two!” She said as she walked straight to them—she must have noticed them from the platform.

“Ohayo,” Reina said calmly.

And...Kumiko...
“We—We were too tired to come practice like usual!”

...
“...Okay,” Hazuki said at the completely unprompted outburst. She grabbed onto an overhead handle in front of where Kumiko and Reina were sitting.
“Anyway,” She continued—and Kumiko thanked god she continued—“Sorry for getting angry yesterday. I was...pretty embarrassed.” She rubbed the back of her head sheepishly.

Oh—that. Kumiko hadn’t even remembered.
“Ah...that’s okay. I would’ve felt the same way.”

...

Wait—wait!
“...N-Not that you should have been embarrassed! I just mean that—“

“Hai, hai,” Hazuki held a hand up straight-palmed, “Just stop now before you dig yourself deeper.”

“Ah......hai.” Kumiko hung her head in exhausted shame.

“You know, sometimes you say what you think way too easily.”

She was aware—she was well, well aware.

 

~

 

Kumiko began to calm down as they made their way to school, but she felt oddly unable to act naturally. Adding to the strange atmosphere was Reina speaking more than she usually did—probably to help cover for Kumiko’s own reticence, but it was noticeable nonetheless. It wasn’t until they’d parted ways to go to class that she was able to fully relax—let a sense of normalcy wash over her. …Of course, there were downsides to that too. She began to miss Reina almost before she’d even walked away.

She found as the morning dragged on that normalcy was not quite possible—in the back of her mind was this constant, faint little pinprick of joy that was anything but ordinary. It was nothing especially meaningful—simply the knowledge that what had happened had happened. She felt just a tiny bit more alive—a tiny bit more awake, and a tiny bit less bored by the tedium of classwork.

Every once in awhile, she put her head down and took a deep breath, because there was a smell on her uniform—must have been the soap from the washing machine—that reminded her of Reina

The morning was long…but it wasn’t unpleasant.

 

~

 

Shortly after lunch time began, Reina came to their classroom to eat. That wasn’t an everyday occurrence—Kumiko understood the meaning, even if she couldn’t mention it right then in the middle of her class. She was wondering if there was some natural reason she could come up with for her and Reina to go off and eat by themselves when Midori returned with her food to the table formed by joined desks they usually made at lunch time.

“Ah—Reina-chan! You are here!”

“Nn. I think it was just a cold—I’m feeling much better today,” Reina said without missing a single beat. It was almost frighteningly convincing.

“That’s great!”
Midori seemed genuinely happy.
“We were all worried about you—“
She leaned across the desks to whisper—loudly—and Reina looked at her curiously.
“—Most of all, Kumiko-chan. She doesn’t know what to do without you around. It’s too sad.

Midori sat back happily and Kumiko formed into a rock-solid statue, because she could not trust herself to say anything, no matter how conspicuous that silence may be.

“I see,” Reina said, and she was taking it way too seriously. She continued with palpable warmth in her voice, “Well, my parents were away—Kumiko came to take care of me, so I’m grateful.”

…What sort of story was she just making up?

“Ahh, so that’s what happened! Nice, Kumiko-chan!”

That…wasn’t exactly wrong, but, seriously…Reina’s acting was way too natural.

Hazuki gulped down a bite of some convenience store pastry and grinned.
“Kumiko-chan seems cold at first, but she’s really the motherly type.”

“Ohhh, that’s true!”

Kumiko sighed deeply and casually opened her bento.
“…Motherly type?”
And…cold

Midori giggled almost too happily to not be making fun of her.
“Don’t worry, it’s one of your good points!”

She caught a glimpse of Reina just sitting there next to her listening with way too much interest—the bento in front of her nearly identical to Kumiko’s own—and decided it would probably be best not to argue—just hope they dropped it.

“But, I could tell from looking at her,” Hazuki continued, though there was no reason to continue talking about this, “I knew right away it was a good idea to make friends with her.”

“Nn, nn,” Midori nodded, “It could be useful in the future!”

What exactly was she expecting to happen?

While the two of them continued on to do the opposite of drop the subject, Reina leaned over and whispered to Kumiko so nonchalantly it barely broke the flow of her chopsticks to her mouth.
“Just so you know, my mom won’t be back until tomorrow.”

She returned to eating while Kumiko coughed a few grains of rice out of her windpipe.

The silent eye contact that followed was a conversation in and of itself.

Lunch also wasn’t bad.

 

~

 

At some point during the afternoon classes, ensemble practice turned from something that she knew would be happening later to something that was about to happen soon. There were so many new things to think about that the worry over that particular fact had sort of faded into the background, but as the day went on she started to feel an amount of…guilt, for that. Reina did seem to be happy, and Kumiko knew that she was, but…she began to feel that there was a possibility that she’d been being…kind of…insensitive? For…basking in that feeling so much.

It wasn’t like she wanted to take any of those smirks back, like she didn’t want Reina to know she was happy—she did, but…it was all probably more complicated for Reina. She had indeed had her heart broken yesterday—even if that wasn’t the only thing that had happened. It struck her as very possible…no, most likely that Reina wasn’t over that at all. How could she be? This was a person that, in a way, Reina’s world had revolved around. She came to this school because of him—nothing that was happening between her and Kumiko now would have been possible without that. His very presence was intricately tied into her love for trumpet—her passion for music.

A lot had happened, and it had meant even more—Kumiko wasn’t going to start questioning that now. She was even prepared to believe that if Reina’s world truly had revolved around Taki-sensei, it surely did not now. At least not entirely. When Reina said that she played for herself, Kumiko did not doubt it. Not when she’d said it, not when she’d made that awful face after learning they’d received a bronze—not even when she stood entrenched in the dark, frozen river. Certainly not now.

But playing for yourself was still playing

—One played an instrument so others could hear.

That was what music was about, in the end.

On its own, heartbreak like that was enough to inspire more music than any other feeling likely ever had. Kumiko hadn’t experienced it herself, but she knew that much. Understood its gravity. For Reina, it wasn’t even that alone—the…rejection was now tied into the thing she’d always cared about most. Intrinsically linked to her everyday life. She…had to be overwhelmed—and that was to say nothing of their new relationship.

Kumiko thought that if it were her, the prospect of seeing Taki-sensei again so soon would probably be bluntly terrifying.

The idea of Reina being terrified was one thing—the idea of Reina being terrified and trying to hide it for Kumiko’s sake was another thing entirely. In a word, it was unacceptable—in that it was impossible for her to accept. Likelihood didn’t really come into the equation—as she sat at her desk letting the matter stew in her mind, band practice began to loom so very ominously over her thoughts that she eventually decided she had to do something. When classes came to an end, and she made her way out the door and directly to Reina’s classroom, it was not with any specific confidence in what she would say or how she would frame her concern—just that she had absolutely no choice but to do so, even if it amounted to nothing. Even if Reina thought it was stupid. The possibility was real—but it was simply worth that inevitability.

It wasn’t far to Reina’s classroom, and she was able to reach the hall outside before most students started pouring out. She stood against the opposite wall between the classroom’s two doorways and waited until she spotted Reina’s form through a crowd of students flowing into the halls—and walked up without wasting a second.

“—Kumiko,” Reina said with some surprise.

“Come here for a second.”

She motioned with her hand, and Reina did follow without any question. She lead her around a corner and to the back side of a stairwell, where it would be harder for anyone else to hear them.


Annnd then hesitated…

“What…is it?”

Big breath—
“I’ve just been thinking that...well, I wanted to tell you, instead of going to practice now…if you’d rather skip it, just for now, I’ll go with you. I—I’m not saying that’s what we should do, only…if that’s what you feel like, it’s okay with me, so—and, it wouldn't be running away—it would just be…mm, a break—nn, a little break—temporary, just for now…I think that would be normal…if you were worried about it…so…that’s all.”

To her credit, Reina let her finish.
“…Oh.”

“Nn…”

Reina inched up to her—came very very close indeed.
“Kumiko...I don’t want to win any less now than I did before.”

“I…know that.”

“So I won’t hide. But, thank you.”

She could be so stubborn about that kind of thing.
“I wouldn’t see it as hiding.”

“I know—that’s because you’re kind.”

Though, Kumiko did like that part of her too…

It’s not that she wasn’t convinced. More like she wondered if…there was something inherently dangerous about the attitude. Reina never much seemed to care about her own well-being. At least, compared to everything else that mattered to her. That was sort of a problem, because her well-being…it was Kumiko’s concern now too, wasn’t it?

She wasn’t sure how, but her thought process must have been clearly visible to Reina.

“I don’t want to avoid him. That would be worse. I’m sure of it. So I just have to do it. I’ll be okay—I’ve been wanting to play.”

“…Wakatta.”
Reina was so close that it was hard not to…do something, touch her at least—but they weren’t exactly blocked from view of the constant stream of students passing by the stairs.

Reina whispered,
“I thought you might be bringing me over here to kiss me.”

Kumiko exhaled sharply, but somehow…she’d almost been expecting Reina to say something like that.
“…Now? You’re not very good at this secret thing, Reina…”

Reina only looked satisfied.
“It can wait until later. ...You’re coming over again tonight, aren’t you?”

...
“Well, yeah...”

“Good. Then if I need to, I’ll just think about that.”


The words Reina was saying were happier than she actually sounded. She was nervous even if she didn’t want to say so. Or, rather—even though she was saying so, she wasn’t 100% confident in pushing through that feeling. She just fully intended to do so anyway. To try to stop that would be to prevent Reina from being Reina. All Kumiko could do was...sit in a chair a few rows over and hope that meant something to her.

“Come on,” Reina said, “We’ll be late.”

And Kumiko…looked over at the other students passing through the hall toward the shoe lockers, some of them coming down the stairs. They were right there, but none of them were looking her way. So…she just seized the moment.

It was a very quick connection of lips—more of a peck than a kiss, she moved in and out quickly and Reina didn’t seem to know what had happened until well after it did. But—Kumiko did do it.

…And then of course nearly broke her neck whipping her head in the other direction—still just people walking. No one staring.

Safe.

Kumiko had held Reina’s arms tightly to steady the rapid motion, and accidentally pushed one sleeve up her arm. Reina tugged it back down casually.
“You’re bold.”

“…I was hoping to distract you for a second.”

“I could tell that much.”

“Hey…after sectionals, let’s go somewhere else to play.”

“Okay.”

Kumiko felt a bit better after making that plan—maybe it solidified in her mind that indeed, ensemble practice would come and then it would go. They would both survive to see the other side.

A moment ago Reina had been trying to get her to leave the back of the stairwell, but now she was just standing there, staring straight ahead, which put her gaze…somewhere around Kumiko’s nose. …Maybe that kiss had worked even better than Kumiko intended?

“Should we…go?”

“…Nn.”

They walked out into the hall and began making their way toward the music room, but Reina still seemed pretty absent-minded. Not that there was much outward difference in her demeanor, but…it was one of those things Kumiko could just tell.
“Are you really all right?”

Reina looked over at her as if noticing she was there.
“Nn. I…just didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Kumiko grinned to herself, pleased.

 

~

 

Band practice was band practice. She was so focused on trying to act natural that she was fairly sure she was messing up way more often than usual, but it really couldn’t be helped. When Taki-sensei eventually showed up, he was true to his word—he made no mention of it. He didn’t even look at Reina or Kumiko in any noticeable way. Frankly, it would’ve been hard for her to tell if he even knew Reina was there, but…surely, he did. There was certainly no way that anyone would’ve been able to tell anything unusual had happened—from him, at least.

The scarce glances she was able to give Reina seemed to confirm the same about her. Really, it meant that…the only one noticeably acting out of the ordinary was Kumiko. She hoped that her anxiety wasn’t as obvious to those around her as she felt it was. She did calm some as practice went on, but that feeling sort of…twisted into something else rather than went away.

Watching Taki-sensei instruct the band the same way he always did, she ended up unable to think of anything but a younger Reina—starry-eyed and lovestruck by the person in front of her. It wasn’t very difficult for Kumiko to picture. Which in a way was the problem…

She found herself—despite the very real guilt—feeling…glad that Taki-sensei had reacted the way he had. No, more even than that, she couldn’t help wondering—what if, in some strange way, he changed his mind? She had no reason to doubt what he’d written to Reina, but—what if? She…she didn’t want to find out—she found herself sitting there almost wishing he wasn’t their advisor, so there wouldn’t even be an opportunity for that to happen. So there was no way it could. She was struck with something like fear—it was awful because of how quickly it overtook her.

She didn’t think that Reina would lie to her—that was just something she believed, and there were parts of her that thought she was being stupid—parts that wouldn’t have wanted to go on with a different band advisor. But, at the same time…it was somehow overwhelming. It wasn’t jealously, per se, it was just…some kind of…jealously. Maybe this new feeling she had toward Reina was just too strong. Maybe, the links Reina had with Taki-sensei were too deep. It made her feel petty, and it made her feel guilty, but she did wish it was possible for Reina to avoid him altogether. Wished that Reina…would want to.

It was a terrible thing to think, and she wondered if Reina would see it as lightly as she did all of Kumiko’s other faults.

Ensemble practice went only a bit longer than usual that day, and Taki-sensei wasn’t even there for most of it, but Kumiko spent a long time in his presence.

 

~

 

She used the small break that generally occurred before sectionals to quickly walk over to Reina. Yoshizawa-san was saying something to her as people around them stood up and prepared to move instruments and supplies, so Kumiko waited for an opening before approaching and bending over so she could talk to Reina very quietly.

“Daijobu?”

“Nn.”
Reina stood up herself—kept her hands on her trumpet’s valves even though they weren’t playing right now. She did that, sometimes, stood there at the ready for no real reason.

She glanced around a little and side-stepped out from her chair, so they were touching shoulders—huddled together.

“I thought I sounded a little off…”

What, her playing? Kumiko hadn’t noticed anything like that.
“Uu-un,” She shook her head, “You sounded perfectly normal.”

“…Sou.”


“Taki-sensei…is really good at acting natural.”

Reina eyed her questioningly.
“You don’t have to worry so much.”


Even if she said that…
“Mm…really?” Kumiko asked, and she supposed her tone may have sounded a bit confrontational.

“Really.”

Typically, Kumiko helped move things with the rest of the bass section, and the other trumpets were already leaving the room. If they stood together there much longer, it would be out of the ordinary—but Kumiko couldn’t bring herself to move away.
“…Aren’t you something I should worry about?” She mumbled, and felt guilty for doing so—Reina really may not want to talk about it. But…

“…Come here.”
Reina walked toward the door, and Kumiko followed. She carried her trumpet towards the large row of sinks a ways down the hall from the music room, and Kumiko was once again relieved that Reina knew just what to do.

There were people out in the hall, too, but they stayed close and lowered their voices.

“You know what I thought?” Reina asked her.

“…What?”

“I thought that…he seemed really mature. That’s all I could think.”

“…Mature?”

“Nn. Yesterday, I didn’t want to think that it could really be something like that—that to him, it was about being realistic. I didn’t want to accept that at all. But today…I thought that, after all, he’s an adult, just like he said.”

There was an objectivity to what Reina was saying, but…definitely, there was frustration in her voice. She said it like a complaint—like it was a sort of betrayal.
“I guess…that’s true…”

“Do you think that’s honest?”

…Kumiko wondered exactly what she meant.
“What is?”

“Being realistic,” Reina answered, intense but blunt, “That sort of…maturity.”

Kumiko wondered.

Adults were like that. If Reina was upset by it, then…Kumiko probably understood as well as anyone. She didn’t want to believe that it was honest, but…she wondered if…maybe honesty itself wasn’t as concrete a tenet as that.
“I…don’t know,” Kumiko said, and meant it.

“I don’t know either,” Reina replied, and looked at the water spiraling down the drain.

“…Does it make you angry?”

“…Does what?”

Mm…she was being a little difficult…
“That being…his reason.”

Reina stared down at that water for a long time. Her mouthpiece had long since left the stream.
“I don’t think it does. I think it just makes me…sad.”

The sound of the running water, of band members in rooms nearby tuning their instruments—the hazy light coming through the windows above the sink basin and the dull colors of the shadowed hallway—it all coalesced into an image that suddenly gave Kumiko the impression they’d had this conversation before. The exact same one. Or—the opposite, from a different direction. Something like that.

“But, I almost don’t want to say that to you,” Reina continued with a light smile—but, she didn’t have to. She smiled, but she didn’t seem to feel like smiling, and so Kumiko thought, yeah—Reina didn’t have to smile for her sake. She knew she’d had an identical thought before, and that disturbed her. “Because…I really don’t want you to—“

“That’s not true, though,” Kumiko interjected forcefully, much louder than she intended. Outside the scope of their hushed conversation. She startled herself a bit.

Reina’s eyes were a little wide when she looked up, too.

“You…you shouldn’t think that,” She went on, quieter, “You should tell me whatever you want. Of course you’re sad about that…I know that.”

Reina turned back to the sink, but stepped over to the side. Kumiko recognized the feeling of Reina’s palm clasping her own, of Reina’s fingertips lightly resting on the back of her hand—she was becoming familiar with that, with the way the pieces fit together.
“…That’s why it’s hard to say. I meant what I said, so I don’t want you to think that I didn’t. I can’t exactly explain it, but, definitely—I’m still sure. About you. About lov—“

“I—I get it, I get it,” Kumiko shushed her.

“…As long as you do.”

“Reina, to me, it’s much more important that you—“

“Hey, Oumae-chan!”

At Natsuki-senpai’s voice, Kumiko jumped and then froze—and squished into Reina’s side so as hide their joined hands within the ruffled fabric of their skirts. She was standing down the hall, calling to Kumiko.

“We’re waiting for you, you know!”

“Ah, goumen! One—one second!”

Reina…looked fairly amused, but the expression was genuine, so Kumiko couldn’t really be annoyed. Reina quickly turned off the faucet, and the abrupt silence seemed to be her way of punctuating the conversation.

Kumiko herself felt far from finished.

“It’s alright,” Reina whispered, “Really. I’ll see you after sectionals.”

It didn’t seem to matter how many times Reina said it was alright—some part of Kumiko was vehemently opposed to leaving her alone right then.

However…every other factor was working against her, so she sighed and said, “Of course you will,” which she supposed was her own way of pushing through her intent.

She let go and began to head back for her instrument—but the squeeze she gave Reina’s hand before doing so was nothing short of aggressive.

 

~

 

When sectionals ended, Kumiko had no reservations about packing up her euphonium and putting school behind them for the day. She and Reina went home with Hazuki and Midori, and it was nice—it was actually really, really nice. She felt relaxed in the company of the three people she’d become closest to since high school started nearly a year ago, and as a result she was left with a nebulous appreciation for life itself.

After Hazuki’s stop, she and Reina engaged in a tired but not unpleasant silence. Their earlier conversation still weighed heavily on her mind, but she couldn’t decide from exactly which angle she wanted to approach the topic, so she tabled the thought for the moment.

She was instead preoccupied with something far less important but perhaps just as serious. Today, Reina was wearing a familiar type of black thigh-high socks—not unusual, and Kumiko had noticed a long time ago that they looked good on her. However, that thought now took on a vastly different meaning. As Reina sat there, her skirt draped off her legs onto the train seat, just managing to bridge the gap to the black fabric running up her legs. But, when she shifted—even small movements, like the one where she slid over so they were closer once Hazuki left—her skirt ran up just enough for Kumiko to glimpse the bare skin of her thighs that lie between the two pieces of clothing. Without a doubt, it was that absolute territory. Kumiko understood the meaning like she never had before.

Reina’s skin was light and beautiful. The thing was, though, that more than ever, Kumiko was also aware of how it felt—in recent memory, she’d felt…a lot of it. A…lot, of that skin. It sufficed to say that she was not soon likely to forget that soft, delicate texture. Right then, she couldn’t even stop thinking about it. So…she ruminated on that patch of skin for a long, long while, even as they walked from the station to her apartment. Not that she mentioned it. Once there, she grabbed a change of clothes and some other essentials while explaining to her mother that she was going back to Reina’s that night.

She was able to get away with it by claiming that they’d been working on some intense homework together, which wasn’t strictly untrue, but definitely exaggerated.

On the way back north toward Uji Bridge, they stopped at the group of riverside benches Kumiko liked to sit at, in order—sadly—to begin the homework in question, but also to practice together with a nice view. They stayed there for a long time, as the sky began to darken and the air became colder. The morning’s overcast had relented around mid-day, but now it was returning with a vengeance. She checked her weather app and saw that the night was expected to bring another cold front—and maybe even more snow. It never seemed to end.

Still—the foreboding skies reflected on the water’s shimmering surface mixed into something that was elegantly striking in its own way. It helped that any real sign of Reina’s earlier melancholy seemed to completely dissipate as they shifted from homework to practice. Kumiko would even say she seemed to be in a particularly good mood—she moved around as they played, swaying a little with the rhythm, walking forward and turning back to look at Kumiko without missing a note. The feeling of playing together with Reina—just the two of them—was wholly enjoyable, without any of the unfortunate connotations that had surrounded ensemble practice. Like many things, Kumiko felt she was appreciating it in an entirely new light.

They practiced for a while, and eventually Reina moved down the stone steps in front of the bench and began to play from right over the rocky ledge above the water itself. She gazed down for some time, and Kumiko wondered just what she was seeing in the reflection below. But, there was also something…vaguely distressing about the visual. It probably just had to do with last night, but seeing Reina over there that close to the river was fairly unsettling.

When they once again came to the end of the section they’d been focusing on for the past several minutes, Kumiko called casually,
“Do you have to stand that close to the edge? Kind of freaks me out...”

Reina turned around and looked at her fondly before starting back toward the bench.
“Sorry. Those two are right though, you are the motherly type.”

Jeeze, now Reina was saying that? It was true that this situation had happened to make her look that way…


Well, maybe a lot of things recently had, but…

She sighed.
“I don’t want to hear that from you too.”

Reina seemed to walk right up to her, but then turned toward the unoccupied side of the bench.
“They’re also right that it’s a good point.”

When she began to sit down on the bench next to Kumiko, it was from the wrong direction—on the side, with her back turned. Her lower legs hung off to the left as she slowly began to drop her torso toward Kumiko. Surprised though she was, Kumiko got it quickly enough, which was fairly lucky—she had to move her euph out of the way and set it on the ground next to them so Reina didn’t bang her head into the metal.

Just like that, the instrument in her lap had been replaced with Reina’s head before she knew what was happening.

Not that…she would have protested, but…

She was unable to prevent a strange noise of surprise from escaping her mouth—she hoped at least that her enjoyment was audible within it. When she looked down at Reina face, questioning but not unhappy, the expression that met her provided little in explanation.

Reina then did something Kumiko definitely did not expect—raised her trumpet, still gripped in her hands, to her mouth, and began to play from that position. Kumiko was too awe-struck to do anything but watch. The sounds she produced weren’t from one single piece—there was a part of something they were working on now, and then a tune Kumiko had heard somewhere but didn’t recognize by name, maybe Reina had played it before, and finally she transitioned into the second half of her Crescent Moon Dance solo. None of it sounded right—she clearly wasn’t used to playing while completely horizontal, and it was all much quieter than it should be—she was probably trying not to puncture Kumiko’s ear drums. The fact that she could do that at all while mostly preserving the tone of relatively complicated pieces was a testament to Reina’s skilled embouchure. The effort was admirable, and the result sounded pretty good, all things considered.

Aside from the trumpet, Kumiko couldn’t see much other than Reina’s eyes gazing up at her, completely stoic and still. Total, icy seriousness in them. She kept looking down and tried to maintain the same expression—it became a sort of staring contest, but the look of Reina’s steely eyes almost covered by the bell of the trumpet was simply too much.

Just before Reina was finished with the solo, Kumiko burst out laughing.

The effect cascaded downward, and Reina broke as well.

“Nani sore?” Kumiko managed through breathy laughs.

“…This is the best way to work on my passionate solo.”

“Oh, sure, that…” Kumiko said, catching her breath. “Where exactly are you going to play that, again?”

Reina continued looking up at her and hummed.
“I don’t know...if you’re around, it might slip out at any time.”

Kumiko grinned and stifled another giggle.
“That’s pretty hard to picture. You’re too professional for that to happen.”

“Mmm...well, it’s not strange for a performance to be dedicated to someone. If I get a solo next year, maybe I’ll stand up and dedicate it to you.”

...That was more frightening, because Kumiko could almost see it happening. It wasn’t strange to dedicate a performance to someone, but it would certainly be unusual for a student to do it at a high school band competition. Problem was...she could see that making it more appealing to Reina…
“Don’t actually do that. I might die.”

“...That would be bad,” Reina said, but she didn’t sound particularly concerned. It was her ruthless streak, but Kumiko was familiar with that. At the moment, she seemed to be behaving a bit indulgently, which was newer. She set her trumpet down between her body and the back of the seat, turned over onto her side—so she was facing Kumiko’s stomach—and pulled her legs up onto the bench into a near-fetal position. Once settled, she shut her eyes and laid there quietly.

The feeling...obviously, it wasn’t bad.
“...What, are you going to go to sleep right there?”

“Maybe.”

...

“It’s comfortable. Your lap.”

“...Is that so...?”

“Nn. Your skirt smells familiar, too...”

“...That’s because you washed it.”

“You think? I think I might just know your smell...”

...
Kumiko supposed both possibilities could be true, but either way, that was too much for her. She felt her face heat up and she had to shut up and stop looking down at the girl resting on her legs. Reina seemed content with the silence, too.

…Not that Kumiko could stop looking at her for very long…
“You know, it’s kind of strange seeing you act like this...”

Reina opened her eyes and tilted her head to peek up at her.
“…Do you dislike it?”

Kumiko felt a bit indignant at that.
“Isn’t that a little dishonest? You can already tell it’s the opposite, can’t you?”

Reina only smiled and went back to looking like she was asleep.

Kumiko…began to feel like she didn’t want to be there anymore. It wasn’t that she felt nervous about doing this in public—although there was a little of that—it was more that…she was just feeling like…she wanted them to be alone…

But, there was a pretty big problem with that, which was that she’d have to ask Reina to move—and she definitely didn’t want to ask Reina to move. Actually, if it wasn’t impossible to reach her bag off to the side of the bench without Reina noticing, she probably would’ve pulled out her phone and taken a picture right then. The position was too adorable. The fact it was Reina doing it was almost funny to her, but that only contributed to the feeling—it definitely was strange to see Reina act like this, but it was also perfectly Reina-like in some quintessential way. As she sat there gazing down, Kumiko began to quietly snicker. She thought it was pretty quiet, anyway—maybe the vibrations were the give away.

“What are you laughing about?”

“This is the kind of thing that makes you cute, Reina.”

“…Is that a compliment?”

“Mmm…I’d say so. What else would it be?”

“If anyone’s cute, it’s you.”

How?
“…How?
Seriously. In comparison, especially—there was probably no one on the planet who would agree with that.

“…I don’t think it’s something that can be put into words, rather, it’s something one feels. Kumiko is cute.”

So, it wasn’t true.
“So, it’s definitely not true.”

“It’s true.”

—Reina said so matter-of-factly. She looked pointedly uninterested in any rebuttal, her eyes still closed and her mouth pursed up into an understated grin. She had a way of saying things that made Kumiko want to believe them. Still…it wasn’t as if the topic hadn’t been on her mind. From the moment during last year’s Agata festival that Reina had told her she thought Kumiko was interesting—made a point of confiding in her about her desire to become special—Kumiko had questioned—why her? The long sequence of events that had lead to them walking up Mt. Daikichi was basically a comedy of errors and strange misunderstandings. And yet Reina still set her sights on Kumiko—essentially forced their friendship into existence right then and there. Kumiko was glad she had, certainly, but…did wonder why.

Reina told her that she seemed like a good girl, but actually wasn’t. Hazuki told her that she seemed cold, but was actually caring. Asuka told her that she seemed to be curious about other people, but was actually afraid of them. Everyone saw some kind of contradiction in Kumiko, apparently—thought that she wasn’t honest with herself, or something. It would be lying to say that it didn’t get to her—that she didn’t question why people said things like that about her, but…she couldn’t see herself as anything but normal. Maybe even depressingly normal.

In middle school, multiple friends had commented on her wishy-washiness. She had sort of a reputation for going with the flow, being easy to influence and making decisions thoughtlessly—Shuuichi used to tease her about it. She couldn’t even deny that she’d decided to go to Kitauji for that type of reason. In a way, most of the things that had happened over the past year could be considered a simple reaction to that—she had been worried about it, and she supposed that joining Kitauji’s concert band had been the first action in a series of efforts to truly care about something she was doing. But, she hadn’t come to that decision in a vacuum. She could only have done so because others so easily influenced her—she was simply trying to take on the qualities she most admired, even if she had trouble understanding them. If there was anything that was interesting about her, it was probably just that she was a bland and indecisive person who sometimes tried very hard not to be.

That was the reason the two of them felt like such an odd pair—because, Reina, if anything, was the opposite. She was the definition of interesting—

—No, more accurately, she was the definition of attractive. Her personality was as gracefully enigmatic as her looks—what she possessed could not be adequately described as enthusiasm or confidence—passion really was the only word that came close to capturing her fully. Reina was passionate to her core, and Kumiko thought right then that passion must be the heart of beauty. She seemed to be staring down at beauty incarnate, resting its head in her lap—and that wasn’t even to say anything of the actual physical difference between them, which was vast in its own right. Just another area where Kumiko hoped she could be called normal and not anything lesser. Truly—

“There’s really no way someone like me should be…going out with someone like you.”
The thought just slipped out, but she didn’t really attempt to stop it.

Reina opened her eyes again and shifted to her back—Kumiko felt the contour of her neck against her thigh.
“…Why?” She asked, and there was some genuine concern in it—she may have gotten the wrong idea, so Kumiko had to explain, but…

How exactly to put it…
“I guess you would say that we’re in completely different leagues.”

“…Huh?”

“Eh, I mean, you know, you’re like—it’s just a totally different level. I’m just, probably…normal-looking, and everything, but you’re like…way…up there.”

“What are you talking about? Don’t be stupid.”

Man, there was some serious annoyance in that tone. Kumiko nearly winced at the harsh dismissal.
“That’s a compliment too, you know.”

“I don’t want any compliments that involve you insulting yourself. I won’t let you say bad things about the person I’m going out with.”

…Reina was deadly serious, too. It would’ve been almost threatening if Kumiko wasn’t so taken with her every word. And when Reina put it like that, she did feel kind of stupid. Even if was a bit rich coming from someone whose compliments themselves had a tendency to sound vaguely insulting.

...
Maybe it was sort of a ‘the only one who gets to insult you is me’ kind of thing. Kumiko thought that...she wouldn’t particularly mind if that were the case...

“It’s not that I’m insulting myself, really…I guess I’m just...still a little shocked. I’m not sure how things ended up this way—I feel lucky.”

Reina eyed her with noticeable dubiousness.
“You’re overthinking it.”

“You…might be right.”

“And anyway, it has nothing to do with luck.”

Yeah…that seemed like what Reina would say.

Kumiko took a deep breath and sighed, but there wasn’t anything unhappy about it.

The thick covering of clouds continued to roll in from the west, and there was a sticky dampness to the air, of suspicious consistency—it seemed not only to rise up from the river below, but fall down from the sky above. It was that atmosphere that heralded a coming rain, and Kumiko had the notion that by now the two of them should have gotten up and started to head back—however, they hadn’t. It was strange, because the spot wasn’t all that comfortable for lounging around, but she got the impression they both were comfortable—she herself may have been solely because Reina was there. Reina did do that to her, made her calm—excited her and then relaxed her, constantly, over and over again. She was a sort of fuel that perpetuated pleasurable emotion.

A lone bird swooped down from up high and skimmed across the river before landing on the surface just before them—its body was covered in shades of silky-looking black, but patches of bright white adorned the sides of its head. Nearly the moment it landed, it took right back off and flew away quickly over the bare spindly branches of the tree above the bench and made for the south to Kumiko’s back. Maybe, the water was just too cold. She watched it go, and a memory formed into itself from out of nothing until it surrounded her. In the same way the smell of drying watercolor paint could take her all the way back to preschool in an instant, it suddenly took hold. It was as if she had just been there, only a moment before, but was now abruptly returned to the present—where Reina watched the sky from her lap, an alluring contemplation spread across her features.

“Hey,” Kumiko said, still sort of far-off, “Do you remember the time you came over when I was sick...and my sister and I yelled at each other?”

“…I remember.”

“It…isn’t usually like that. I was just thinking that...it would be nice if you actually met her some time…”

Reina tilted her head to examine Kumiko’s face inquisitively—her expression softened from its resting inscrutability into something more…affectionate?

Kumiko got the impression she’d found something embarrassing in that examination.

“Then, I’d like to.”

“Nn…”

“I was a little nervous, then.”

“…Really?”

“Nn. I’d never went to check on a sick friend before.”

Kumiko…couldn’t really say she was shocked by that. Even if she thought back to middle school, she’d never really seen Reina hanging out with anyone. She didn’t seem to have anyone she was particularly friendly with, even in a casual way. Of course, they were hardly acquaintances, so Kumiko hadn’t presumed to know, but even then it was noticeable. Now looking back, she didn’t believe she’d been wrong. It was one of the reasons she’d had been so hesitant to apologize to Reina in the first place, that she’d been so surprised Reina actually wanted to go to the Agata festival with her, and that she’d later assumed Reina wouldn’t want to do anything in a group with Hazuki and Midori—Reina really was that attractive, in all senses of the word, and Kumiko couldn’t ever imagine that she was on her own by chance. It just seemed very intentional.

Nowadays, even if it was usually just the four of them at most—and even if she didn’t always seem…totally comfortable with the whole thing, still—Reina was different than she had been. In that regard, at the very least.

Kumiko hummed and said honestly,
“I couldn’t tell at all. I was just thinking you had a great bedside manner.”

“…I was surprised that you were that angry. I wished I knew how to help…with things like that.”


“You helped.”
Kumiko couldn’t say exactly how, but it didn’t matter. Maybe just by existing.
“It was rude to do that in front of you, but for some reason…I was glad you were there. I don’t know. I felt like you would get it, so I guess…I felt a little stronger, maybe.”

“If that’s true, I’m really glad.”

“Nn.”
She pulled her feet in under the bench and crossed them at the ankles—wondered if Reina could feel the motion.
“The night before she left, for good—my sister—she told me that she was. I was on the train the next morning, and…I just started crying. I couldn’t stop, even though there were all these people around… That was when we weren’t talking, but…I remember thinking that I…wanted to see you. It always helps, to see you.”

“Kumiko…”

Her head started to warm up—what a weird story to tell right then.

“Did that really happen?”

“…Nn.”

Reina’s mouth opened without speaking, and her lips seemed especially pronounced—maybe Kumiko was just focused on them.
“You never told me that.”

“…Yeah. Well, it’s not like you knew.”

Reina stretched on arm out over her head and then brought it back in an arc that landed on Kumiko’s shoulder—her fingers ran along the back of Kumiko’s arm and down her elbow until they found her hand, and then Reina pulled it into her own lap and gripped it between both palms.
“But it isn’t like I didn’t,” She said. “Your sister…means a lot to you, right?”

“…Yeah, I guess so.”

“You know,” Reina went on softy, as she rubbed a thumb in small circles on the back of Kumiko’s hand, “I’ve been wanting to do this all day.”

“This?”

“Nn. This kind of position. I was wanting to try it.”

...How exactly could she say that Kumiko was cuter?
“Then...I’m happy we are...”

“But now, I don’t want to stop.”

“…I don’t either.”

Reina locked eyes with her and Kumiko understood that it was deliberate.
“So, I don’t think I ever would. Even if...everyone told us to. I wouldn’t stop doing this with you.”

…Ah, that—so that was what she meant. She always got to the heart of the matter before Kumiko even knew what the matter was.
“Hm...that sounded cool.”

“Thanks, but that’s not why I said it.”

“I know. It’s a confession of love, isn’t it?”

“…That’s right,” Reina said, and let her head fall to the side, nuzzling her cheek into Kumiko’s leg.

Kumiko...leaned down, bent her back over Reina and placed her lips right on the place where her hair bordered the smooth skin around the back of her ear. She did so very, very tenderly—and blew some air onto the spot with the contact.

Reina...had done something similar, the night before, and...Kumiko really liked the feeling, so...

As she came back up, she thought she may have felt a small shiver run through Reina’s body.

“Kumiko...”

“Hm?”

“Let's head home.”

There was a low rumbling in the sky above, as the sun set into the horizon and cast its murky colors through the clouds and across the rippling water.

Kumiko felt fondness for the muted, dying light.

“...Nn,” She affirmed.

 

~

 

They picked up some take-out food from a family restaurant close to Keihan Uji station—Kumiko tried to pay for half of it but Reina refused to let her for some reason—and made their way to Reina’s house. They were still a couple blocks from the residence when the angry skies could finally no longer contain themselves—it started as a few cool drops on the back of Kumiko’s neck, but that was only a stark warning—they ran as quickly as they could carrying a total of two instruments, two school bags, and a plastic-bagged bundle of food. As a result, they rushed through Reina’s front door only speckled with drops of water rather than drenched, which they surely would have been if they’d stay out another minute longer. An advisory that showed up on her phone told her that the rain was supposed to turn freezing as it continued into the night, and that roads may become treacherous—travel was not advised, and Kumiko was content to obey that recommendation.

They ate while sitting on the couch in Reina’s living room and watching TV. There was a sci-fi movie on that she remembered seeing commercials for some time ago, but it was in english and frankly pretty difficult to pay attention to given the playful glances they kept shooting back and forth like highly lethal bullets. She’d thought as much before, but Reina had a peculiar ability to totally mask her perception—it was like you could look at her for as long as you wanted and she would never once seem to even notice you were there, but the moment you looked away for even a second she would be staring right at you—meticulously scrutinizing your every feature.

There was something inherently…predatory, about it…

Well, basically it was hot.

She supposed she could at least acknowledge that much by now.

They went on like that—it wasn’t an entirely relaxing mood, because it was slightly new. Reina would smile faintly and Kumiko kept wanting to laugh without knowing quite why. If she had to put it into words, it was like there was this huge amount of tension…but neither of them were all that concerned about it. The tension thus by nature wasn’t tense, but it was still there. She wasn’t sure what to make of it, but it wasn’t bad.

Reina was a pretty consistently slow eater, which was something that had always surprised her some—there was a sort of frivolity to it which didn’t really seem to suit her, but she did tend to take her time. It presented a problem in that Kumiko never wanted to seem to be scarfing down her food in comparison, but it wasn’t as if anyone had ever actually accused her of that.

And, well, they were alone.

When they were done, she washed both their plates in the kitchen sink before returning, and sat on the couch gingerly. In the background behind the sound of the TV there was the faint roar of heavy rainfall against the house. She put one leg up on the couch, bent it under her, and sat sideways looking at Reina, who did a very slow and casual double take.

“…What?”

“I don’t know. I’m just looking at you.”

“I see…”

She stuck out a finger somewhat self-consciously towards Reina’s lower half.
“Can I try…?”

The fearless, nearly cocky amusement that tended to commandeer Reina’s features without warning was usually the sign Kumiko had nothing to worry about other than perhaps being the butt of a joke that would probably never leaves Reina’s mind. She opened her hand palm-up over her lap as if to say, ‘I’m not going to stop you’, and Kumiko found the silent response to be far too composed. Either Reina was consciously trying to be as charming as humanly possible or she wasn’t at all and just came across that way anyway. It was an ongoing question that Kumiko suspected there was never going to be an answer to, so she let it go and instead gave in to the pure physical craving telling her to crawl over, lay down and deposit her head atop the thighs of this person that suddenly meant more to her than the rest of the world combined.

Although it wasn’t really all that sudden.

She did so, and laid there on her side—it didn’t feel exactly like she expected, either. It was hardly the first time she’d thought as much, but Reina was…surprisingly athletic, and so it wasn’t even that her legs were particularly soft—but the warmth, and…the sense that, well…she…

She expected it to be an embarrassing thing to do, but in practice it simply wasn’t—not at all. Reina had absolutely been right—it was comfortable, and Kumiko could easily have seen herself falling asleep right there.

A man in a suit argued animatedly with another man in a suit over a desk on screen, and she started to feel like crying—not in a bad way, not in a bad way at all, but, still, and she really may have, a little, if Reina didn’t say—

“Do you remember the time we first met?”

Come to think of it, did she?


To Kumiko’s abject horror, she realized that she did not.
“Uh…seventh grade, right?”

That…had to be it, but she couldn’t…be more specific than that? It couldn’t have been before that, and they’d never been in the same class. Of course they were both members of North Middle School’s concert band, but they weren’t in the same section and that band had nearly one hundred students in it at the time…

Kumiko couldn’t quite remember when’d she’d first noticed Reina existed.

“We were put in the same group on the Tokyo trip,” Reina stated as simple fact.


Ah! That’s true! I completely forgot about that…!”

“Nn.”

On trips like that they were always put in a group of students that were supposed to stick together…they’d even slept in the same hotel room. How had she forgotten that? That certainly wasn’t the first time she’d seen Reina, but she supposed it probably did qualify as the first time they’d ‘met’.
“…Somehow I feel kind of bad saying that…”

“It’s alright,” Reina said, and Kumiko began to feel something which she slowly identified as several of Reina’s fingers raking through the hair on the side of her head.

She stayed very, very still—suddenly incredibly focused on making sure she didn’t do anything that would possibly cause Reina to stop.

“Everyone kept asking you tons of questions, because you used to live there. So you were hard to miss.”

...Yeah, she did remember something like that happening. And not particularly enjoying the attention. She’d moved in the third grade—it wasn’t like she remembered anything all that interesting, even at the time.
“So...” She said, curious, “What did you think about me?”

“Well, I remembered you were one of those kids that talked sometimes when Sawada-sensei was trying to instruct us, so I don’t think I liked you very much.”

…Yeah, well, that made sense. In general, things in middle school had been a bit rowdier than they were now, but…she thought that probably went for most everyone…

Well, except Reina. Obviously, that didn’t apply to Reina. So…

Reina…probably had pretty good reason not to like her.
“That sounds about right…” She said with a little embarrassment for herself from way back then. “I can’t even imagine Taki-sensei letting something like that hap—“

She caught herself, but too late—cringed inwardly for more reason than one, and laid there silently watching the TV.

…Without actually watching the TV.

“You’re right,” Reina said after a mercifully short pause.
“…It’s fine if you say his name, you know.”

“I…know, but…”

“But…what?”

Answering that was the harder part…
“I—I don’t know, really, just…”

...

She was kind of waiting for Reina to interrupt her with some out, but she didn’t. She imagined herself to be walking atop a very thin line—felt divided in several different directions. The topic didn’t seem to be getting any easier—she was starting to think it was as much about herself as it was about Reina. She was very concerned with how she was coming across, which ultimately…was making things worse, wasn’t it?
“You know, earlier, I…was just trying to say that…I wouldn’t want you to have to act like you weren’t upset about what happened just for my sake.”

She felt Reina’s finger twisting in slow, small circles—it curled a bit of Kumiko’s hair around itself.
“I am upset. It’s a strange feeling, because mostly I’m happy. I don’t know if I understand it. …I’m not hiding anything, if that’s what you think.”

No. She didn’t think Reina was hiding something—if anything, wasn’t it Kumiko who was hiding something? She was just trying to be honest, and in the process, she…wasn’t being completed truthful.

God, it really was stupid.

She flipped over onto her back because as much as she could feel Reina right then she also had to see her.
“I don’t think that,” She said.

“…Good.”

Even as Kumiko’s head shifted, Reina’s fingers maintained a light contact with the place where her scalp met her neck. The continued touch gave her courage, made her certain even in uncertainty—it was impossible to know exactly how to say it, but avoiding something—when it came to Reina—had only ever been a mistake. Kumiko didn’t much want to do that anymore.
“There’s something I have to tell you, though.”

Reina…may have taken an especially deep breath there? Hard to tell—she was difficult to read when Kumiko most wanted to read her.

“Okay,” Reina said with little affect.

Kumiko swallowed—the sound of it was loud in her ears. She experienced a flash of sheer regret for the vocalization of that last sentence which was already beginning to feel impossibly long ago, but she knew on a much deeper level that there was no way around saying it.

It was hard at the moment, but she trusted in the self that had trusted in Reina.

“Today…during club, I couldn’t stop thinking that I was glad, after all. That…Taki-sensei didn’t accept your confession. I didn’t—I didn’t want to think that, but I was—still, even right now, I can’t stop thinking about it, even after what happened, about what would happen if he changed his mind—about you. I really don’t want him to change his mind. I kept thinking that. It’s completely selfish—nn, that’s what it is, it doesn’t help you, I know that. Even after I said I’d help. It’s awful. But…that’s…all I could think…”

As Reina watched her speak, her flat expression changed very little. The living room was lit by a collection of small recessed ceiling lights, and Reina had turned on only the back two close to the hall—just enough to see their food as they’d eaten. It was something Kumiko had noted vaguely once or twice before, that they both possessed a certain affinity for the dark—didn’t mind sitting in it, barring any particular reason not to. Reina’s face now—turned-down at her lap—was hidden from those lights, and illuminated mostly by the flickering luminescence of the TV screen.

Though little time passed in reality, it seemed to be a long while before she spoke.

“That’s just like you, to come out and say something like that to the person you thought it about.”

“…Ah…Maybe it is…” Kumiko wrung her hands together because they felt cold.
“I couldn’t help feeling like I should be honest about it, even if you’d be…mad, or—disappointed, maybe….”

Reina looked back at the TV, but Kumiko didn’t think she was actually seeing it.

It was still unnaturally difficult to tell what she was thinking, and Kumiko randomly wondered with a sudden queasiness whether admitting that had been a selfish act in itself—putting Reina in a very difficult position that she most definitely didn’t need to be in right now. It wasn’t like she wanted Reina to do anything—like she really would’ve asked her to stay away from him, or anything like that. That was ridiculous. She’d simply let the bare truth of her uneasiness out into the space between them—but, how to actually get that across…

She sat up and turned around to face Reina because it somehow felt too serious to still be lying in her lap—or at least, that was her intention. She tried to do that, but Reina’s arm straightened out and met her about halfway through the motion, lightly pushing her back down without a word. Kumiko didn’t fight it.

“…Do you know how upset I was when I found out about his wife?”


So, Reina was still thinking about that time as well—in some ways, Kumiko thought about it a lot. It wasn’t that she was holding a grudge—more that she never wanted anything like that to happen again. Whether it was Reina or not, really. She’d felt so weak then—it was Reina’s trust in her that had made Kumiko’s inaction painful. Truly disappointing someone was one of the worst feelings she believed there was—even if she’d done it out of concern. She didn’t blame herself for that part, but she felt she had to learn something from it. She was sorry she’d reminded Reina of that.

“I think I told you this,” Reina went on, her voice quiet but steady, “But I had no idea what to do. It was like the thing I cared about most was completely different than I thought. That feeling may have been even worse than reading his response. After that…I couldn’t make myself believe he didn’t love her. Still. It was obvious how much it mattered to him. Yesterday, you said that…I already knew, right?”

Kumiko felt a small pain. But—but, she couldn’t deny that she’d said that.
“…Something like that…”

Reina began to draw a lazy outline of the place Kumiko’s neck met the bottom of her jaw with her fingernail.
“I don’t think you were wrong. Finding out about his wife hurt for a reason. But…it didn’t make me want to give up. I wanted to tell him even more. Because…it didn’t matter to me whether it was impossible to not. …I wanted to say everything I could anyway. There was no way it could be over…like that.”

Kumiko understood. To her core—she understood.

“I was thinking something like that at nationals, but after that, I guess I got discouraged. …I think it was you that reminded me what I really wanted to do.”

“…Me?”

“Nn. I just thought that…I should say it for real, because I still could. No matter what would happen, because it was the truth. When I read his letter, it hurt the most because I knew it wasn’t a lie—because I was right about how he felt. It didn’t shock me, but…I didn’t realize until then that I couldn’t change it, no matter what I did. And that…shocked me.”

That small pain in Kumiko’s chest began to grow—it didn’t even matter that she’d been there at most of the times in question, even if she hadn’t…it was impossible for her not place herself in Reina’s shoes. Try to feel what Reina felt. Now, more than ever…

Reina took a deliberate breath, and Kumiko sensed determination in it—she didn’t sound sad, exactly. Resigned, maybe.
“That night I brought you up Mount Daikichi, I didn’t do it to confront you about not telling me. I did it because I couldn’t figure out what else to do. Besides myself, you were the person I was most angry at, but I still had to talk to you. I had to yell in front of you. I just needed someone to see me, but it couldn’t be someone that wasn’t you. So…”
Reina’s voice began to quiver as she spoke—it became short and intense before she trailed off.

Reina…”

“So,” She cut in harshly, “I couldn’t be mad at you for something like this. Even if I was mad, I don’t think I could be mad. That’s how it is when I think about you. That’s how I end up feeling.”

Reina leaned down, and some long hair spilled over her shoulder and hung towards Kumiko’s head. The bluish light of the television shimmered in her wide eyes, and she brought their faces closer than seemed possible from their position. And then…

And then, she placed one hand on the top of Kumiko’s head to hold it in place and dropped the other right over her mouth. Covered it completely with her cupped palm and applied some pressure—Kumiko could almost taste the skin.
“So,” Reina said, holding Kumiko’s eyes captive and her lips closed, “Don’t worry about something like that. I love you, so I wouldn’t abandon you. That’s what it means.”

Reina finished speaking but did not release her hold. She continued an assault with her gaze—there was an ocean of intent in her steady pupils, and she held the moment in place for a long period of silence. There was something a little stern in it—she would not let Kumiko look away. It was like she wanted to be absolutely sure Kumiko did not miss this, that she was fully aware of the moment. Though Kumiko herself wasn’t sure how she possibly would have—she was not capable of blinking. She wondered if Reina may never let go, and was fine with the possibility.

When Reina’s hand finally loosened, it slowly pulled back over Kumiko’s lips and fell down the curve of her cheek. She sat up just a little and more strands of wispy black hair fell out from behind her ear. There was a deep rolling boom in the distance and a flash of light came through the curtain-covered windows on the far ends of the room, the streaks of rain outside seeping through as shadows in many branching patterns for only an instant.

Kumiko let out a trembling breath.
“…I…really want to kiss you right now…”

Reina abruptly turned her head away, and Kumiko could tell the sheepishness was real. She was so strange, the different halves of her—the way they mixed together. So very unusual. Kumiko loved it, a lot.
“…Then why aren’t you?” Reina asked softly.

After a second of totally paralyzed, purely unabashed desire, Kumiko sat up while scooting back—removed her head from Reina’s lap, but was very quickly sitting in it instead. From there, she wrapped her arms without hesitation around Reina’s back and kissed her deeply, throwing any and all caution to the wind and recalling the side of herself she’d uncovered the night before—pushed in with vigor and opened her mouth solely to taste

When she pulled back—but leaned into the hug and planted her chin on Reina’s shoulder—she was completely out of breath. She spent a while catching it.

Reina...”
She said the name without any real reason, just had to feel it come out, but then from somewhere else—
“I do love you.”

“...It’s okay if you don’t say that. You don’t have to.”

“That’s not it. It’s more like I really want to say it even if I don’t completely get it.”

“…Sou. Then...that’s okay too.”

...
Something welled up in Kumiko’s eyes, just a little.

Reina was so…

Just, so.

And, feeling Reina’s arms gently lock around the back of her shoulders was…

There was probably nowhere else on the planet Kumiko would rather have been.

It was so funny—she never used to like that kind of thing at all. She barely hugged her parents, and she generally preferred it if people refrained from touching her. Even in the beginning with Reina, it was hard to be comfortable with—it fascinated her, because Reina didn’t seem to be the type to do that, but she was so touchy even back then, and Kumiko had never been sure how to handle it. By now...it was like she was addicted.

She sat there atop Reina’s legs for a while, the two of them holding one another, settling down, maybe. Reina smelled just a little bit sweaty and she would not have said so, but she didn’t dislike it.

When Kumiko eventually withdrew, it was with reluctance—mostly on account of the slight balancing act the position had required. She let herself fall back to lay flat—her head now resting on the cushioned arm of the couch, their bodies crossed at the thighs.

Reina watched the movement from beginning to end.
“Just so you know, I’ve sort of worried about you the same way, anyway.”

The way she said so, it seemed intended to comfort Kumiko in some way, but…she didn’t really get it. Worried the same way?
“…What do you mean?”

Reina’s eyes darted away, but came back and focused on her pointedly.
“Asuka-senpai. …You and her.”

…Her and Asuka-senpai?

The same?

The same as…

The same as, uh…?

……Wait—

Wait—wait, wait, her—her and
“A-Asuka-senpai?! No, no, you’ve definitely got the wrong idea, Reina!”

“…Is that so?” Reina asked. It was an honest question, Kumiko could tell, and voiced somewhat meekly. Reina only tended to sound that way when she was particularly uncertain about something, which didn’t happen all that often. Kumiko was presently overcome with a desire to make that tone go away as quickly as possible.

“Of course it is! Asuka-senpai…well, I did…mm…miss her, I still do miss her...I guess you could say that we’re friends, maybe—well, I’m not sure if she would say that…maybe she would…I don’t know. She’s hard to understand…”

She guessed that…she could sort of see why Reina might have thought something like that…
She felt the need to convey it, but it was hard to put it into words…

“I…felt like I understood her, a little? At nationals…I guess? That’s all…When it comes down to it, I think Asuka-senpai is a good person, and I—we…didn’t get to do what we really wanted to, all of us, together, after everything, so, ever since then, I just felt like…like it wasn’t fair. I guess. It just didn’t seem fair at all. I didn’t want her to graduate. So…I really…missed her. ”

Trying to say that in a way that made sense took some concentration—she sort of noticed, but hadn’t actually registered that Reina was sliding downward in an arc against the back seat of the couch until they she’d pulled her legs up too and they were both lying their smushed together. The look on her face—which was right there—was almost as if she herself hadn’t been conscious of the action. She looked to be listening raptly—whether she understood or not, Kumiko couldn’t say, but she didn’t seem to…not understand. At least.

Kumiko continued quietly because Reina was a lot closer.
“But I—I wouldn’t want to do something—uh, like…earlier, or…last nigh—I mean, you—you know what I mean, like this—with Asuka-senpai, that’s just…it’s not like that at all.”

“I see…”

“Yeah.”

Reina snuck a hand between their bodies and seemed to adjust a part of Kumiko’s collar. Maybe she was just playing with it.
“Then, you’d only do something like this with me?”

...Seriously, Reina was asking her that?

She knew she’d used a phrase like ‘pretty sure’ earlier, but still…wasn’t even ‘pretty sure I’m seriously in love with you’ at least good enough to mean she didn’t want to do things like that with anyone else? That was obvious.

“…Of course that’s true…who else would there even be? Didn’t you hear what I just said…?” She mumbled, awash in a mixture of annoyance and a little embarrassment.

Though it’s not like she was really annoyed.

When she managed to actually focus on the face in front of hers, the color on Reina’s cheeks looked significantly more severe than whatever Kumiko was feeling at the moment.
“W-what? …Are you…happy?”

“A bit.”

Kumiko was taken aback by that—immensely enjoyed it and could not stop herself from grinning, but taken aback nonetheless. She couldn’t see how what she’d just said hadn’t already been implied several times over, but apparently it meant something to Reina.

The top of her ear—peeking out from behind her now-disheveled hair—was tinged with crimson, and Kumiko felt a sudden urge to reach out and stroke it for no reason in particular. She didn’t stop herself from doing it, either.

“You really are cute, Reina…”

“…You’re…saying that a lot…”

“Aren’t you just going to have to get used to it?”

Reina looked at her for a very still beat.
“Payback…”

Kumiko laughed under her breath with a little self-satisfaction. She felt heat coming from Reina’s body—the room was cool, and it was nice.

Reina’s eyes fluttered up to the side of her head at Kumiko’s hand and then back down.
“You like ears, don’t you?”

“What—” She stuttered, withdrawing her hand purely from the shock.
Like ears?
“Why do you say that?”

“…It just seems that way.”

Was it her imagination, or had she been hearing that answer from Reina a lot lately?

Well, she wouldn’t say she didn’t like ears, but there wasn’t anything she specfi

Although, wait, come to think of it…when Reina put her hair up, she had once or twice considered something bizarre like how soft Reina’s ear would feel if she were to bite right into it.

Bite it?”

Geh.

…Reina gave her a highly quizzical look, although she seemed subtly amused by the slip.

“I-I only noticed it because you usually have your hair down. But, you do have nice looking ears, if that’s what you want to hear…”

The strategy was a simple one—divert into something like a joke or compliment, and hopefully come across less odd in the process. A very useful if basic tool for maintaining conventional social tact.

In other words, it was a poorly chosen method of attack that Reina was entirely invulnerable to.

“Well, why don’t you then?” Reina said far too plainly.

“…Why don’t I?”

“Nn. If you want to, go ahead and try.”
She was having a lot of fun, it seemed.

“If you’re going to say that, then maybe I will.”

“Dōzo,” Reina said, and laid still as a statue.


At this point, she had to do it. Reina was teasing her, but it was still basically a challenge to see if she was comfortable with it. Kumiko—for some reason—wanted to prove that, indeed, she was.

So, she…pushed up off the couch and lowered her head over Reina’s side. Reina—the rest of her body completely motionless—pushed her hair out of the way very casually with a few fingers. Kumiko took it as a sign not to hesitate. She opened her mouth and…slowly clamped her teeth down on the cartilage. It…was soft, but somehow rigid as wall. She’d never considered how exactly that worked. She was getting used to tasting Reina’s skin, though…and the feeling of it between her teeth was kind of satisfying, almost like she’d expected…

She wanted to chew it up the same way you wanted to squeeze a cute animal to death. Not that she would. But…she did wonder in a sort of far-off manner how hard she could bite before it would hurt—before Reina would tell her to stop. Would Reina tell her to stop?

Supposedly, Reina didn’t hate pain.

...

She gave it an extra little pressure and then released her jaw, plopping back down onto the couch in overstated exhaustion.

Reina brought a hand up and rubbed at the top of her ear, which was almost comical given the words that spilled out of her mouth.
“I thought you’d do it harder than that.”

There was a particularly Reina-like glint in her eye. Kumiko sighed but it came out sort of like a laugh, because she’d more-or-less predicated that line.
“Do you think of me as a sadist, or something?”

“Not really. I think of you as someone who can’t control themselves.”

…Well that was pretty blunt. Not that she understood the difference, given the context. Evidently Reina thought it was obvious.
“Aaa-ah, I guess it’ll be tough for you from now on, then, won’t it?”

“…Well, ‘tough’ isn’t quite right, but something like that, for sure.”


She wanted to know what word Reina would actually use so very much that she couldn’t bring herself to ask. Maybe it was because she already got the general idea, and sensed a certain gravity…

Still, just then—that little conversation was pretty ‘couple-like’, wasn’t it? She had the ambiguously-defined impression that it was, and she was happy about it in a peculiar way.

…Although in another sense, it was mostly just the way they always talked. She’d had some vague idea of the difference between the two, but whatever it was faded away rather quickly. Again she wondered if there ever was a difference between the two to begin with.

She decided without any real consideration to ask,
“Hey, do you think this is the kind of thing couples do? Act like this?”

Reina actually seemed a bit mystified by the question.
“…Like this…? I couldn’t say...”

…Right, yeah. How could she have?

“Does it worry you?”

Kumiko giggled lightly because there wasn’t much that worried her less.
“Not at all, I’d say. I was just wondering.”

“Hm. …Well, I think when it comes to things only couples do, the others are a lot clearer.”


Uh, meaning……

Before she could figure out how to respond to that—

—Reina was kissing her. And—it was not like their last one, a few minutes back—

It was soft, very restrained but for the fact that it didn’t seem to be restrained at all. She felt the tip of Reina’s tongue come out and glide over her mouth. Shaky, uneven breathes were suddenly coming from Reina’s nose and Kumiko felt them on her upper lip. Reina may have seemed forceful if she wasn’t, right then, so needy.

Kumiko could tell.

There was a dancy-sounding song coming from the movie on the TV behind her, and the couch cushions were starting to slide out a little from their affectionate movement. The solid walls of Reina’s house protected them from an icy downpour, and the skies continued to rumble as lightning struck in places spread all across the bottom of Kyoto Prefecture.

“You’re right,” Kumiko whispered against Reina’s lips, and began to settle into the night.

 

~

 

Kumiko was walking out of the bathroom the next day, back in the direction of the club storeroom—where Reina was taking inventory—when someone called to her.

“Oumae-san,” The deceivingly gentle voice formed, and she slowed immediately. Kumiko was well-accustomed to its unassuming timber. Usually, to hear in it the words ‘Oumae-san’ could only mean she’d messed up in one way or another.

This time, Taki-sensei was coming down the hall toward her. The way he caught up to her—a stack of folders tucked under his arm and a very slight bounce in his step, like he was kind of in a hurry but not for anything particularly important—was perplexing. He sometimes struck her as incredibly youthful, like he could easily be just another student, if an eccentric one—and other times he was just the opposite.
“Sensei..?” She asked.

“Oumae-san—I haven’t had a chance to thank you.”

...Thank her?
“…Ah…”

“About the other day. I’m not sure what you did, but…I think it was the right thing to do. You seem to be a great friend.”
He gave her a sincere smile.

“Ah...thank you very much, I hope that’s true...”
She more-or-less lied through her teeth. She was pretty sure what she’d actually done that night was not at all what a good friend would’ve done, but it ended up working out for the best anyway mostly through luck alone. Although Reina had said it had nothing to do with luck. …Either way, it didn’t seem Taki-sensei was going to ask about any details and she was grateful for that.

“I’m sure it is. I know there are others in the band who think of you as a reliable person, too, so you should be proud of that.”

Eh…reliable, huh...
“I-I’ll try…” She said awkwardly.

If he noticed, he didn’t show it. Instead, he stepped over to the window close to them on the outer side of the hallway and seemed to look down at the school’s front courtyard below.

Kumiko hesitantly approached. He wasn’t saying anything anymore, and neither was she—but she didn’t get the impression she was supposed to walk away, yet.

“Nice weather, isn’t it?”

—Huh?

Nice…

“What?” She said quickly, a shiver running through her body.

He glanced at her with that composed relaxation on his face.
“Nice weather. ...Looks like the sakura will bloom soon.”

Ah...
It was nice out, today.

It was warm, outside.

She realized hazily that she was staring at him, and turned her eyes down to the ground below. It wasn’t that he was imposing, but it wasn’t that he was not imposing, either. His words to Reina continuously ran through her mind, the nature of them—that question of honesty, over and over. Maturity. He did seem mature, even in his peculiar youthfulness. In a sense, she thought that all adults were putting on an act, of a sort, all the time—and in another, it was impossible for her to believe he wasn’t genuine. Increasingly she wondered if honesty was different, from person to person.

“Sensei…”

“Hm?”

“…Did you mean what you said in that letter? That…people never stop changing…”

“Ah…” He smiled sheepishly, “I guess that was kind of dramatic…but, I did.”

Below them outside, a student burst out of the front doors and ran down the stairs to catch up with his friends, walking as a group on the road out of the school grounds.

“It’s only my opinion, but I think in the end, life is about understanding who you are. If we ever completely figured it out…there wouldn’t be anything left to do.”

That sounded…kind of tiring, to her, but she couldn’t help thinking it rung true.

“Oh,” He suddenly said, and opened one of the folders from the stack that had been tucked under his right arm, “I almost forgot…”

From within, he pulled a piece of blank white paper. She watched with the nervous unease unique only to a student whose teacher had just said ‘I almost forgot’, as he placed the paper flat atop his bundle of folders and produced from his pocket a pen. He placed it with strange grace to the utterly blank sheet, his wrist loose as he began to write something that seemed to be in english—at least, at first, it seemed that way. He drew what looked like an S, but then struck through it with a harsh diagonal line, and placed two dots on either side of the finished symbol. It was a piece of musical notation—she knew that much easily, had seen it before, but oddly…perfectly unfortunate, she could not—though she should have been able to—remember exactly its meaning.

“I was meaning to give this to you.”

…To her?

He handed her the large drawing calmly, and she took it into her grasp, bewildered—quite afraid she was missing something obvious.

There was no way around it—he was standing there, so she had to admit it.

“I…don’t recognize it, sensei.”

“Hmm…” He looked off into the distance while she examined the note in her hand with confusion. “That’s alright. The hard part of change is knowing when you can’t go back. In music, you have to know the rules before you can break them.”

“…Huh? I…I don’t get it. I don’t—sensei, I don’t get it.”

“Just think of it as a gift. Well, not the kind someone gives you. The kind you have. Everyone changes, and it’s easy to forget exactly where we began. You can’t live in a moment, Oumae-san, and we can’t go back to a memory. But I don’t believe it’s wrong to treasure the marks they leave.”

When she looked down, the paper had left her hand. It moved on its own—flew out of her grip and plastered itself to her chest. It was warm, warming up, hot—searing, searing hot—burning through her clothes onto her body.

“That way, even though you have to move forward, you’ll remember what matters most—you won’t lose yourself, in the end.”

She tried to scream—her jaw extended itself but her throat clenched up. Nothing was coming out. The symbol was scorching itself into her sizzling skin.

“That’s what’s most important. Don’t you think?”

Taki-sensei showed her a brilliant, knowing smile, and quickly vanished from his spot near the window. The second-year students walking down the stairs at the end of the hall popped out of existence next. The people down below grouped in the courtyard faded away, and on the other side of the building in the instrument storage room, Reina, too, was gone.

Outside, winter was ended, and the cherry blossoms birthed in the light—overtook the city of Uji. Fell upon its depths. Coated Ajirogi no Michi—filled Byōdō-in and wept on Ujigami shrine.

The walls melted down to nothing and Kumiko fell to the hard floor writhing in pain, choking, panicked breaths scraping through her dry lips.

There was no one left on the streets, and there was no one in the town. Uji was a small city that laid finally empty, forgotten, entombed. Uji was an ancient city, too, of the world as it once was, of the world as it was still. Uji was a lonesome tomb, and she would be there to its end, alone, and she would bathe in its waters—become that which she’d taken, rest deep beneath the bridge, and the sun would cross a vacant sky, again and again, twenty-one times, and she would rise with five horns jutting from her body, a living thing that was not alive, the raw skin of a new birth white, pink, red and dripping dripping dripping sopping wet smooth meaty soft rotten—

Reborn unchanged—

One-thousand years in the making of her, but only an instant for everything else to blink away—

Eternal, still.

And at the end of eternity—

Da

capo

al

segno.

 

 

Reina did not consider herself to be a particularly deep sleeper.

Mostly, it was a nuisance. Her father was—and had always been—a night owl, and he had the habit of getting up in the middle of the night to do any number of random things, from making miso soup to listening to music ‘quietly’ on the stereo.

Invariably, Reina would stir. Mostly, she went back to sleep. Sometimes—occasionally—she would head downstairs to join him, and they would talk for far too long about things that mattered very little. It was not always a nuisance.

In any case, she was not surprised to wake in the night even for no real reason at all. Though it was strangely hard to move, she checked her phone on the windowsill instinctively, just to confirm that indeed, it wasn’t time to get up—if the night had one middle, this was it.

She took a few moments to understand what had actually happened—she was sleeping in her bed, which was normal, but also, there was Kumiko.

Kumiko was sleeping—her head firmly on Reina’s chest—but it did not appear to be a peaceful sleep. Her neck brought her head up and down in small jerking motions—which Reina could feel very clearly—and her closed mouth made pained whimpering sounds. More than enough to wake Reina up. And more than Reina could let be.

“…Kumiko,” She said lightly, and pushed her arm just a little.

The other girl took in a sharp breath through her nose, but didn’t seem to wake.

“Kumiko—Kumiko.”
She increased her volume and shook her gently. The comforter atop their bodies rustled faintly in the dark bedroom.

Kumkio began to settle, and due to the dim moonlight coming in from the window, Reina could see her eyes darting around under their lids. Eventually, they fluttered open and then closed a few times.
“…Reina…” She whispered. When Kumiko was sleepy, it was clear in her voice.

“A bad dream?” Reina asked quietly into the top of her head.

“Nn…ari…gatou…”

Very sleepy indeed.

Kumiko slid up a little closer to Reina’s neck and pulled the blanket with her, nearly over her head, pushing her face deeply into Reina’s shoulder. She already seemed to be falling back asleep and Reina was content to let her. It was at times like these that she was unabashed in her actions, so Reina naturally enjoyed them.

She laid still but continued to apply a small pressure with the arm that was now at Kumiko’s side—just to insure she stayed close—and began to drift off herself.

“I want to improve…”

She heard Kumiko say something, just barely. Just barely. Was she…half-asleep?
“…Nani?” Reina whispered.

“I want to improve. Next year…” Kumiko mumbled softly, and Reina felt the tiny vibration in her skin.

…She was thinking about that right now?
“Me too,” Reina breathed, because it was true.

“…I don’t want you to go off on your own to some music school I can’t get into.”

What was she talking about?

She seemed to be thinking about something very far off.

Although, she did tend to do that. Kumiko had an interest in people’s fates—where they began, and where they ended up. Sometimes it seemed to disturb her.

“Then, you can,” Reina told her, because that also was true. “...We’ll do it together.”
Which was not to say that she didn’t believe the Kumiko she knew now could get into a music school, if that was what she wanted to do.

“Nn…” Kumiko hummed faintly, and Reina still couldn’t quite determine how aware she was of the conversation.

She felt Kumiko taking deep, drawn-out breaths against the very top of her chest, and she let the steady rhythm begin to rock her consciousness back and forth toward slumber.

But...

Kumiko…didn’t want her to go off on her own?

There was something wrong about the way that was worded. Like she was mixing up two very different things.

Reina did intend to go to a music school—she was sure, because there was no where else that would’ve felt right. She would be pleased if Kumiko did too, without a doubt—but if she didn’t...it wasn’t like that was some different world. Universities with suitable music programs existed in the same cities as other schools, utilized the same streets—one didn’t preclude the other. Whatever the case, if it actually became a problem, it was one with many different solutions.

She cleared a little sleep from her throat, so her voice would be well-defined even if it was hushed.
“You know I’d want to stay with you either way, right?”

“…Sou…” Kumiko elongated the syllables—sounded not quite there. She really wasn’t fully awake. Reina wasn’t even sure if that had been an answer or a question.

...Well, for now, she could let it be—at this point, Kumiko had to know that. If for some absurd reason she didn’t, then there would be plenty of time to reiterate the point. Plenty reason to.

After all…Reina didn’t think she’d ever been this blatantly happy in her entire life. Even…even when it came to Taki-sensei. It wasn’t…like a win, like that thrilling rush of success—like the pleasure that came from accomplishment. It was something nearby that feeling, a close relative, but different all the same. It was a steady undercurrent of total contentment—it was that distinct sense of endearment she felt whenever Kumiko came to mind, only now there was something much more serious about it. It wasn’t fundamentally different—more fiery, certainly, decidedly more intimate, it was true…perhaps a bit possessive, as well. Entirely more sincere, as a matter of fact. It made certain things she’d felt in the past significantly easier to understand, in retrospect. In a simple sense, it came to her in a profoundly natural way. It was not as if she had no worries, herself, but...she had no real doubts about the whole thing.

If Kumiko did, then…it would simply put her in the position of having to prove those doubts to be wrong. Which was not a job she would take lightly. To her, it was nothing to be taken lightly. She didn’t care if the feeling was new, and she didn’t care if it was jumping to conclusions—it was not the sort of thing that could be obstructed by something as trivial as where either of them would go to school in the future. That was what she wholeheartedly believed.

Through the night, the rain turned to a drizzle which became a light snowfall. From her position in bed, it was visible to Reina—out the window, falling under the streetlamp across the way. She watched it, and lazily stroked the side of Kumiko’s head in the darkness.

As she finally succumbed once again to sleep, she vaguely hoped that Kumiko didn’t usually have nightmares.

…But then, if she did, that was alright—

Reina intended to be there to wake her up.

 

 

As morning began to stir over Uji, it carried with it a noticeable swell of heat. They rose early, and Kumiko listened to birds begin to chirp long before light filled the sky. Together, they prepared for another day of school—planned to practice early, as a sort of return to form. Reina was becoming increasingly exposed to her morning habits, but she had very little energy to do anything about. She stood there brushing her teeth staring blankly through the mirror in Reina’s bathroom, until eventually Reina tapped her and informed her she’d probably finished the job several minutes back.

They fell into that sort of routine.

As they walked out of Reina’s front entryway some thirty or forty minutes later, Kumiko wasn’t sure when she’d be able to walk through it again.
“Your mom comes back today, huh…”

“Nn,” Reina said, as she locked the door and they made their way out through the gate. It was still dark on the streets—the tell-tale sign of a much too early morning.

…Though Reina enjoyed them, so Kumiko didn’t much feel like complaining.
“I guess I should really go home tonight, too…”

Reina eyed her from the side—seemed to look her, and the instrument on her back, up and down.
“Should we call?” She asked.

Call?

“That’s one of those things couples do, isn’t it? When you call each other at night.”

…Hmm, well, that did sound about right. Although she had the faint notion that Reina didn’t really like talking on the phone.

Maybe it was just that Kumiko would’ve much preferred to see her. It was far less than ideal, either way.

“Are you worried?” Reina asked, although it was more like ‘you seem to be worried’ than ‘are you worried’.

“Mmm…maybe, a little?”

...Reina touched and then held onto her hand as they walked. It seemed to be her response to the casual admission.

And at that simple action, Kumiko felt her mood somehow swing around entirely—outside in the brisk but warming breeze, it woke her right up. She gave Reina an elated smile and said,
“It’s just that I’m getting used to being in the same bed as you.”

Reina’s fingers twitched and Kumiko knew she’d surprised her with that, so it was a success.
“…Well,” Reina said with just a slight airiness to her voice, “We can figure it out. …Things like sleepovers aren’t that unusual…”

Kumiko laughed a little and thought that no, they weren’t, but the way the two of them were doing it was probably not so common.
“You’re right about that, I suppose…”

Though, it did sort of feel like that would be…taking advantage of the simple fact they both did happen to be girls. Blending in because of their parents’ expectations, or something to that effect.

Then again, maybe taking advantage of that in whatever way they could wouldn’t be so bad…

…After all, what exactly could happen that they hadn’t already done?

The whole thing was starting to sound pretty funny in her head, and Reina was giving her an ’I’m not sure if I want to know or not’-type expression, so it must have been showing on her face.

She thought that expression was pretty kissable—and then after that she thought, wow, she really was going to have to work on her subtlety. She was beginning to see Reina’s point about being unable to control herself.

But then, maybe there was nothing new about that, either.

“Hey,” She interjected into a silence that lasted only a few steps, “Do you remember that time that I…said I wanted to kiss you?”
In a way—she realized with some amusement—none of this would’ve ended up happening without that.

Reina was listening nonchalantly, but let her eyes drop toward the ground all of a sudden and released Kumiko’s hand to adjust the strap of her school bag before grabbing it again like nothing had happened.
“…I remember.”

…Uh?
“Wait—what does that mean?”

“…I said I remember.”

“No, no—I mean, what’s with that?”

“What’s with…what?”

“That look—were you thinking about it before, or something?”

“…I’m just saying I remember.”

Eh—what—
“A-Are you trying to tease me?”

“Tease you? Not really. Didn’t you ask?”

“…Yeah, but…your face…”

Reina sighed through her nose with what seemed to be acceptance of something.
“Well, I did think about that time more than once, if that’s what you want to know. I’ll tell you about it if you want, but maybe wait until later.”

...Eh…ehh….
“R-Reina…”

“…What?” She said, a clear blush on her cheeks.

“That’s hot.”

“…Sou? You asked, so it can’t be helped.”

Despite Reina saying so, Kumiko found that particular subject a difficult one to put out of her mind, even as they rode the train and exited through the doors of Rokujizo station. The first sunlight was just peeking over the edge of the horizon, and there was something decidedly calming about the damp streets leading toward Kitauji High School.

Kumiko would note—much later—that it did not snow again in Uji that spring. At the moment, in the blueish darkness of the early morning, she only became preoccupied with a strange appreciation for the passing season.

Winter…was pale, and filled to the brim with death, but old things died so new ones could be born in the warmth that followed. It was a cycle beyond the reach of any one person, no matter how hard they may fight against it—Kumiko knew that as well as anyone. She did not know whether they would win gold next year, or the year after that, or what parts of her may die out in the cold that would inevitably follow. Win or lose, stay or go, the earth would move around the sun, and the moon around the earth, and cold would come before it could leave again, and people would change and seasons would pass in moments that were nothing but a collection of vague memories. Someday soon, the person she was at that moment may have become nothing but a pallid apparition to her—an image slowly fading from her mind’s eye.

She had promised Reina, lying in the mud, that she would always be there to catch her—forever. She’d said something like that on more than one occasion. When, the truth was—she realized—in the cold that followed…she couldn’t know if it was the truth. It wasn’t a promise she truly knew she could keep, and more than that, she didn’t know if Reina would always want her to. …But in the sense she meant it, it wasn't a lie—it was a hope. Which was good, because as a sort of rule, they didn’t really lie to each other. Kumiko couldn’t do any better than that, because she was just a person. And so—hard as it may sometimes be to believe—was Reina.

But—it occurred to her as she slipped on a patch of melted frost, the weight of her euphonium dragging her toward the ground, and the force of Reina pulling on their linked hands the only thing stopping her from wiping out completely—they also may well beat the odds of inevitability.

They were weird like that.