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2 Serenades

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Kumiko can't believe it, but she cries the day she graduates high school.

She supposes that plenty do, it's just she never thought she'd be among them. She's been terribly excited until now, to be graduating, expecting some full feeling of accomplishment and contentment.

The emptiness of it is so unexpected and blinding.

But she should've known. She's always fixated on what's coming next and what to do after this. And there's always been something else on the horizon. It's always been the next day, the next semester, the next year, the next competition, the next piece, the next rehearsal,the next audition.

This is the first time she's accomplished something and come up empty handed after. And now she's left wondering what it is she's been working towards. All these accolades are here now so what is she supposed to do with them now?

What in the world is next?

She's marginally alright until she has to go return her instrument. Of course it would happen now, in the eerie still of a room that shouldn't be unoccupied.

Why does it feel as if she's lost someone, walking into the room and finding no one in it like this? The chairs and desks pushed to the wall for the summer, not even an errant dusting of chalk on the board, no notes on the staff there.

She can barely take her hands off the case, placing the instrument back on the shelf. She knows she can't keep it, it isn't hers.

It's when she takes her hands off the thing and steps back and finds herself standing in the middle of an empty room that something breaks and the tears come so quickly she barely has time to register them.

What was the point? Of all this effort for it to just end out of nowhere like this? Was it even worth the competitions if it made it feel like it went so much faster for it?

But it would've gone that fast no matter what, something tells her. Not that that does anything to calm the ache and the thought of all the people she may never see again and the instrument she may never touch again.

The scuff of steps echoes in the hallway and she tries to look more presentable. She's not sure why, because she won't be able to hide the redness in her eyes and across her cheeks.

“Kumiko.”

Reina stands at the doorway, unsurprised, as if she expected to find her here. Kumiko can’t decide if her presence is comforting or if it makes it all so much more painful. The only indication that she's noticed Kumiko's tears is a slight parting of her lips when she turns to face her.

“Sorry-”

“Why are you crying?” she asks as if the idea is completely asinine to her. Now it's Kumiko's turn to be angry and in tears with her.

“Because of course I am, how can you not be upset? I could ask you why you're not crying. What about the people we won't see again-”

“You'll see them again if you make it a point to keep in contact.”

“But I don't even know if I'll play again-”

Reina stares with steel in her.

“Why wouldn't you play again?”

“Huh? Oh, I mean I'm not majoring in music, I don't know how much time I'll have. I know my sister never plays anymore either.”

“And that's just something you're going to accept too?”

“Well, I'm scared of trying to make a career out of it. We're not all as good as you are, you know.”

Reina has been accepted to quite a prestigious school of music. It’s the kind where, if you go there, you actually do have hope of making a successful career of it.

“That has nothing to do with whether you play still or not. And you think I'm just naturally good?” her scowl deepens and why does Kumiko always seem to get into a fight with her as the eras in her life draw to a close?

“N-no I know you practice! But natural talent is a factor too and I'm just trying to say not all of us can go somewhere like you are-"

“But did you even try?! I didn't see you at auditions there.”

Kumiko is livid and heartbroken and ashamed because she's also right.

“You have to do something about the things that make you cry, Kumiko. And not assume that you're not worthy of them.”

“Did you come up here just to berate me?” she huffs.

“I came to find you, yes, but not to insult you.”

Of course she means to be here. Reina is always overflowing with intent, everything perfectly measured and deliberate.

“Well, you found me. What did you need?”

Here, Reina falters. She knows whatever she wants may come off as intense. She's become more aware over the years, of how intimidating she can be. There's a moment of hesitation before she acts sometimes, a momentary nod to others in the room that she's aware of what this looks like.

But Kumiko knows she'll follow through no matter how terrified she seems to be of whatever she intends to do. Reina always follows through.

“I don't know if you understood me. I wanted to come make sure.”

“Understood you? Understood what?”

“My feelings. For you. You never said anything about it. Or not directly anyway. I'm afraid I wasn't very clear.”

“N-no I remember.”

She can't forget it, the slip of her fingertips just into the line of her hair, how she was so close she could feel the breath of her words on her lips. The way Reina glows, soft, in the light of fireworks.

“Well?”

She stares at her, expectant. Reina has a way of making Kumiko face things, pulling her closer instead of letting her run like she wants to.

Kumiko thought she had responded clearly enough. Little suggestions that she returns her feelings, quiet flirting that could be innocuous too. But she supposes, like most things, it's not quite good enough for Reina. She wants more certainty, more conviction in Kumiko's words, a promise that she means what she says and intends to follow through. A promise that she isn't going to run.

She's going to try to run, though, because some things are too much for her. Intense was never something Kumiko has been or really known how to handle. She's hard working, sure, but it lacks a certain sharpness that Reina has.

“Ah, I thought I had responded well enough, I-”

“Alright,” Reina nods once and then turns to leave without a second thought but Kumiko doesn't miss the shine in her eye and she's suddenly horrified. Why did she say that? Why couldn't she just tell her? Reina is hurt and doesn't want to stay where she assumes she's unwanted.

“Wait, Reina, I'm sorry-”

She moves to grasp her hand and Reina forcefully yanks her hand back. She turns around to face her again.

“What do you want, Kumiko?”

“What do you mean? In terms of music or in terms of you or-”

But Reina searches her face intently, quiet, before she reiterates.

“What do you want?”

She can't respond but she's not sure it's a question she was meant to have an answer to, or at least not now.

She’s frantically trying to come up with something to say that Reina will like even as she knows Reina can practically smell insincerity.

She must know Kumiko is about to come up with something trite to tell her. Because Reina scowls darkly, slips her hand in her hair, and presses her lips to hers.

If Kumiko doesn't have anything real to say, then Reina is going to say her piece instead.

Her kiss, like everything she does, has no trace of hesitation. She means to kiss her, means to make it a real kiss, a kiss worth giving, worth the risk.

Of course she should've known it would be expertly done, too. She brushes her lips against hers chastely, for just a moment as she comes unravelled, pulls away long enough for Kumiko to release the breath she was holding, and captures her mouth just as she runs out of breath. As if she’d be able to keep it with the way she's kissing her now.

Reina takes the curve of her top lip in between her soft ones, runs her tongue along it, sucks so lightly, and when Kumiko thinks she never wants her to stop, she breaks it and then takes the fullness of her bottom lip into her mouth, runs her tongue along that too.

She teases her this way, to the point that Kumiko is restless, wants her to do something else but also can't begrudge this because it's too good. She's nearly whimpering when she finally tickles her lip with the tip of her tongue in a different way and she lets Reina in. Lets her touch her tongue to hers and kiss her even softer and slower now, a kiss that luxuriates with ebbs and flows so subtle only Reina could do it.

She wants it to go on forever but she knows it won't and she knows Reina has done it for a reason. It's not something that was meant to go on for too long. Just long enough for her to make her point.

When she pulls away, she gently places her hands on Kumiko's cheeks, tips her forehead to rest on hers and looks into her. She looks nearly angry, but just off of it, and she's crying through it like only she can do.

“I hope I see you again,” she tells her, so quiet against her lips Kumiko nearly has to read the feeling of her breath against her to understand.
Kumiko wishes she could say that she stopped her when she turned to leave. She didn't want her to go but she couldn't get the words out in time, didn't know what to say to her even if she could find a voice in her chest to do it.

She let her go without a word.

She cries the day Reina’s train leaves for the city. She knows the very day and time. She lets her go without a word here too, buries herself under the quilt in her bed and thinks too late she should've gone to meet her. But to tell her what? To do what? Make her sad before she goes, try to ask her to stay?

She can't stay. Reina has always been bound for better things.

Kumiko picks a local school here in Uji because it's the the sensible thing.

The easiest too, but she tries not to think about that.

Kumiko drifts and goes listless.

She's studying, robotically, almost for the sake of doing it because she knows all of it already. She's coasting through this class.

The door slams open, rebounding against the wall and Kumiko grits her teeth. It's her sister, here for a brief visit.

“You could knock. I'm studying.”

“With your phone on the textbook? Sure.”

She unceremoniously flops on the ground next to her.

“What happened to you? I haven't seen you in a while and I come back and you're all...boring.”

“I was fun to you before?”

“No, you were never fun,” she laughs and Kumiko bristles. “But you had more...spine I guess.”

“I have spine now.”

“The hell you do. You're asleep at the wheel.”

Kumiko just tries to ignore her and see if she'll leave but she should've known her sister is too persistent.

“Whatever happened to that girl?” she nudges her with an elbow and Kumiko elects to play dumb.

“What girl?”

“You know what girl, the one that was in your room that one time?”

“The one that was in my room one time, that helps, thank you,” she snipes but answers all the same. “She's in school. In Tokyo.”

“So what, you didn't get in or whatever? That’s embarrassing.”

“I didn't apply.”

Her sister pauses.

“Oh,” she says simply. “Bet you're kicking yourself for that, huh?”

“Not really.”

Something in that seems to dissuade her, and she leaves shortly after. Kumiko shuts the book and gets a good enough mark on her exam.

Winter brings a surge of piercing wind and also a rush of students coming back home for a short winter break.

She doesn't know if Reina is coming or not. She doesn't get any message from her. But then, she doesn't send one her way either.

She makes enough of an effort to visit with Midori and Hazuki while they all have a few days off.

She's on her way back from the store on the second to last day before most places start back when the icy sting of too-cold hands work their way under her hair and scarf, pressed to the back of her neck. She yelps and whips around, ready to yell at her sister but stops.

“Asuka?!”

“Aw, I was hoping you'd yell at me or drop something. Oh well. Long time no see,” she tickles her, hands still caught under the fabric of the scarf before she pulls them away, shoving them back into the warm pockets of her coat. Kumiko steps forward to throw her arms around her and Asuka fondly ruffles her curls.

“I haven’t seen you in two years!” Kumiko exclaims, muffled by her coat, but Asuka doesn’t explain herself.

“Do you have perishables in there?” she throws her that cocky smile and points to the bag she carries.

“What?” she asks, looking at the grocery bags. “Oh! A few things-”

She shrugs.

“They'll keep, come on, I want coffee,” she grins and hooks an arm firmly around Kumiko's own, dragging her off in the direction of a cafe they all used to frequent. Asuka swipes the bag from Kumiko’s grip when they're outside, plunks it in a snow bank, and leaves it there despite her protests. They sit by the window and Kumiko suspects it's so Asuka can watch the bag.

“See? Even better than the fridge,” she points at it through the window, sipping on a coffee. Kumiko settles for tea, something herbal. Caffeine makes her sick.

“Won't it freeze?”

“It'll thaw,” she waves a hand, dismissive. “So how's Reina?”

Kumiko chokes on the first sip of tea she's taken and the movement sends a touch of scalding liquid down her hand.

“So I take it she's doing well,” she quirks an eyebrow and it makes Kumiko go scarlet. She must know something about what's between them.

“I haven't seen her since graduation, actually. Or heard from her.”

“Is that so? I'm a bit surprised,” she tells her but something about it seems like maybe she's not actually surprised at all. Kumiko forgot how difficult Asuka can be to read, how hard it is to get a handle on her intentions.

“Why? We went to different schools.”

“I know that, I just expected you'd have already dropped everything to chase after her at this point. Or maybe not. Sometimes you don't do things even when it seems like you're going to-" she murmurs and Kumiko flinches, tries to keep going even though Asuka sees through her so easily.

“Chase her? How would I do that? We go to different schools,” she reiterates, a mantra she's repeated to herself more times than she can count.

“It's not for life, Kumiko, they don't arrest you if you switch schools. You're allowed to change your mind,” she laughs.

“But I'm not majoring in music-”

“Who said anything about majoring in music?” she waves her hand before she stops abruptly, turns slowly to the window where someone is rummaging through Kumiko's groceries. She doesn't have time to let the yelp in her throat escape because Asuka just runs a finger across her throat, points to the bag and then to herself as if claiming it's hers and the man on the other side of the glass jumps, hurrying away without a second thought.

“Anyway,” she continues as if none of it has happened. “I didn't major in it, you couldn't pay me to. It's too stuffy, I'm leaving all of that to people like Reina who have the patience for it. I wouldn't last a day. I just want to play.”

Kumiko wonders how much of that is true and how much of that is her mother. She's been trying to parse out Asuka and exactly where her love for music lies for years.

“So do I.”

“Then why haven't you? You know, a lot of schools do this nifty thing where they have concert bands that aren't necessarily just for music majors. Of course, you have to audition and fight your way past a lot of them to get in, but it's been known to happen. It's also known that since it's not a class and doesn't show up on your transcript and you don't live with your mother anymore, that what she doesn't know won't hurt her,” Asuka winks.

Kumiko has been wondering. Where the passion was supposed to go after high school. All this time and fervor, pushing against parents that want very specific things from their children, and where to put it.

“That's what you do?”

“Of course! What, you just listened to your parents? You've always been one for rules, but not so much to just let them drag you to whatever university they wanted. Unfortunately your current school is garbage for music. So maybe it's time for a change of pace. If it's just a transfer to another school, none of the parentals will catch wise.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“This is another one if those times it'll just make you miserable if I tell you. Are you sure you want me to?”

“Yes,” she nods, emphatic and Asuka shakes her head.

“Well, because you pissed me off if you want to know the truth.”

“What?! I did?! How, I-”

“I gave you all my music and made much of you when I left thinking that after you'd poured so much effort in and looked so determined that you wouldn't go down without a fight. And here I am playing still and I come back to find that you quit. It was supposed to go to someone who was going to use it. And you didn’t really try to go find Reina, either. You declare your passions quite vocally and don't always follow through, Kumiko,” she tells her simply with that same thinly-veiled smile she always has. Something about the pointedness of her statement makes it very clear it’s not all about the music or even all about Reina.

“But my parents-”

But that was an overstep. To claim her parents don't approve knowing what Asuka deals with. She raises an eyebrow and laughs, humorless.

“I'm going to let you in on a secret, Kumiko.”

She sounds almost dangerous and Kumiko can only nod, can't respond just yet.

“Your parents, and almost everybody else's, brought you into this world for selfish reasons. There aren't any reasons to have a child that are rational. And some of them shape up and realize you're a person and not something they own, but most of them see you as a glorified pet to do what they want and turn into whatever their view is of a good, successful person. They think because they suffered raising you, even when you didn't ask to be here, that they own you.”

Kumiko laughs nervously and Asuka laughs too, but it's cold.

“That's not the secret,” she grins. “The secret is that ultimately? They don't even know what they want you to turn out like. Because what they want is some sort of small, perfect clone so they can feel like their lives weren't meaningless and that they weren't awful people. Because if you're perfect and successful, they must be too, right? But the secret is if they were so happy to begin with they wouldn't have had you or at least wouldn't be so pressured to make you turn out a certain way. The secret is there's not a damn thing you can do to please them, even if you do everything they think you should. They're never going to be satisfied, they're never going to be proud of you, they're never going to stop because they haven't bothered to fill whatever hole in them is making them nag you. They expect you to do it and you can't. It's a catch-22.”

“You think so?”

“I know so. My advice to you is to use whatever money and resources you can get from them to get on your feet. And then make sure you're proud of yourself because they're probably never going to be, or not entirely. Not for who you are, not for what you do, not for who you're with,” she takes a sip of coffee, cuts her eyes at Kumiko, “not for anything.”

Kumiko sighs deeply.

“You're too intense, Asuka.”

“Ah, but you asked and I delivered. Well, Kumiko, if things don't work out with Rein- I mean, if things don't work out at your new school,” she winks and Kumiko gets the feeling that little stutter wasn't accidental. “Remember I'm down in Fukuoka. The weather is nice and warm. Not that I think it'll ultimately matter, but a girl can hope,” she sighs, over dramatic and playful, standing up and then mock-swooning so that she tips over onto Kumiko. Her back rests on Kumiko’s front, feet awkwardly braced against the floor.

“Asuka,” she rolls her eyes. She'd forgotten how over the top she can be, and how keen she is to hang all over her friends and classmates. “People are staring.”

And they are because Asuka is nearly sitting in her lap. She rolls her head back to rest on Kumiko's shoulder and looks her in the eye so intently through the pretty frames of her red glasses, always belied by that smile.

“I like audiences sometimes,” she quips. Their noses are almost touching but there's nowhere for Kumiko to go, she can't recline any farther. “Don't make me take my music back. And I hope you get what you want, Kumiko,” she punctuates by touching the tip of her nose to hers, leaving it there for a moment before she gets up so quickly Kumiko nearly topples backwards with the loss of the extra weight.

“And now the spurned must leave,” she bows too deep, speaking in a breezy sing-song.

“Spurned?”

“Good luck,” she waves, refusing to respond to her question. “Not that you need it.”

“Thank you,” she murmurs before she remembers. “Oh! And happy belated!”

She'd forgotten Asuka’s birthday is around this time. Asuka turns and smiles.

“Well, aren't you a bit difficult to read? Thanks for the warm wishes, Kumiko. I hope this isn't goodbye,” she smiles and waves and she disappears without another word.

Kumiko books a practice room in the music building the next day so her parents won't hear her practicing. She's lugging a rented instrument. It's not quite as nice as the one she played in high school, but it plays decently. She put in the transfer application this morning.

She's accepted to the school but fails the January audition for entering the concert band in the summer. She's devastated, but she’ll be on a train to the city soon and there's another audition in August for students looking to join for the fall semester.

It works exactly like Asuka said it would. Her parents think her incredibly driven for transferring. It's a more high powered school in general, so they're pleased. They never find out about the rented euphonium.

This city is fitting for Reina. A bit callous and off-putting at first, but it'll warm up to you the better you get to know it. Sharp and driven, streamlined but with nuance that's just there waiting if you mean to look for it.

Kumiko wonders when she should tell her she's here. But she decides she won't until she makes the concert band. After all, it's always been a little hard to tell where the line between their love for their music and their love for each other really began and ended. She wonders if they're actually distinguishable at all. If any of the relationships in her life and music have really ever been very separate.

She wonders if Reina will be angry with her when she learns that she didn't tell her she was in the city at first. But something in her wants to make a bit of an entrance, show Reina her intent and how much of it is there. Wants to impress the girl that's nearly impossible to impress.

Her grades are fair and no more during her first semester. Her playing, though. She'd forgotten what it felt like to play until your lips are numb and your lungs feel like they'll surely never recover and your eyes are tired from being trained on the same measures for hours.
She passes the next audition. She stares at the rehearsal schedule, traces the date and time over and over.

Reina doesn't notice her when she comes in, although she can forgive it. She sits a ways behind her in the low brass section. Reina is first chair for trumpet, naturally.

She's one of the only euphoniums in the band. Even she knows they're not terribly common and positions are highly competitive. But she made a case to the director to let her in and something about her fervor must have convinced him. He did commend her on her playing.

They get halfway through rehearsal before it happens. The director is going through telling sections that need work his criticisms. It's a university concert band and he doesn't pull punches, but at least Kumiko has been trained to handle it. Taki-sensei never pulled punches either.

“Eupho?”

“Yes?!” she answers with the rest of her section.

Reina jumps. She must wonder if she's hearing things. She must recognize her voice, must have picked it out from among the others.

She whips around to look and Kumiko catches her eye while the director speaks. Reina’s eyes go wide and a little teary.

“Measure 24. The run here is a little sloppy. Please tighten that up by next rehearsal.”

“Yes!”

The director moves on but Reina is still staring, gaping really. Kumiko smiles and puts a hand up to wave and that jars her into motion. She grins at her so widely and scrapes a hand under her eyes. They turn back to watch the director lest they get caught but it's like there's an invisible thread of tension between them the entire time.

Reina is packed up in seconds flat after rehearsal and Kumiko almost thinks she means to leave her here without another word because she runs for the door. But she locks eyes with her at the door and jerks her head, letting Kumiko know she is to follow her if she wants.

As if she’d ever want to be anywhere else.

Kumiko doesn't see her again until she gets outside the building and then she's being yanked to the side. Reina has pulled her into an alley and thrown her arms around her neck, trying to keep out of the way but unable to wait. She pulls back and scowls at her the way she always does when something has become too much for her.

“I knew you could do it,” she juts her chin out defiantly.

“I know you did,” she smiles fondly and tugs on a strand of her hair. “It was me that needed the push.”

“What made you do it?”

The immediate answer isn't the one she's going to give her. Because the answer is Asuka but that's not so important right now.

“I missed you,” she tells her because that's the truth of it too.

“Are you here just as a guest? How did you get into a student concert band?”

“Oh, I uh. I transferred here last semester.”

Reina pauses.

“Why didn't you tell me?”

“Well, I auditioned last semester and didn't make it. I thought you might kill me.”

Reina giggles, a rarity for her around anyone other than Kumiko. It's a pretty, light sound.

“I might've, that's true,” she teases.

“You're awful, Reina,” she laughs before it slows and now they're just looking into each other. She hasn't seen her in more than a year that has been far too long.

It's not as if she needs to do it. She's been clear enough, moving schools and cities and her life here just to run into her again, just so their paths would keep crossing. But she feels the need to be clear with her, respond to her in a way that says something.

She kisses her, in the chill of this little dank alley, so much colder than it would ever be back home this time of year. Feels the flush of her cheeks ward off the chill, the way Reina's lips are cold at first when she touches her lips to hers but not for very long. The smell of a little bit of static in the cool slip of her lovely hair.

Reina returns it in earnest, pulls away again and her lips are flushed and cheeks still a little pink from tearing up.

She frantically hooks her arm in Kumiko's and turns to walk, if one could even call it that, it’s nearly a jog. She doesn’t explain where she's going or what she's doing and Kumiko doesn't care. She'd go wherever she wanted she's so glad to see her again, so glad to feel like things are normal again now. Going to school and playing music with Reina, albeit in a much different setting.

It becomes clear when they walk through the sparsely decorated entry way of a student residence that Reina is taking her home. Kumiko flushes. But then, that’s Reina. The things that seem too intense for others are never very difficult for her to face.

The implication doesn't seem to hit Reina until they’re on the other side of the door and then she freezes. She appears to have been on some sort of autopilot, because she whips around and puts a hand over her mouth. For the only time Kumiko has ever seen, Reina looks like she doesn't know what to do, her usual intent having carried her too far too fast for her to keep up with.

“I. I'm sorry-”

It's clear what she intended to do but now she's suddenly struck by the fact that she hasn't really asked Kumiko.

But Kumiko just giggles and feels a little forward, but then nothing between them has ever been all that shy. She reaches to cradle her cheeks, one in each of her palms, kisses her again, so gently but with enough substance that communicates that she has no problems with what Reina wants, wants it herself so badly she could burst. And hasn’t this been what they’ve been dancing around since they were just first years?

“It's fine,” she smiles and presses her forehead to hers, looking into violet eyes that are uncertain at first before they get that clarity in them again

Kumiko isn't sure if Reina lives alone or not and she hopes she does because there would be no mistaking what’s happening. It's as if things have been suspended and now time is slamming back into motion. As if something has been pent up, pacing, for too long and can't be stopped now that it's set in motion. Their surroundings are a bit of a blur.

They don't immediately make it to her room. Kumiko doesn't even have time to take the apartment in, see the ways it's decorated, the way it looks and how it’s probably very characteristically Reina.

Instead, she’s confronted with the full brunt of her, everything almost too close and too much but in a way she likes. There has always been something about Reina that raises bars and pushes limits and that's the feeling Kumiko wants to drown in now.

It's almost like a movie, the flurry of it all. Like one of their competitions, something that's been growing on the horizon and it doesn't quite seem real now that it’s happening and seems almost too real all at once.

Her surroundings seem almost like vague suggestions, as if the physical world is teetering in and out of existence and only what’s in front of her matters. Notes on a music stand, the only thing in focus under the glare of stage lights. This girl who’s kissing her desperately and has a way of making everything else seem laughably unimportant.

They knock little things over. A frame off the wall. Keys off the counter, left on the floor to be claimed later because none of it matters more than her. She doesn’t want to stop kissing her, doesn’t want to let go of her.

Reina doesn’t even bother to shut the bedroom door and Kumiko idly wonders if she should do it, but she realizes she doesn’t care much either. There’s something about Reina that makes her want to lose track of important things like that.

Or maybe it’s just that she throws into such sharp relief the things that are truly important and the things that are just distractions and details.

She supposes she should slow down, not make such quick work of the pretty little dress Reina was in and now isn’t, not let Reina’s fingers fly down the buttons of her shirt with such dexterity.

But that’s something that’s always been lovely about all of this, this idea that they each know there are pretenses the other keeps. The overwhelming feeling that they want to find out what those are, want to demolish them and be left with the truth of the other girl sitting here. So she lets her undress her so quickly, does the same. They finally pause for a moment, breath quick after all of it, and take each other in, remind themselves that the other is here.

And oh, she’s beautiful. But she knew that she would be. Kumiko has always wanted to see her like this. Guide the strap of that pretty white dress down the graceful curve of her shoulder. Or sit her down gently on the cool, stone lip of a step on the mountain top, hike the frothy ruffles up at her hips.

It’s getting dark, but the orange warmth of sunset is getting replaced by the glowing white of the moon and artificial light and it looks so like that night on top of the mountain, the city below illuminating her gently. She wonders if that’s lost on Reina, but knowing her, it isn’t. She never misses a detail.

There’s something about the way Reina looks in light like this. A little otherworldly, the way it makes her gleam a little, how lovely it is to watch the shadows of her eyelashes, fanned against her cheeks. She looks at her so intently, hanging over her, hair slipping from over her shoulder to hang like a curtain between them and the rest of the world.

Once she kisses her again, she can’t stop touching her, can barely open her eyes, but she also wants so badly never to close them. She wants to burn this image of her somewhere that she’ll never lose it.

Reina trails her hand lightly across her collarbones, her bare shoulders, across her breasts. She pauses there for a little bit and Kumiko can barely breathe. She continues. Down the plane of her stomach a combination between lightly stroking her and tickling her that makes her arch and wriggle.

Kumiko jerks a little despite herself when Reina slips a hand between her legs and she can’t keep quiet anymore. Kumiko always expected that she’d be rather quiet. She always thought it seemed like her, to be almost silent other than a little hitch of breath here, a gasp there. But she’s wrong. Or maybe it’s Reina, she must know how to pull this sound from her, this high and clear peal that won’t stop. She knows it, too. Kumiko knows she does, because she smiles down at her in a way that says she knows exactly what she’s doing to her, kisses her under her jaw just to feel the way the sound vibrates there. Kumiko tries to cover her own mouth to muffle it, but Reina pulls it away and pins it gently to the mattress, clasps it tightly there. She wants to hear it.

But Kumiko wants to hear her, too, hear the way their voices mingle, the dissonance and resolution, the way sounds hum against one another and raise the hair on the back of your neck when it’s good.

Reina doesn’t so much jump when Kumiko moves to touch her the way she’s doing to her. More steels herself, arms going a little rigid, eyes slipping shut. Kumiko would worry if not for the pretty, high-pitched sigh she lets out.

They slip into a rhythm and Reina tips her head down, rests her forehead on hers, and the sound of those melodic sighs ghost across Kumiko’s lips, mingle with her own slightly louder calls. She’s trying to keep her eyes open too, and the look in her eyes has lost some of its intensity, or maybe it’s just a different kind. Open and a little softer and Kumiko wonders what she sees in her eyes too.

Her eyes snap shut at the same time Kumiko can’t keep hers open any longer either, but Reina dives forward to capture her lips and it’s a good thing she does it because she isn’t going to last any longer. She cries out into her mouth, feels herself vibrate against her lips. It does something to Reina, she thinks, because she’s not far behind, trembling in this lovely way, whimpering against her the same way. And then the not-quite silence after it’s over, accomplished quiet punctuated by a little satisfied panting, tired smiles, looking at each other across the distance, the hushed rustle of movement. They move to lie next to one another, hands still clasped. They don’t speak for quite a while.

“I thought I had blanked out at rehearsal today. Thinking about being back in high school-” she murmurs.

“Hm. I’m sorry if I startled you.”

“It was a nice kind of startled,” she assures her. “I was afraid you’d just let go of all of it. I was so happy to see that you hadn’t given up.”


“On you or on music?”

“Aren’t they the same thing?” she smirks.

“Might as well be,” she grins and she knows it must look a little sleepy.

Reina pulls her close and Kumiko doesn’t leave. Not for days, other than to go to class. Her roommate in the little apartment she rents frantically texts her after three days, wondering if she’s alright. She tries for a while after that to make intermittent appearances there so it doesn’t look as suspicious. But anyone would know exactly what’s going on.

They never discuss it. When the semester ends, Reina just casually brings up that she’s leaving the little student residence that Kumiko technically isn’t supposed to be staying in and goes over when they’re moving in, assuming Kumiko is coming with her with no fuss about it. She smiles and nods and doesn’t protest because of course she’s coming with her.

Her favorite thing about it is getting all this unlimited time with her to learn more about her, parse her out, ask her things she’s always wondered about her.

Things like what would she play if she couldn’t play trumpet? If she could pick her dream post, where and what would she play?

Sometimes, it’s even simpler things like what her favorite colors are, her favorite times of day.

Sometimes, more profound. What does she think of her parents? What are the things that make her doubt herself?

One morning it’s, “Hm. Would you ever get married?”

“Are you proposing?” she quirks an eyebrow.


“Unfortunately not, it would take a lot longer for me to save up enough for anything like that,” she giggles. “I’m just curious.”

Reina ponders it, raising an arm to trace shapes in the air below the ceiling that Kumiko isn’t privy to.

“No,” she eventually decides. “I feel like it muddles things.”

“Muddles things?”

“Well, I think it’s that it makes things seem final and that people stop trying so hard when that’s true. Or maybe it’s because I don’t like that it seems like ownership.”

“Even Taki-sensei? You wouldn’t marry him if you still had a crush on him?” she jokes about her former crush but Reina’s eyes glint a little.

“I still do like him. And no, I wouldn’t get married, not even him.”

“Still?” Kumiko asks, a little incredulous and with a touch of hurt. She thought she had given up on him.

“Yes, still, I haven’t given up on that at all.”

“Of course you haven’t, it wouldn’t be like you. But, well, forgive me for asking, where does that leave me?” Kumiko laughs, only a touch exasperated.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, clearly if you were ever to pursue someone else, you probably wouldn’t want me around so badly anymore?”

“I don’t agree with that at all,” she raises herself up on one arm to get a better look at her, scowls darkly and here it is. That stormy look she gets when she’s passionate about something that people haven’t treated delicately enough for her.

“Sorry, sorry!” Kumiko throws up her hands, palms to the ceiling, as if surrendering. “I just don’t understand what you mean, I guess.”

“What I mean is, I don’t think that love makes the kind of sense people want it to,” she settles back down, although the intensity of the look she’s giving her doesn’t lessen. “ They want to explain it and put it in a pretty package they can understand and I think it’s silly. And I certainly don’t think it only happens once for people. I don’t understand where anyone gets this idea that there’s only one person you love. I feel as if it’s all to make it easier for people who don’t want to deal with complicated things.”

Kumiko nods slowly, parsing it out.

“So what you mean is. Even if by some miracle you and Taki-sensei-”

“Miracle?” Reina huffs, grumpy and teasing.

“Sorry. If by some fairly-plausible-chance you were successful pursuing something with Taki-sensei, that wouldn’t change this?” she gestures to them, the way Reina is tucked messily into cool sheets, bare shoulders and chest soft in the light from the window.

“It wouldn’t change this or the way I feel about you at all. And I would continue our relationship as normal. So long as you were comfortable with the arrangement, of course.”

“You don’t care much for rules, do you, Reina?”

“Rules are only a good thing so far as they’re useful,” she scowls. “But most just stand in the way. They’re there to make you act a certain way, be a certain thing, avoid standing out.”

“And you want to be special,” Kumiko reminds her, smiling gently.

“Exactly.”

Kumiko goes silent for awhile, thinking on it. Can that sort of thing really work? She doesn’t necessarily see why not, even as she has to get used to the idea.

“I can’t tell if that upsets you,” Reina murmurs, a rare look of uncertainty passing across the planes of her face.

“No, I don’t think so. I think it might actually be pretty smart.”

“Then what’s bothering you?” she purses her lips, staring, as if it might grant her some clarity as to what Kumiko is thinking. But unfortunately for Reina, Kumiko isn’t so sure herself.

“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.”

Reina nods once, but it’s clear she doesn’t buy it and Kumiko can’t quite blame her.

“Let me know once you figure it out.”

“I will. But for now, let’s forget about it,” she moves to kiss her sweetly and Reina, for once, agrees to let something go and drift off with her instead of protesting.

After that conversation, Kumiko can’t get rid of this feeling that’s a little prickle on the back of her neck, something not entirely pleasant or unpleasant. Just a nagging sort of thing, like something she’s forgotten but can’t remember no matter how hard she tries.

It’s oddly prominent in rehearsal. She’d expect to feel it nestled in bed with Reina, the way they were when they were talking. Or when Reina is talking about Taki-sensei, which doesn’t happen as much anymore, although he still crops up from time to time.

But no, it creeps up the back of her spine as she’s numbering measures in this semester’s music. Practicing the first few difficult intervals over and over. Abandoning practice for a little while, putting away the new music and taking out the old to play something familiar and-

Oh. Of course.

She finds in a melancholy few measures just here on the first page.

A wave of guilt mixed with a certain longing.

You declare your passions quite vocally and don't always follow through, Kumiko.

What is it about her? She has a talent for sneaking up on Kumiko, for blindsiding her in the most effortless way.

Kumiko always assumed she just didn't return her feelings. Her confession out in the sting of the cold, the snow and tears mingling a little.

She never heard from her much, after she graduated, even though she said she would keep in touch.

Kumiko can't deny, try as she might, that she gave up. Assumed after months she'd either been rejected or her confession misunderstood. She even grieved it, for a little while, cried more than a few times.

But now the conversation she had with her over break is starting to piece itself together in her mind.

And how would she really have kept in good contact with Kumiko? Living in another place and going to school somewhere else, and handling all the stress of University. Her mother.

Kumiko realizes she's been impatient. She's misstepped. Moved on and assumed it wasn't going to happen before she really had a chance to respond. She gave up on her, really. The knowledge sinks like a rock in her, down to the pit of her belly.

It's not as if she's not difficult to read, of course. Kumiko doesn’t necessarily think she’s blameless; the girl has always been a puzzle to her, to everyone really. And she'd never say a thing directly to Kumiko if she wasn't sure the admission was perfectly secure, not to be treated lightly.

And, well, Reina has also always been important. And she was in the same year. They saw each other more and it all just...happened.

A perfect little flurry of confusion, she realizes, all compounding to make her fall through the cracks.

She doesn’t know how she’s going to broach the topic to Reina, even as she knows it won’t matter to her. Even as she knows it doesn’t change what’s between them, just like she said.

It’s broached for her the day Reina comes in to find her, euphonium in her lap, music on the stand, and no sound other than her sniffling.

“Kumiko?” she asks, hushed and concerned, running over to her, placing a firm hand on her shoulder, almost shaking her a little as if to get her to snap out of it. The worn book of music is open to the first page. Kumiko startles at being found like this.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” she wails, frantically trying to drying the tears as quickly as she can.

“What's going on?”

“Ah, don't worry, it's nothing-”

“Don't lie to me,” Reina is kneeling in front of her now, to catch Kumiko's eyes even as she tries to duck down and hide them. She's not so much callous as firm. She's not going to let her get away with passing this off like it's nothing, but there's a softness in the look she's leveling at her.

Kumiko doesn't respond at first.

“Crying isn't nothing,” Reina reminds her, prodding her a little.

She nods, sniffles thickly.

“Asuka.”

“Asuka?” she asks, puzzled.

“Y-yes, I m-messed up, I-”

“Did you talk to her about it?”

“W-what?”

And now Reina has nestled her head in Kumiko's lap and her shoulders are shaking. Oh no, is she crying now, too? What will she do if she's hurt her?

“Reina I'm sorry, I-”

But it becomes clear after a moment that Reina is laughing.

“You're awful,” Kumiko sighs but it's more relief than exasperation.

“How many times do I have to tell you that you have to do something about the things that make you cry? Here you are bawling and you haven't even talked to her,” she grins.

“I don't know if you understand, it's a difficult conversation-”

“Then it's worth having,” she tells her with a nod. “Nothing worth doing is easy.”

“But-”

“Don't try to get out of it-”

“But it's because I love her and I didn't know if you would be okay with that!” she nearly shouts before dissolving into tears again.

“I've already told you how I feel about that sort of thing. Now you're just making things difficult for yourself.”

“Don't be mean. I just didn't want to lose both of you, okay?”

“Well you're never losing me,” she assures her as if she knows it for certain, knows the mystery of the future like the back of her hand.

“Okay.”

“But you should talk to her.”

“I don't know how to say it.”

“Try explaining it to me, then. I'm curious anyway.”

“I confessed to her.”

“When?”

“The day she graduated.”

“I never knew that,” she murmurs as if it's just another errant fact, nearly irrelevant. “So what happened?”

“I told her I didn't want it to be goodbye, and she told me we’d stay in contact, in so many words. And then I didn't hear from her. I thought she'd rejected me.”

“Hm. And how do you know she didn't?”

“Last winter break I saw her. She made it clear. Or as clear as Asuka ever is.”

“Which means not very clear at all. It's not necessarily a surprise it took you almost a year to figure it out. I never knew her to be very forthright, although I never knew her well.”

“Hm.”

“Which is all beside the point. The point is, that doesn't seem so hard to explain. So what are you doing to do about it?”

“What? I don't know, she lives far and-”

“So did I. And you made it here to find me.”

“By transferring schools. I can't do that again, I don't even want to. I like living here with you.”

“You don't have to transfer. You're creative. You'll figure something out.”

“I wish I had your faith.”

“Then have it. Faith isn't something rational, Kumiko. It's something you decide. Either you decide to have it or you don't. So have it.”

Kumiko nods, trying to glean some of Reina’s determination.

It's an audition, of all things, that brings her there. She almost certainly won't make it, but that wasn't really the point of coming here. It's for a professional local ensemble and she’ll be going up against older students, maybe even a few professionals.

Reina sees her off, kisses her when no one is looking, reminds her not to rush that phrase at measure 17, and tells her in no uncertain terms that she is to succeed at all costs lest she come home and not be allowed back in the apartment.

“Succeed in the audition, or succeed with-”

“No more semantics. I said what I meant. Make it happen and stop stalling. Get on the train before you're late.”

“I love you too,” Kumiko huffs, teasing.

Reina kisses her once more for good measure and nudges her toward the train, grinning like she’s more excited than Kumiko. But then Reina has always loved the thrill of possibility.

The city is open, with endless skies. It's not quite so close as Tokyo, it breathes more. It oscillates between sunny and a little cloudy as if the city can't decide which facade it wants. But it's always warm, this velvet balm even now in the winter and Kumiko is sure it's sweltering in the summer. Stretches of water are visible nearly everywhere. There's movement in this city too, but a different sort than the pell-mell breakneck of Tokyo. This one has a rhythm, a rocking almost, easy and sweet.

Kumiko finds the building with few problems. She'd usually be nervous for the audition by now, but all she can think about is how she's going to find Asuka, let her know she's here in the same city.

But she needn't have worried because she finds her right where everyone is checking in, crouching down and back turned to her, rummaging in her case. Kumiko approaches her slowly, meaning to come around to her other side to say hello but she doesn't even get that far.

“Kumiko!”

How does she know it's her? Her back is still turned. She's still feet away from her.

“Ah! H-how did you know it was me? What are you doing here?”

“I'm a euphonist. So are you,” she says simply, as if it explains everything just fine. She finally finishes, having dealt with whatever she was looking for, straightens.

“So not even Tokyo has good posts for euphonists. Figures. Unless you're not here to audition and you came here to see little old me,” she teases, batting her eyelashes in this exaggerated way and Kumiko is already losing her composure.

“I...uh…y-you-”

“Oh, maybe you did come to see me?” she grins, clearly enjoying the way Kumiko can't stop stuttering.

“No, I didn't. I mean yes, I...is both an answer?”

“Both is an answer. But if you actually mean both, you might want to check in,” she points to the table and Kumiko hurriedly does so.

They walk together once she's checked in, moving to queue up outside the room. And it's as if almost nothing has changed. Like all of this has leapt across years and years of separation. Walking together with Asuka through the hallways of a school, instruments in hand. Waiting outside a room to audition.

“Why did I decide to do this?” Kumiko groans once the person immediately before her goes in for her audition, her nerves starting to get the better of her.

“Well, it's one of a few things. Either Reina made you,” she ticks them off, counting on her fingers. “There are never auditions for euphonists so you have to jump on them when you can. Or the whole thing is an elaborate ploy to see me.”

“Is all of the above an answer?”

“Ah, of course. And an elaborate ploy to see me, I'm honored! Even if Reina evidently made you do it. So I take it things are going better in that department since I last saw you?” she nudges her, conspiratorial.

“Can we talk about that after the audition?” she mutters.

“Aw, I missed how avoidant you can be, my grumpy little Kumiko.”

“Just as much as I miss the way you're always talking out of your ass-”

“Oh good, she's cursing, come here,” she yanks Kumiko to her, making a point of nearly smothering her. But as soon as she has her arms around her, Kumiko doesn't want to let her go again. Asuka startles a little when she puts her arms around her waist and locks them there, buries her face in her shoulder.

“I mean, I knew you liked it when I talk out of my ass, but not that much-"

“Shut up, I missed you,” she tells her, but it has almost no force behind it, the sound going a little high and shaky with impending tears.

“Haven't I told you I'm not good with these things?” she tells her, but there's a quiet fondness in it. “Why don't we talk about it after, like you said? No crying before an audition, you look like a mess.”

“Thanks,” Kumiko huffs, pulling away and trying to dry the tears that came seemingly out of nowhere.

“Only the best for you,” Asuka winks.

And now it's Kumiko's turn. She looks back at Asuka.

“Go on. You'll do fine.”

“How do you know?”

“I taught you, didn't I? Break a leg,” she grins and gives her a literal push with the flats of her palms into the room.

Auditions are always both overwhelmingly present and a bit of a blur. Sharply clear when you're there but with a habit of disappearing after, the memory of it absent. It's over quickly and they usher her out a different door than she came in.

She waits for Asuka on the other side. She must be near the end of the schedule. Kumiko is even more nervous as more people come out the door. There are so many. And on the other hand she wishes there were more because it's all just inching closer to having to tell Asuka why she's here. How she’s just realizing her mistake. How she still loves her with a certain desperation only she seems to be able to pull from her.

She’s idly playing with a strand of her hair when Asuka finally comes out.

“My playing was that boring?”

“You know I couldn't hear you. How'd it go?”

“Like an audition,” she shrugs. “No idea until the results are posted. So,” she puts out her hand and Kumiko takes it, lets her help her up off the floor where she's been sitting, “evidently we have gossip to catch up with.”

“It's not really gossip, it's-”

But she doesn't get another word in. Asuka takes her to a similar cafe to the one they were in over break. She must have a thing for coffee. It would explain her energy that never ends.

“So. What's this thing that was evidently too juicy to talk about until later?”

“Well, you asked about Reina and-”

“So it didn’t work out with her? Or are you just coming to rub salt in the wound?” she grins but, oh, Kumiko knows enough to know that Asuka can’t hide the pain of it. At least not from her she can’t.

“Neither of those things, actually.”

“Oh?”

“Well, we are involved, that you probably should know. We live together, actually-”

“I'll take salt in the wound for five hundred-” Asuka laughs, sipping her drink.

“Let me finish-”

“Forgive me for saying it, but I'm not really sure there's a way this conversation is going to go that isn't going to sting. Which is alright, Kumiko, you didn't need to come all the way here to apologize for rejecting me. I can handle it-”

“I'm not rejecting you-"

“You are, and that's alright if that's how you feel-”

“I'm not rejecting you! I still love you!” she exclaims, quite vocally, and the cafe goes a deathly quiet. Even Asuka is caught off guard for a moment before the silence in her surroundings jars her into motion.

“Why don't we walk and talk-” she stands up, grabs her hand, and pulls her out of there in seconds flat.

She's quiet and Kumiko isn't sure where she's walking.

“Is that all you came here to tell me?” she asks, flat, and she doesn't smile this time. She's upset. Maybe even outright angry. “It might be kinder to let me take the rejection gracefully, Kumiko.”

“I didn't actually mean to reject you-” she half-wails, trying to keep it together. “I thought you rejected me.”

“And why would that be?”

“ I didn't hear from you after you graduated and I assumed you were turning me down. I know I messed up, I know I didn't wait long enough, I didn't give you enough time and when you came back I had already moved on-”

“Ah yes. A classic lovers’ misunderstanding, how romantic. We've clandestinely missed each other,” Asuka says with false drama, but it's even more stilted than usual. She's trying to keep her normal sense of humor but it's not working. It's coming off as bitter and snappish. And Kumiko can't really blame her. She opens up to very few people and she counts herself among the lucky ones that knows her, really knows her. And she hasn't treated that knowledge well.

“I'm sorry.”

“I appreciate that, but I also don't know where we go from here, Kumiko. It seems like you came all the way down here because you feel guilty.”

“No, I came down here to tell you. That I still feel the same. That I'm sorry I didn't realize for so long. And to see if you still feel the same, too.”

“And if I do, what are you suggesting?” Asuka asks, breezy, but Kumiko knows enough to know not to believe it. Asuka knows how to sound alright when she's anything but.

Kumiko can't really say what she's suggesting. What she wants is to be with her, but she doesn't know how to say that in so many words.

“Are you suggesting I help you cheat?”

Cheat?

Oh. Oh Kumiko hasn't explained this well at all.

“N-no, no it's not cheating, I-”

“How isn't it?”

“Because Reina knows.”

“Oh, perfect, so she gets to sit there knowing what you're doing-”

“No, no, I mean she knows and approves of it. This whole trip was her idea, actually. She basically told me to quit crying if I wasn't even going to try to talk to you.”

“Interesting. I always thought she was the jealous type.”

“Hmm? Maybe. I'm not sure, but I know she's not the traditional relationship type. She thinks marriage is ridiculous and that people who think you only love one person are just trying to make themselves feel better about something complicated. Or something.”

Asuka laughs.

“That sounds more like her. Smart and not a care in the world for any sort of rule.”

“Reina doesn't care about anything except the things she cares about. If that makes sense.”

“Yes. I think everyone is like that a little, but Reina has a knack for tunnel vision, that's true.”

Asuka sighs and things go quiet between them for a moment.

“Alright, Kumiko, I'll bite. I can't tell you I'm not... intrigued at the very least. But I trust that you mean what you say about Reina and where she stands with this. I trust that you're serious. I don't want to be toyed with,” she levels a distant and almost resigned glance at Kumiko.

“I wouldn't have come down here at all if she had any reservations. Or if I wasn't serious.”

Asuka nods and keeps walking. She walks all the way to the boardwalk by the water, keeps going along it for a ways, past the crowded areas, and people go scarcer. She finally sits at an end tucked away from any real civilization, sticks her legs under the railing so they swing over the water. She pats the spot next to her and Kumiko joins her.

Asuka wordlessly takes out her instrument. She's settling in to play, just like she used to by the river with her.

“Well, what are you waiting for?”

“What?”

“You have yours this time.”

She's inviting her to play with her. Kumiko is even sitting to her left, like they did years ago.

Playing with Reina is an exercise in complementing things, harmonies, things not so alike and beautiful for it.

But she's also missed this. Playing with Asuka is playing in perfect unison, not a note different from one another, even the rhythms and phrasing perfectly in tune with one another. That same piece she's loved since she heard her play it on a fragrant summer morning. And now here, with sharp salt water and the glowing orange of a late afternoon sun. The music is as warm as she remembers it. Maybe even more so after a long time playing it by herself, a long time being the only one she knows who knows it. Knows why it's lovely and why it's important.

And now she is here again with Asuka playing this little piece only three people in the world know, reveling in how much stronger it sounds together. Marvelling that the little note of sadness in it never leaves completely, and at the same time remembering why she loves its honesty.

The last notes carry, long and smooth across the water. They don't speak at first after, reticent to disturb the silent hum after a piece ends, not willing to leave the little world they've created.

“Hmm. Your sound is beautiful,” she tells her and Asuka has never been very complimentary. So the word hits Kumiko that much harder, swells in her chest. Beautiful.

“I wanted to play just like you,” she reminds her simply.

“Hm,” she smiles and it’s slower and warmer and different than the one everyone else sees.

They watch the water, instruments still wrapped in their arms.

“Are you leaving tonight?” Asuka asks, casual, very carefully trying to avoid any implications.

“I...wasn't sure. It depends-”

She barks a laugh.

“Depends on if I take you home to my place or not? Is that what you mean?”

Kumiko goes as pink as the sky above them but the suggestion also steals her breath, makes her wriggle a little.

“Did you even make arrangements or did you intend to turn right around if I turned you down?”

“You're too observant for your own good.”

“I'm not, I just know you. Well, it's late. You probably shouldn't try to catch the last train, it leaves a little soon, you’d have to run for it. And thankfully for you I was going to invite you anyway even if you did invite yourself.”

“I'm so sorry, I-”

“Relax, Kumiko, I’m teasing you,” she nudges her.

She picks her way off the ground, places the euphonium back in the case. Kumiko follows suit and they meander back the way they came.

“So, does this mean...does this mean?”

“Asuka-” Kumiko groans. Asuka is kidding with her again. She’s only a little exasperated by it. Mostly she’s glad to see her joking again.

“Does this mean we can…”

Kumiko flushes, thinking she’s about to make a lewd joke.

“Hold hands?”

“If I say yes will you stop?”

Asuka grins, reaches down and laces her hand with hers.

There’s no rushing, with them. She thinks Asuka takes a long way to her place. Which is just as well, because it gives her more time to revel in the way her hand fits so nicely in hers. To be able to bump her shoulder playfully against hers, hear the laugh she gives and the way it mingles with sunlight and the smell of open water.

After one such laugh, Kumiko, still smiling, tells her she’s glad she got to play with her again.

“Mmhmm. You know that piece by heart.”

“Of course. I heard you play it at camp. In the morning.”

“I forgot about that. Were you spying on me?” Asuka puts her fingers in a circle around her eyes, mimicking binoculars.

“No,” Kumiko rolls her eyes, but she’s still smiling. “I was just going up there to play too and heard it. I’ve never forgotten it, actually-” she murmurs.

And she hasn’t. The chirr of wildlife, the way the sunlight filtered through blades of grass and leaves, and Asuka by herself in the middle of a vast field. The way her hair hung just at the small of her back, how all traces of pretense were dropped, playing a warm, melancholy song that seemed nearly a natural fixture of her surroundings, one that’s hummed in Kumiko's chest since she heard it.

“Well, that piece has always been one I loved. I’m glad I get to play it with someone else,” she winks.

“So, do I have to give your music back, or does that mean I earn keeping it for a little while?” she jokes, grinning, but when she turns to look at her, Asuka has stopped.

“Asuka?”

Asuka stares off for a moment, thinking, considering something before she looks up and smiles, a little softer than usual, but it still has that brightness that’s characteristically her. She reaches out to fluff the ends of her curls, still grinning and it’s just enough to blind Kumiko to what’s going to happen next. She giggles and Asuka swoops in to catch the end of it.

Kumiko startles at first, a muffled mmh! against her mouth. But then, she should know better than to ever expect Asuka to be predictable.

She settles into it after a moment, content to let her kiss her here on the boardwalk with the sun shining on them, making everything behind her eyelids go a brilliant orange.

She kisses so warmly, and slowly, almost painfully so, but in a way that makes every sensation stand out, in a way that makes Kumiko want to luxuriate in the moment. Savor the taste of her when she tickles her lips with the tip of her tongue. The way she smells like hair warmed by sun, the way she toys with her curls in a way that gives her shivers, the way she pulls her closer by the small of her back.

There’s no real plan or technique in it, but that's what makes it take the breath right out of her. Because it’s clear that Asuka is pouring herself into it, that her kiss is alive and full of what she feels right now in this very instant. When she pulls away, she kisses her cheeks, the space under her jaw, her earlobes, kissing her all over in a playful way that tickles and makes Kumiko giggle.

“So I do get to keep the music-” Kumiko jokes.

“I’ll think about it,” she teases back, tickling her once for good measure before walking off with her, hand still clasped in hers, as if she hasn’t just kissed her weak in the knees.

Kumiko left on a Wednesday, had leave to go from her professors.

She loses days here, with Asuka.

Her little apartment is very like her. A bit sparse, but with homey touches that professional decoration can’t lend to a place. Kumiko sees she’s made off with the little glasses from her house back in Uji, the ones with the little cats on them that Kaori gave her so long ago. Music is everywhere. Pictures of their high school concert band days. Photos from a bit more recently.

“So Kaori’s been here a few times?”

“She might have been,” Asuka winks.

“Hmph. And you talked about Reina not following rules. You don’t seem like the traditional type yourself.”

“Well, of course not. A failed marriage is the source of all the not-so-pleasant parts of my upbringing and most of my hangups,” she grins, throwing up a peace sign.

“Okay, okay, makes sense. So this works for you then?” she asks, worried that maybe the arrangement hasn’t been to her liking.

“Yes. Not too strict. Fewer expectations. Sounds perfect.”

“I still have some expectations.”

“And what are those?”


“Text me sometimes. Maybe remember my birthday.”

“Much too difficult, can’t oblige, sorry,” she tells her with that telltale playful glint in her eye.

“Well then, maybe I won’t oblige the birthday present I bought you all the way back to the store.”

“Phew,” she exhales, forceful. “You don’t fight fair, Kumiko.”

They haven’t done much but laze about her apartment. Kiss languidly in sunspots in the living room. Giggle over this and that.

But it’s Saturday now. She knows she’ll have to leave tomorrow and she’s in this middle space between missing home so terribly and feeling as if leaving will be impossibly gut-wrenching.

“Ah, you’re grumpy again, Kumiko,” Asuka pinches her cheek, kisses the other one, noticing her sour mood.

“I have to leave tomorrow, of course I’m grumpy.”

“And who says you’re not coming back?”

“I know, I just don’t know when. And I wanted more time, I wanted to do more,” she groans and tips her head onto her shoulder and Asuka musses up her hair so that it probably sticks out every which way.

“More of what, hm?”

Kumiko freezes. Asuka has been very careful not to imply anything this entire time and now it seems as if she’s taking a different, more pointed approach. Kumiko tries to volley back, but no sound comes out.

“Kumiko, are you implying that you want to take our relationship to the next level?” she prods, waggling her eyebrows, suggestive.

“No, that’s you. Not that...not that I would say no-” she mutters and ducks her head again so Asuka can’t see her blush.

But then Asuka lets it alone after that for a bit besides a little lighthearted teasing.

Until something in her seems to think the moment is right, now, hours after, in the glow of late afternoon beaming through the windows as she leans forward to kiss her.

It almost feels like deja vu, it’s so easy and familiar. There’s seemingly nothing new about the way she kisses her, gently slips the worn t-shirt over her head and tickles the bare skin of her side so that she’ll squeal a little, even though Kumiko knows they haven’t done this before.

It seems almost routine, as if they’ve known each other like this for years, even if she knows they haven’t. She feels as if that knowledge should bore her, but it doesn't. There’s a certain thrill in how easy it is, how slow and familiar, a complete absence of inhibitions that’s terribly exciting and more than a little terrifying.

This isn't so much like a movie. There would be no explaining to someone else why something so effortless and seemingly unremarkable would be all that important. It's one of those moments you'd already have to understand, like an inside joke except there's not anything funny about it. More a profundity that only they're privy to.

If Reina is the grandeur of competition, playing at night in a heap of white ruffles on top of a mountain with fireworks in the distance, then Asuka is the stillness of a balmy morning just after sunrise, playing against the gentle whirr of cicadas and chatter of birds. Seemingly effortless but with a depth that's unattainable at first, only revealed to those who care to find it and those who will understand it to begin with.

Here, there's no frantic need to try to understand her, because she already knows her. Knows what she's thinking sometimes without having to be told. Instead, there's just an overwhelming urge to remind her these things. That there's no pretense here. You're among those who understand you better than you understand yourself sometimes. No need to tell your darkest secrets because they're already known and don't matter so much here.

Kumiko thinks sometimes details have a way of getting in the way. And then, on the other hand, here with Asuka, she thinks sometimes the details are important after all, that small moments like these are the things that turn out to be the most vibrant and important

Like the way Kumiko slips her glasses from Asuka's nose and doesn't know where to put them because Asuka is never very careful with them, leaves them all about the house. The way she takes them from Kumiko and tosses them only feet away, on the floor. How she's only seen her without glasses like this one other time and couldn't interpret yet the thrill of her arm thrown across her chest and the feeling of bare skin on hers.

How everything happens so gradually that nothing is a shock really, but it's almost better for it. She kisses her for so long after her shirt is discarded, thrown to the side. And then again after she's relieved her of her jeans, and again even after that as she guides the band of her underwear down her thighs and tosses those aside too.

It's to the point that it takes her a while to realize that they're both naked now and that that doesn't feel very odd at all.

Kumiko surprises herself by being the first to broach any sort of real contact, brushing her hand lightly across her breast. Asuka quirks an eyebrow, the only evidence that she's affected at all is a slight fluttering of her eyelids as if her eyes want to close but she's willing them not to.

“Is that a challenge?” she grins and Kumiko shrugs.

“If you're up for it it is,” she tries to level back, but it comes out as a shy sort of whisper and it's not very convincing.

“I'm always up for it,” she winks and does the same thing to Kumiko, this teasing of her breast, and her breath hitches. It spurs something of a game between them, a little bid to see who can fluster the other worse and Kumiko didn't know it could be like this too. She's always known a delicious sort of intensity with Reina. But there's something so lovely about this, the giggling and smiling and play of it with Asuka.

Unfortunately for Asuka, Kumiko has a competitive streak she doesn't always like to admit to and Asuka is winning. So Kumiko dips her hand between her thighs, traces a soft circle there to see what she’ll do. She's always been curious about this. What will Asuka, who never loses her composure, look like the harder it is for her to keep it? What will she be like when things go vulnerable between them?

“Ah...touche,” she grins but she can't hold the expression for very long as Kumiko keeps going. She closes her eyes a lot at first, ducks her head, and Kumiko has the feeling she doesn't want her to see her face. Kumiko puts a palm on her cheek, tries to encourage her to stop hanging her head so but she won't do it.

“Asuka. Can I see your face?”

She doesn't respond immediately.

“Asuka?”

Kumiko wants to see. She's seen her like this a few times before, although they are certainly few. But she has a depth in her that Kumiko knows like the back of her hand even if she rarely gets to see it. Even if she only gets to see when she's reminding Asuka that she's too good sometimes at pretending to know everything, pretending that all the loose ends of her are neatly tied.

She finally obliges, and she's not trying to look so composed anymore. She stares at her with the same open look she's given Kumiko only twice before, one that seems almost surprised to find Kumiko here, surprised to find that she cares. Grateful in a muted way.

Once when Kumiko was pleading with her to come back to band. Once when she told her she loved her when she graduated.

And once now, poised above her, flushed and trembling a little, letting Kumiko look at her like this. Touch her so sweetly like this. Know the parts of her she won't show anyone else.

There's no need for Asuka to tell her what this means. No need to her to even indicate that something that's happening has struck her as important. Kumiko already knows. And that's what's overwhelmingly lovely about it.

Asuka is mostly quiet beyond a deep and measured breathing that tells Kumiko she's trying to last. But she's not going to, Kumiko can tell when she starts this pretty low and full moan that hums between them and Kumiko can't believe she gets to hear her do anything like that.

The only indication that she breaks at all is when she buries her face in the crook of Kumiko's neck, gives a little ah! that's barely more emphatic than her little groans, one that sounds for a while in her ear even after she's stopped, a sound that she's not sure will ever leave her. A soft sort of rocking against her, a little shudder. And then a sigh against her skin that sounds like relief as she pulls away to look at her and gives her a soft smile that's not playful at all.

That one's love. That Kumiko knows.

Asuka kisses her sweetly, pulls away, reaches out to pet her head fondly, smiles wider.

“Thank you.”

She doesn't have to explain. Thank you for understanding. Thank you for not having to be told to be able to understand. Thank you for your love.

“So I won?”

“No, I don't think so,” she shakes her head, nuzzles her neck a little before she starts to kiss her there. But this time they're not playful or ticklish. They're real, warm and impossibly soft.

And now Kumiko is stuck in a purgatory of the slowest, sweetest kisses she's ever been given. All over her. Down her arms. Across her chest. Special attention paid to her breasts and now Kumiko has to admit that she's not sure she'll ever be very quiet. She also has to admit that she sounds very different with Asuka. With Reina everything is high and desperate, a sound that arches up into her head. With Asuka it's deep and a little steadier and it all sounds, full, in her chest.

Long and reverberating, a pleased sound that's a combination of a moan and a hum when Asuka kisses her between her thighs.

Kumiko learns that Asuka knows how to keep a good thing going at a simmer seemingly forever. And it's good enough for her not to want it to end. This thrumming warmth between her ribs and the summer-soft balm of her tongue between her legs that steals her breath and makes her think that she could live without it if only she could stay, suspended, here, right here.

She thought that Asuka loves in a way that there's no shock, no surprises, all steady warmth. There is a shock, though, she realizes. Just one that comes later, seemingly out of nowhere, just like the way she learned she loved her. Quiet and dormant until a pinnacle of realization that this has been building the entire time.

A realization that the endless days of practicing that seemed monotonous at first were actually quite remarkable in ways she didn't understand. That the little things that seemed unimportant came roaring back and were so crucial after all.

Like Asuka’s handwriting and the way her hands look when she plays and how she's the most beautiful to Kumiko playing in a t-shirt in a field, or sitting out by water. Or now, hair tickling the inside of her thighs and the way she’s smiling that same soft smile as Kumiko threads a hand in her hair. How all of these things start out innocuously enough and compound to overwhelm her, overtake her so quickly.

And they do overtake her with such a surprising force she nearly curls in on herself and all she can emit is a strangled whimper, hand still tangled in her lovely hair, as if pleading with her. For what, she's not sure.

The whimpering keeps going as the waves in her calm and she realizes too late to hide it’s that there are tears streaming down her face.

“That bad, huh?” Asuka smirks, moving to lie next to her, wiping her mouth delicately and lunging for her glasses, still thrown haphazardly on the floor.

“Stop it, it was perfect. I just don't want to leave. And then I also miss her and I don't know what to feel-” she starts to wail and feels terribly silly for it.

“You're not leaving yet, Kumiko, that's tomorrow-” she laughs, mopping up tears. “There are better uses of your time than crying. I can think of quite a few off the top of my head.”

“Like what?” Kumiko grumps and then wishes she hadn't said it because the look Asuka is giving tells her she's in for it.

“I'll show you,” she touches her nose to Kumiko's and grins.

Kumiko isn't sure if the burning in her eyes is from lack of sleep or tears as she waits for her train with Asuka in the morning.

“Still crying. What am I going to do with you, Kumiko?”

“I just don't know when I'm going to get to come back, I-”

“You didn't even look, did you?”

“Look? At what?”

Asuka pulls out her phone and after a few moments hands it over to her.

It's the audition results. She scans the page. They're both listed there.

“We made it?” she croaks, almost numb with the shock of it.

“We made it,” she nods once.

“There's more euphonists than usual for a concert band,” Kumiko scowls, critical.

“Yes, so I don't know how indicative this was of how we'd actually do in a professional audition, but we got in and we get to play. They must be playing something this season that's heavy on low-brass.”

“We made it,” she reiterates.

“Yup. So cheer up, Reina’s going to let you back in the apartment now.”

“And...I'll be back in the summer.”

“All summer, by the looks of it.”

Asuka doesn't get another word in. Kumiko squeezes her tightly, buries her face in her chest. She doesn't let go until something else hits her.

“Wait, let me see that list again.”

She looks and gasps.

“Asuka. Are you going to be alright? Your fath-

“Yes, my father's on the list too, I know. I'll be fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“I sort of want to play with him. See how it goes. It could be terrible, I don't know. If it goes wrong I'll be alright. You'll be there, so-”

She just toys with an errant curl of Kumiko's, as if that says enough and Kumiko nods, determined.

“I'll be there.”

“I'm glad. But now you need to be on your train. Remember it's not goodbye, hm?”

She nods, takes a deep breath and prepares to leave but Asuka kisses her once more in the middle of the crowded train platform.

“Asuka!” she wheezes.

“What? I told you I like audiences. Safe travels home, Kumiko. I'm glad it's not goodbye.”

Kumiko watches Asuka grow smaller on the platform as the train leaves, waves until neither of them can see one another anymore.

It's starting to snow lightly when she pulls into the station in Tokyo. Reina is waiting there for her, hands clasped in front of her primly, a lovely pink flush tinging her cheeks. She stands like that until she sees her and then she rushes her, throws her arms around her. Goodness, Kumiko has missed her.

She pulls away and dead-eyes Kumiko with a tense look, nose inches away from her.

“Well?! How did it go?”

It's clear she's been driven nearly mad wondering how the audition went.

“I made it. We found out this morning.”

Reina squeaks and hugs her tighter.

“I knew you would.”

“Asuka made it too, actually.”

Reina looks ready to burst she's so pleased. There's nothing Reina loves more than an audition successfully conquered.

“It went well with Asuka herself too, I see,” she smiles, muted and a little flushed.

“Huh? I mean, yes, it did, but what do you mean?”

“She, uh. She left a...um-” Reina just points to her neck and Kumiko gasps and claps a hand to where she points.

“Damn her, she couldn't tell me to put on a scarf? Makeup?”

“Knowing her she probably wanted it to be visible. We should...we should go home,” Reina flushes and walks off a little more quickly than she usually would.

“Reina, are you jealous? This was your idea,” Kumiko giggles.

“I know it was. It doesn't mean I can't be jealous within reason so long as I don't take it out on anyone else,” she replies sagely, making a show of trying to look unaffected and diplomatic. “Even if I want to go home and reclaim my territory so to speak.”

“Ah, so I'm territory. I suppose that's better than property,” she jokes but Reina spins around, horrified.

“No, Kumiko, that's not-”

“Relax, Reina. I'm teasing you.”

She huffs.

“She rubbed off on you over the weekend, I see.”

Kumiko giggles.

“Come on, stop pouting and let's go home.”

****

It's snowing, heavier than normal, in Uji on New Year's Eve. Against her better judgment, Kumiko has let Asuka con her and everyone else into dressing traditionally for the occasion. As soon as she steps out of the apartment, she knows it was a bad idea. It's a little too chilly for it and she just knows the snow is going to get high enough to soak the hem of the kimonos.

She slogs through it to meet them anyway. They're all home for winter break. It's unspeakably odd to be walking to meet Reina somewhere since they live together back in Tokyo. But it wasn't worth explaining to either of their parents, so here they are, spending a very strange two weeks in the same city but somehow not in the same apartment.

When she sees her, she looks agitated already. She also looks gorgeous, even with the scowl etched on her brow.

“It's bad weather for this,” she huffs. “I'm going to kill Asuka.”

“Only if Kaori and I don't kill her first.”

“Kaori couldn't kill a fly.”

“Okay, so if I don't kill her first.”

“Who's killing me?”

Asuka has crept up behind them. She looks beautiful too and maybe Kumiko can understand now why she might've insisted on this.

“Me, for making us wear these-” Reina huffs because Kumiko has lost her ire already.

“Aw, but you look so lovely in it, Reina-”

“Flattery doesn't work on her. Trust me, I've tried.”

“Asuka, was this necessary?” comes a mild sigh from behind Asuka and Kaori has appeared as if she materialized out of the snow itself, soft and fleeting.

“No, but it makes for a better experience.”

Kaori just shakes her head, and lets Asuka loop an arm through hers. She offers her other one to Kumiko, who takes it, pulling Reina to her on her other side. They walk, arms all linked.

“It's slower to walk this way,” Reina murmurs.

“It's not really about the efficiency. Plus, it's cold, I'll sacrifice the speed for the warmth,” Kumiko tells her.

When they get there, Asuka has a little thermos of Reina’s favorite tea thrust in her hands in seconds flat. It's clear she brought it with her.

“How-” Reina asks, but she's calmed considerably.

“I have a walking encyclopedia with all the intel on you right here, remember?” she fluffs Kumiko's hair. “I've been warned that you don't fare well in snow.”

“That was...thoughtful. Thank you.”

“I have moments,” she grins.

With Reina sufficiently placated, they meander about together, the warmth of light from the stalls all set up for the New Year a pleasant glow against the lazy drift of snowflakes.

Asuka drags them to buy charms, insisting they need to start the year off right, eagerly purchasing two sets of love charms and splitting them up between them right there in front of the vendor who's staring in the most immaculate confusion.

“Asuka-” Kaori tries to usher her to move on, do this somewhere more discreet, but she's undeterred.

“Blue or pink?” she holds up the pair in front of her, with the other pair she bought tucked under her arm.

“Blue,” Kaori sighs and smiles despite herself.

Asuka nods and then grabs the other pair, handing the pink one to Kumiko without having to ask. Then she freezes, hand still closed around the little string dangling from the charm.

“Kumiko.”

“Huh?”

“I'm not giving you this until you get one for you and Reina, you have to attend to all your relationships, don't leave her out in the cold.” she tells her with mock-horror.

“Ah! Sorry, sorry-”

“It's really not a big deal,” Reina shrugs.

“The success of your relationship is most certainly a big deal, Reina-” Asuka gasps, throwing an arm around her shoulders and Reina goes pink and stiffens.

“Don't terrorize her,” Kaori admonishes Asuka and Kumiko wordlessly hands Reina one of the charms and gives her a smile, a wordless sign of thanks for coming out here with them and putting up with Asuka's impossible energy. She smiles back at her as Asuka gives Kumiko the charm she's been holding hostage. She pockets them both, making a note to fasten them on her bag later.

They hang around, chatting there for a moment before Kumiko looks, spots someone she recognizes, and chokes.

“Walk, walk, walk, move, we have to move-” she ushers everyone along, trying to clear out before she's recognized.

“Kumiko!”

“Damn,” she mutters under her breath and turns. Shuichi has always had a knack for bad timing. “Give me a second-”

She reluctantly walks the few paces to meet him, leaving them behind her

“Were they involved?” she hears Kaori ask.

“No, although he probably wishes,” Reina sniffs from behind her.

“How've you been?” he waves. She shrugs.

“Alright. You?”

“Alright.”

“Still hanging out with Asuka and Reina, then?” he nods to where they're standing a ways behind her, just within earshot.

“You could say that.”

“Your mom said you transferred schools. You're in Tokyo now.”

“Yup.”

“Huh. You never seemed the type.”

“What? What's that supposed to mean?” she huffs. She's getting annoyed already.

“S-sorry,” he stutters. “Tokyo seemed a little intense for you is all.”

“If you're trying to impress me, it's not working.”
“I'm not trying to impress you-”

“Sure you're not.”

“I have a girlfriend, actually.”

“Congratulations, I have two, what's your point?”

Choking that sounds suspiciously like Reina drifts from behind her, mingling with the sounds of Asuka's gleeful chortling.

Shuichi laughs like it's clear he doesn't believe her.

“Okay, okay, sorry, sorry. I just wanted to say hello.”

“Then just say hello then.”

“Sorry. Are you happy?”

“Huh?”

“Like. Where you're going to school and life and...stuff. Are you happy?” he asks mildly like he genuinely wants to know.

“Oh. Yeah. Very happy, actually. You?” she asks, almost as an afterthought.

He pauses, considering the question carefully.

“Yeah. I am,” he nods, as if he's just decided it, thinking before he remembers himself. “Anyway, I’ll let you get back to your friends. Happy New Year, Kumiko. Tell your folks and your friends hello from me.”

“Mmhmm. Happy New Year.”

She turns back to the three of them where they're all in varying states of amusement.

“You called me your girlfriend. You do care!” Asuka gushes.

“I do love you.”

“Love and girlfriend in one night, I'm so lucky.”

“As spineless as ever,” Reina smiles, a mutedly entertained one. “I don't believe that he has a girlfriend.”

Kaori laughs delicately behind her hand and Kumiko nods, “No, I don't either.”

“You handled him well, I think,” Kaori notes, still giggling a little. “Has he always had wonderfully bad timing? He nearly made you miss midnight.”

“Yes, he has...wait, what?”

“It's 11:59,” she explains, turning the face of her watch towards her to illustrate.

“Shit!” Asuka curses. “Come on-”

“Where are we going?” Kaori asks.

“Well I intend on kissing one of you at midnight and would rather do it somewhere more private.”

“As long as it's not me,” Reina teases and Asuka laughs.

“Aw, no? There goes my plan.”

The sound of everyone counting down echoes as they all hurry behind a stall on the edge of the grounds, check to make sure no one is there that could see them.

When the clock strikes midnight it's Reina who happens to be in her arms as they just barely make it and there's something about kissing Reina in the snow that is one of her favorite things in this world.

“Happy New Year,” Reina murmurs against her lips and Kumiko laughs with a quiet 'hm,’ watching the snowflakes catch in her hair and even one or two in her eyelashes.

“Happy New Year.”

She looks over and just catches Asuka still with her palms cradling Kaori’s cheeks, forehead resting on hers, smiling with her eyes closed.

Kumiko has been worried. That she may be hurting them every time she's with the other. But if they feel anything like she does,watching how undeniably sweet the two of them are, she thinks maybe she doesn't have anything much to worry about.

The snow picks up and it's clear they need to get inside before it gets worse. Asuka ushers them to her place.

“My mom is gone until tomorrow evening.”

“On New Year's?” Kaori asks.

She shrugs.

“I'm not asking questions, especially not when I want her out of the house.”

She lays out the futon on the floor of her old room, drags the one from the guest room over too. Digs out old pairs of sweatpants and t-shirts for them to wear to sleep in.

They're comically long on Kumiko and Reina but she forgets it quickly, drifting off in no time.

She wakes up to muffled voices, throws out an arm to her right. Reina isn't there. She's about to ask after her when a hand settles on her shoulder. She rolls over. It's Asuka, putting a finger to her lips and then she points over to the window. Kaori and Reina sit in front of it, watching the snow, talking.

“Thank you,” Reina tells her quietly.

“For what?”

“For your patience. I know I'm not your favorite person. And that the arrangement at hand puts us in close quarters so to speak.”

“I've never disliked you, Reina. My real problem started years before you got there. And was the fault of other people. Just because other people messed things up for me in prior years doesn't mean that situation was your fault. Nor does it mean you were any less deserving.”

“Still. I could've been more sensitive. I know how I can be. And if you were someone meaner you could've taken out your feelings about me on Kumiko. So thank you. For not resenting Kumiko. Allowing this. It's been good for her and you could've made it hard on her and you didn't. I appreciate it.”

“I could say the same thing of you. This was important to Asuka. Kumiko has always meant a lot to her.”

Kumiko looks at Asuka and she's staring at her softly.

“She's right,” she murmurs, too low for the others to hear, shrugging and looking at her with that sweet and open look again.

Kumiko laces her fingers with hers, squeezes her hand.

“You know, I never got my new year's kiss from you,” Asuka reminds her.

Kumiko smiles at her across the softness of her pillow, leans forward to press her lips to hers. She kisses her for a long while with the quiet murmur of voices, the whisper of rustling sheets, and hush of snow outside a pleasant background.

“Oh, so you were faking being asleep,” comes Kaori's voice, a lilting tease.

They break away and Asuka shrugs.

“I instinctively know when people are complimenting me. It woke me up,” she grins before Reina and Kaori nestle back into bed around where she and Kumiko still have their arms wrapped around one another.

Kumiko watches the first rays of the new year peek through the blinds the next morning. Everyone else is asleep. Kaori nestled up behind Asuka with an arm slung over her waist, Kumiko between Asuka and Reina. She watches the sunrise through the window, head tucked under Asuka's chin into her shirt, Reina nestled into her the same way, a perfect little symphony of sleep, the sound of warmth and heartbeats and quiet breath everywhere.