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Polaris

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As far as she could remember, summer had always been a busy time for Kumiko. Since she started playing the euphonium, she had always managed to keep herself occupied. Whether it had something to do with her instrument and schoolwork or having fun with her friends, she always found something to help her stay productive.

Even at university, when academic work had become more manageable than in high school, Kumiko was able to keep herself busy. Joining the university concert band in her first year meant constantly playing her instrument after school. While her current band wasn't at Kitauji's level, it didn't give Kumiko free pass to slack off. If anything, it made her want to work harder.

But for the first time in a long time, she found herself with absolutely nothing to do.

"This sucks."

Sprawled on her bed, Kumiko stared at the ceiling, trying to make out shapes and patterns from the peeling paint. She expected to have another busy summer this year, but as luck would have it, she found herself stuck in her family's apartment in Uji after she and her bandmates failed to get into the Kansai competition.

Expecting that they would make it to the regionals, her upperclassmen had planned a training camp after Obon, similar to what Kumiko and her former clubmates did at Kitauji. But after receiving dud gold at the Kyoto competition (which was a huge surprise since they made it to Kansai last year), everyone decided to just... take a break. After all, they had been practicing like crazy up until the prefecturals. They did deserve some kind of reward for their effort.

Frankly, Kumiko thought her seniors just wanted to mope and drown their sorrows. They were so gung-ho with practicing and improving themselves, but they deflated like a balloon immediately after Kyoto...

...which left Kumiko in this very unpleasant situation.

While most people would rejoice and throw confetti at the thought of having absolutely nothing to do, Kumiko found out recently that she was the complete opposite. She hated having lots of free time. Because for her, having lots of free time meant having lots of time to think.

And there were lots of things she didn't want to think about.

But to her complete and utter misfortune, life had its way of forcing her to do the things she didn't want to do. Again.

Her phone pinged, signaling an incoming LINE message. Turning to her side, she reached for the device sitting on her nightstand and lazily unlocked the screen. What she read almost made her drop the phone on her face. She immediately sat up.

Reina 21:46
I'm coming home tomorrow.
Come pick me up at the airport?

Wait, did she read that right?

She scanned the message for the second time, hoping that somebody else sent it to her by mistake. However, Kumiko knew she was only fooling herself. Unlike her, Reina rarely made careless mistakes. Her best friend was always deliberate with her words and actions.

The trumpet player wasn't supposed to return to Japan this summer. She was slated to join an international competition in Berlin next week and she was using the break to train with her professor. As far as she knew, it was the reason her best friend had refrained from contacting her over the last three months.

So why?

Kumiko 21:49
What?

Reina 21:50
What 'what?'

Kumiko 21:51
What do u mean u'r coming home?
Aren't u training for Berlin?

Reina 21:53
Plan's changed.
I'll just explain everything tomorrow.

Kumiko 21:54
Ok
Do ur parents know?

Reina 21:55
No.
Want to surprise them…
...kidding.
They are on a Hawaiian cruise.
Nobody's home actually.

A sudden thrill shot through Kumiko's spine. It looked like her summer break wouldn't be uneventful, after all. Maybe she and Reina could have a sleepover or even go on a trip somewhere? But just as quickly as her excitement came, it dissipated like snow on a hot day, leaving a feeling of dread in its wake.

Kumiko 21:59
I see

Reina 22:00
So can you pick me up?
I should be at Kansai International around noon.

Kumiko 22:01
Sure. I'll be there
Are you still in New York?

Reina 22:03
No. I'm in Vancouver.
I have a 2-hour layover.
I have another one in Seoul tomorrow.
...I really want to call you but my phone's
Dying so...

Kumiko 22:05
Ok got it
Take care of urself
Can't wait to see u!

Reina 22:06
Me too.
See you later.

Kumiko smiled giddily at the kissing face emoji at the end of Reina's message. Catching the stupid look on her face being reflected by the phone's screen, she hastily fixed her expression.

To be honest, she was really looking forward to seeing her best friend. To say that she missed her so much was an understatement, so the news of her unexpected homecoming was a pleasant surprise indeed. However, a part of her was a bit uneasy about their reunion. She couldn't quite explain why, but the trepidation was there all the same.

The phone in her hand suddenly buzzed. Thinking that it might be her best friend, she answered the call without looking at the screen.

"Reina? Did you forget something?"

"I'm not Kousaka-san, but I can be if you want me to be..."

Then, a snicker not unlike Natsuki-senpai's reverberated from her phone's earpiece. Kumiko brought the device to her line of sight and sure enough, the former euphonist's name and picture were on the screen.

"Ah, Natsuki-senpai. Sorry about that."

"No worries," she replied, a hint of amusement still lingering in her voice. "Hey, are you busy? I was kinda hoping I could talk to you."

Kumiko inclined her head. "Sure, we can talk."

"I'm… outside your apartment building, actually. Do you think you can come down for a bit?"

"Eh? Is there a problem? Are you in trouble?"

Her senior merely laughed at her concerned tone.

"No, no. Nothing like that. I'm just worried that I'll be bothering your family if I come up."

Oh.

"Oumae-chan?"

"Got it. I'll be there in three minutes."

Kumiko got up and headed for the door as soon as her senpai ended the call. Wondering what her former high school senior wanted from her, she carefully made her way outside their apartment unit and toward the elevator. She pressed the down button and quickly hid behind the corner as she waited for the elevator to arrive, briefly scanning her surroundings for that one person she didn't want to see. It's better to be safe than sorry.

After a few seconds, the elevator dinged, signaling its arrival. Kumiko breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that it was mercifully empty. She quickly boarded the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor.


Pushing the building's main door open, Kumiko quickly spotted Natsuki-senpai sitting in one of the swings at the small children's playground in front of their apartment complex. The former euphonist waved as soon as she noticed her approaching. Kumiko saw her stand up and take one last drag from her cigarette before putting it out and throwing the butt into a nearby trash can.

"'Sup!" Natsuki-senpai greeted as soon as Kumiko was within earshot.

"Those things can kill you, you know."

"What thing?" she asked with an innocent look on her face.

Kumiko simply shook her head. "Anyway, what can I do for you, Senpai?"

Natsuki-senpai grinned. "Nothing much. A little birdy told me you might be feeling a bit bored and lonely these days so I was wondering if you fancy going on a little road trip with me?"

"Me? Don't you have other friends to go with?" Her hand quickly flew to her mouth, immediately realizing that she might have said that harshly.

"Oumae-chan, you're still as brutal as ever."

Kumiko sheepishly apologized to her senior, who simply brushed it off with an amused laugh. "I don't mean to imply that you don't have friends or anything," she said, scratching her cheek with embarrassment.

"Don't worry, I know better than to be offended."

"Why me, though?"

"Nozomi's busy with her part-time job and Mizore's practicing for a performance."

"And Yuuko-senpai?"

At this, Natsuki-senpai averted her gaze and looked far away. Kumiko immediately knew what this road trip was really about.

"Yuuko and I are not on the best of terms right now." Then, with a self-deprecating smile, she glanced at Kumiko. "No good?"

Ah, so she was her senpai's back-up plan. Though the knowledge stung a little, Kumiko couldn't help but be glad for the distraction. Besides, she somewhat missed Natsuki-senpai, too. "I'll be happy to accompany you, Senpai."

Her senior beamed widely. "That's great."

But then, Kumiko remembered that Reina was returning to Japan tomorrow. "Oh, shoot."

"What is it?"

"I forgot Reina's coming home. I'm picking her up tomorrow…" she replied sheepishly.

"Oh… we can just take her with us."

Kumiko perked up immediately. "Can we?"

"Of course. The more, the merrier... Though she'd probably want to spend her summer break with her family rather than go traipsing in the countryside with us…"

"Oh no. She told me her parents aren't home."

"Is that why you're picking her up at Kansai?"

Kumiko shook her head. "No. I've always come to get her from the airport. She said she didn't want her parents to make a fuss so..." She then shrugged her shoulders.

Natsuki-senpai raised a brow. "Is that so? I'm pretty sure it's because yours is the familiar face she wants to see first when she comes home."

"I doubt that. It's Taki-sensei she wants to see first, not me."

Her senior merely hummed at her response. "Anyway, if Kousaka-san is coming with us, we should probably invite one more. I definitely don't want to be the third wheel."

"Third wheel?"

Natsuki-senpai rolled her eyes at Kumiko's visible confusion. "Never mind. Do you think we can ask Kawashima?"

"Midori-chan isn't home. She hasn't returned from the countryside after leaving with her family for Obon a few days ago."

"How about Katou?"

"Hazuki just got a part-time job."

Natsuki-senpai clicked her tongue. "Man, everyone's busy these days."

"Tell me about it."

"I guess I'll just invite your favorite kouhai then."

"My what?" When it looked like Natsuki-senpai wouldn't humor her with an answer, Kumiko instead asked, "You said you and Yuuko-senpai are not on good terms. Did she do something?"

Natsuki-senpai chuckled dryly as she typed into her phone. "What made you think Yuuko's the one at fault and not me?"

"I didn't say that."

Her senior paused from typing and grinned at her. "But you implied it. "

"Well… based on experience, Yuuko-senpai can be--I don't know--difficult at times? She probably said something that hurt your feelings."

Natsuki-senpai finished her task before pocketing her phone. "I admit she can be like that, but she's really nice once you get to know her better." Then she added mock-admonishingly, "So don't be hard on her."

Kumiko laughed. "I already know that. Reina said so, too... So this trip is you trying to distract yourself because you had a fight with your girlfriend?"

"No. I'm not distracting myself because Yuuko and I… we're not like that."

"Oh." Kumiko was surprised. She was pretty sure her two senpais were going out.

"So we're good?"

"Yeah," she replied as she walked Natsuki-senpai to the side of the road, where her car was parked.

Kitauji's former vice president got into the vehicle and strapped on her seat belt. "I'll text you the details later."

"Okay… wait. Are we going to use that?" she asked pointing at Natsuki-senpai's royal blue car. It was an old Suzuki Swift. The car was a bit on the small side but she supposed it was suitable for four people. Plus, it was much safer to drive on highways than a kei car. Although they should probably pack lighter because the car had limited storage space...

"Got a problem with it?"

"Not really. Just hoping for something bigger... I get car sick really easily."

"Oh." Natsuki-senpai scratched the back of her head. "I just borrowed this one from my uncle. I don't know if he has something bigger."

Kumiko's eyes widened, guilt immediately settling in her gut for demanding something from her kind and easy-going senpai. "Oh no. I'm sorry for troubling you. I think I'll manage."

Her senior chuckled good-naturedly. "You'll be fine, especially with Kousaka-san around to hold your hand and stroke your back. Just bring lots of barf bags, though. I don't want the car smelling like Kumiko puke."

"Haha, funny," she muttered dryly.

"I'm off."

Kumiko nodded. Smiling, Natsuki-senpai gave her a wave before driving off. The younger euphonist watched the red taillights of her senior's car as it rounded the corner and disappeared into the night.

Now then, what should I pack first?

Kumiko grinned to herself and excitedly made her way back to her family's apartment.