Actions

Work Header

The Song That Leads Me Home

Work Text:

The thing about playing the trumpet is that one should be able to produce the same sound, no matter what. To play with clarity, ease into a sweeping crescendo, hold her breath steady—this is the bare minimum Reina has set for herself.

Up on this tiny hill with scenery nowhere near as grand as Mount Daikichi’s, she presses her mouthpiece to her lips and points the bell of her trumpet towards the orange sunset. The song that spills from her is one that she’s taken to practicing outside of the orchestra, because you can run through Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 only so many times throughout the day. As she serenades the roads and buildings next to the park, she wonders who this song will reach, whether it will be good enough to make them look up from what they’re doing.

When she finishes, she already knows what to tweak to improve the delivery. It irritates her that it's still nowhere near as good as it should be, but the growing list of chores back home beckons her to tuck her trumpet into its case and leave her favourite spot under the plum blossom tree.

On the downhill path, she meets an elderly man walking his dog, an old but sprightly beagle. Reina has seen him before, and so she greets him with a polite nod.

“You’re going home already, miss? Your songs always make my walks more pleasant,” the man chuckles. His dog, who'd been considering a tree, turns and pants in her direction.

Reina smiles and tells him that she’ll be back again next weekend before continuing her journey out if the park. She doesn’t promise a song for him because that would be too easy, too thoughtless for her to offer to play for anyone else. Her colleagues and conductor tell her she’s a fine addition to the orchestra, but Reina knows herself best. She knows that there’s something missing in her sound.

She used to think that as long as enough time passed, she’d be able to get her sound back. But she is already twenty-five, and she knows her music is more than this faltering sound. She almost pities those who think that she’s a wonderful player now, because wouldn’t that mean that they’ve never truly seen something special?

Maybe that is why, when she opens her rusty mailbox and finds a letter from Midori Kawashima, Reina doesn’t feel surprised. Instead,she feels relief.

 

 

Reina has spent most of her life waiting to grow up. A few months shy of eighteen, she doesn’t think she’s quite there yet. She knows that maturity doesn’t blossom overnight, that it happens in bits and pieces as time passes. It is these bits and pieces that she wants to collect and present to Taki-sensei. She wants to meet his gaze and and say to him: “Look, I’m an adult now. I’ve caught up to you.” Maybe then, he’ll give her something other than tempered kindness and nonchalant thank-yous.

When Midori Kawashima is elected the president of Kitauji High’s wind ensemble, Reina thinks that this is one of those moments. Except, this means more to her than just a ticket towards adulthood. The act of impressing Taki-sensei shrinks against the realisation that she’s entering her final year of high school. It becomes more cogent when, naturally, Kumiko is dubbed the club’s vice president. Nakagawa and Yuuko make a big show of explaining that this was one of the few things they could agree on.

It’s cute how Kumiko is the only one in the roomful of second years who pretends to be shocked at the news, sputtering out a “bwah?!” and standing up in mock-protest. All the second years, and certainly Kumiko herself, had known this was coming. Reina lets her get away with it because she’s soft-hearted, or maybe because Kumiko’s little act brings with it the comforting knowledge that even though they’re going to be third years, there are still some things they don’t have to give up just yet.

Reina looks over her shoulder to see Nakagawa gently patting Kumiko back down to her seat. Kumiko, who’s now taller than she was in their first year, who’s grown her hair out a little, consequences of tangled locks be damned. One year is all Reina has left under the banner of the Kitauji High wind ensemble, to clinch Gold at Nationals, to rise in time for the first train and troop back home late with Kumiko in tow. For a moment, she thinks, it wouldn’t hurt to stay like this for just a bit longer.

But to become someone special, she needs to grow up, she needs to move on. And so, she stands up, lifts her chin and says, “I’m your new Secretariat, Reina Kousaka.”

 

 

“Keihan Obaku Station. Keihan Obaku Station. Please exit on the left.”

Reina sways as the train pulls to a stop, catching onto an overhead handle for support. When the doors slide apart, she hitches her duffel bag on her shoulder and her trumpet case in her hand before stepping off the train into the sweltering heat. In her third year of music college, her mother moved to Tokyo, and with her, the only reason for Reina to return to Uji. She hasn’t been back since. It’s odd how nothing has really changed. There’s the light scent of grass and exhaust in the air, the old, peeling signs dotting the station, and the way the sun at noon beats down on the southbound platform. The lack of urban noise that pervades Tokyo’s every nook and cranny is the almost comforting. Most of all, it is hard to believe that Uji is still quaint and modest, that it hasn’t moved on in these four years and left her behind.

Before guilt can get to her, she makes her way down the stairs and checks her wristwatch for the time. She’s ten minutes early, but before she can even tap her card at the exit gantry, someone calls her name.

“Reina-chan!”

Hazuki is waving her over, a sunflower pin in her hair and a wide grin on her face. She’s dressed for the heat, in a cute tank top and worn out shorts, a half-empty water bottle cocked against her hip. The skirt of Reina’s summer dress sweeps at her calves as she closes the distance between them. She becomes acutely aware that she hasn’t spoken directly to Hazuki ever since they graduated from high school. Her lips press together, readying for a stiff greeting.

With utter disregard for Reina’s efforts to be poised, Hazuki hooks her into a one-armed hug and says, “I can't believe you cut your hair! It suits you!”

Reina nods as Hazuki lets go of her shoulders. It’d slipped her mind that she’d kept hair short ever since college graduation.

Hazuki takes her silence as a cue to continue. “It's been a long journey, yeah? My mother’s got lunch ready at home, let’s go!”

And just like that, the seemingly insurmountable gap between them is torn down, leaving Reina speechless.

“What’s up?” Hazuki asks, raising her eyebrow. “If you’re hungry, we can swing by the bakery first. Their hotdog pastries are just as good as ever. It’s gotten a bit more pricey, though.” She sticks her tongue out sheepishly.

“Lunch at your place sounds fine,” Reina says at last. It seems improper for this to be the first thing she says to Hazuki after so long. She tightens her grip on her trumpet case. “I hope I’m not imposing on your family.”

Hazuki’s smile is neither forced nor automatic. Her eyes crinkle at the corners as she leads them out of the station. “Of course you’re not. You’re always welcome, Reina-chan. I’m glad you came back for the Agata Festival.” She doesn’t say anything more, instead turning to the road stretched out in front of them.

Reina wants to ask Hazuki when she’d become so perceptive. When they were high schoolers, the only person whose house she stayed over at was Kumiko’s. And when she’d moved off to college in Tokyo, the only person who she would come back for was Kumiko. 

And yet, the reason she’s in Uji right now is because of Midori’s letter and a well-timed text from Hazuki offering a roof over her head.

Reina blinks, recalls that when she’d been sixteen and uninterested in talking to anyone apart from Kumiko, Hazuki and Midori had never minded. They invited her to have lunch with them, even though she spoke mostly to Kumiko. And then, when Kumiko wasn’t around, they’d still say ‘hello’ to her and ask her about practice. The four of them took a graduation photo together, which Reina had framed on her desk. Midori still sent her Christmas cards without fail every year.

When had they become friends, and why hadn’t Reina realised this?

“Thank you, Hazuki-san.” It feels ten years late, but Reina has never been able to leave things unsaid.

Hazuki shoves her hands into her pockets and whips her head to the side, her cheeks flushing. “Don’t say such embarrassing things! This’ what friends do for each other.”

In quiet understanding, Reina wipes the layer of sweat on her neck with the back of her hand and changes the topic. “Are you in the Uji North Wind Ensemble too?”

Hazuki eases her shoulders down and turns to face Reina. “Me? No. I haven’t had time since I decided to go into social work. Community bands take up a lot more time than you can imagine, you know? Even if it’s for interest, they’re pretty serious about it.”

“Social work… that suits you.” Reina says this not to be agreeable, but because she remembers Hazuki being the one to go out of her way to help others, to always bounce back after every setback. She hadn’t been a talented tuba player, but this, Reina thinks, she’ll do great at.

“Yeah, sometimes I miss Tubacabra. I take every chance I get to practice that song—you know the one—but I’d be lying if I said that I wanted to continue in band.” Hazuki pauses to let the truth sizzle in the summer air. “And then, we have people like Kumiko-chan and Haruka-san, who couldn’t ever give up on playing. You’ll get to see them in action tomorrow.”

For Reina, ‘tomorrow’ is both close and yet painfully far off. She’s been yearning to hear Kumiko play ever since she became aware that she couldn’t anymore. There are euphoniums in the orchestra and they’re far more proficient than eighteen-year old Kumiko ever was. That’s why they could never sound like her.

Reina knows that what’s been missing in her music, she can find in Kumiko’s euphonium. She just hadn’t acted on it because she wants believe that she is no longer young and selfish.   

“Come to think of it, Taki-sensei’s going to be a guest conductor for the showcase tomorrow. That’s part of the reason why you decided to come and watch, right?” Hazuki asks as they cross the road. Reina watches the green man flash, and quickens her feet when it turns red.

She takes a breath as they step onto the sidewalk, wondering why it’s so difficult to answer Hazuki’s question. Maybe it’s because Taki-sensei could’ve been the perfect excuse for her to come back, and she hadn’t thought of it. Maybe it’s because she hadn’t been brave enough to come back to Uji on her own accord.

She exhales and says, as curtly as possible, “Not really.”

It is her turn to let her confession burn in the afternoon heat.

 

 

Reina spends her last months of high school learning to accept that Taki-sensei is no longer the center of her universe. It is frightening, outgrowing the fierce schoolgirl crush that has persisted ever since elementary school. It is so ironic that it must be the clearest indication that she’s grown up. Reina could never imagine that Asuka Tanaka would be the reason behind this revelation. Even in her absence, her presence impresses itself over the Kitauji wind ensemble. The first years know of her as a remarkable senior even though they've never seen her. That is how strong her legacy is. For Kumiko, however, Asuka Tanaka is something else altogether. Reina does not know what exactly—all she knows is that she cannot ignore the jealousy stoking in her gut.  

Sure, Kumiko had dated Shuichi Tsukamoto for a spell in second year, but Reina hadn’t so much as batted an eye at that. Upon reflection, it must have been because she felt no threat from Tsukamoto, who’d been humming and hawing over his feelings since before high school. Reina hadn’t said anything when Kumiko let slip that they were dating, and instead, tried to predict when they’d inevitably break up.

“That was horrible of you,” Kumiko had said one night during their final summer training camp, when the lights were off and both of them were bundled up and in the mood to expose the ugliest part of themselves to each other, something that Reina had always relished.

“Do you hate me for doing that?” Reina had asked, staring up at the bare ceiling. Tsukamoto had thrown in the towel about a year ago, twenty days earlier than Reina’s forecast.  

“I could never hate you.” Kumiko’s voice had been muffled by her sleeping bag, but the gravity of her words could not hide in the night.  

“That’s a dangerous thing to promise.” Reina pulled her hand out from under her covers and nestled it between them.

Kumiko’s hand had closed around hers as she said, brazenly, “I’m willing to bet my life on it.”

“Would you bet your life for Tanaka-senpai, too?” The question came too fast, jealously preventing Reina from basking in Kumiko’s words.

“No… It’s different, between me and her,” Kumiko whispered too softly. She had been too tired to be suspicious of Reina’s reasons for asking.

Reina knew she was goading an answer out of Kumiko, but still, she held Kumiko’s hand as she asked, “Will you dedicate your last performance to her, then?”

“You know I’m not good enough to dedicate my music to anyone,” is what Kumiko had given her, perfectly avoiding the question like she always did when she didn’t want to get dragged in too deep. She let go of Reina’s hand to turned on her side and faked a yawn. She told Reina that it was time to go to bed, and that had been the end of that conversation, even though Reina wasn’t finished.

Months after that night, Reina still can’t pinpoint when her affection for Kumiko had shapeshifted. Taki-sensei has always been safe and kind and predictable. Not like Kumiko—Kumiko plays nice, then stings you with her words when you least expect. She doesn’t always say what she thinks, and when she does, you're never quite ready for it.

It is no surprise then, that Kumiko is drawn to Asuka Tanaka, who’s the master of putting up a dozen faces, who has a different act for every occasion possible. Kumiko must be a closet narcissist, for wanting to close the gap between herself and Tanaka.

Reina doesn’t care what that makes her. She still meets Kumiko for lunch religiously and offers her her last piece of fried chicken, because that’s what love is.

“Three years pass by in a flash.” Kumiko says as they walk home one chilly winter afternoon, no instruments swinging between them. It is both a wonderful and scary feeling, to be tied together by something less tangible than the wind ensemble’s practice schedule.

“Where’d you learn to be so self-aware?” Reina prods.

“From Aoi-chan. Remember? She was the senior who quit the band in our first year,” Kumiko says, a hint of wistfulness in her voice.

“Vaguely.” Reina never gave notice to those who didn’t come to practice.

Kumiko waits for a moment, staring at the icy pavement. She must be thinking about her future now that the university entrance exams are near. She’s hardly the type to be sentimental or nostalgic, at least, on the surface. Before Reina can tease her, a puff of air escapes from Kumiko's chapped lips, and then she announces, “I might try going to Tokyo, too.”

“To chase after Tanaka-senpai?” Reina lowers her eyes so that it’s easier to ask the question.

“In what sense of the word?” Kumiko follows with a playful chuckle, but it's not enough to conceal the crack in her voice.

“You know what I mean, Kumiko.” Reina lifts her eyes from her shoes just in time to catch Kumiko’s flabbergasted expression.

“I don’t think of Asuka-senpai in that way!” she fumbles, her cheeks going pink, making Reina’s stomach twist and twist. “I just thought that maybe I could apply to the same university as her. I want to hear her play again, that’s all.”

If Reina had a good heart, she would point out that those aren’t normal things you’d say about a senior who’s upped and disappeared for the past two years and never bothered to stay in contact. But, she doesn’t.

“Reina, believe me.”  Kumiko bumps their shoulders together, insistent. She doesn’t step away, and even through the layers of uniform, sweater and jacket separating them, Reina feels the point of contact keenly. The knot in her stomach tightens. At crucial moments like these, she thinks that maybe Kumiko is just waiting for her to act, to make the first move. She wants to be able to say it clearly, because it’s almost spring and graduation is around the corner and the last thing she wants is to have any regrets.

“I haven’t decided on anything yet. I don’t even know if I could get in to Asuka-senpai’s school. I still need to study for the entrance exams and everything,” Kumiko says with a little whine. “It wouldn’t be so bad going to a public university around here either.”

“I’m going to study music in Tokyo,” is what Reina chooses to say instead. Absolute. Uncompromising. It is a blatant counter to Kumiko’s dreadful indecisiveness, one she cannot take back.

Kumiko’s shoulder peels away from Reina’s. She keeps her head down, pre-empting the strong gust that ripples past them, and waits for the wind to die before she speaks.

“That’s just like you to have everything figured out.”

 

 

Byodoin Omotesando is all decked out for the Agata Festival, but beneath the lanterns and the shifting sea of people, Reina can make out the street that she used to walk down with Kumiko, Hazuki and Midori. The near-identical scent of tea leaves permeates the air, and with it, fond memories of sharing snacks from road side stalls and lingering out past sunset.

Before Reina can idle too long into the smell of tea, a woman with a golden ribbon braided in her hair runs up to her, mouth agape. It takes Reina a few seconds to recognise Yuuko Yoshikawa, and it is mostly because she is wearing jeans.

“Kousaka! You’re Kousaka, aren’t you?” Yuuko shouts more than asks, causing a few heads to turn. More familiar faces appear in Reina’s field of vision, all of them bearing looks of mild shock. She hadn’t informed anyone that she would be in town. She didn’t even check if she still had all their contacts in her handphone. It’s obvious only now that they would also be here for the performance.

“It’s nice to see you, Yuuko-san,” Reina says in greeting, and she means it.

“I heard you’re in the Tokyo Kosei Wind Orchestra now, is that true?” Yuuko controls the intonation of her words, trying not to sound envious. Reina nods, unsure what else to say. At sixteen, she found conversations with Yuuko detrimental and wasteful. Now, ten years later, she isn't quite so certain anymore. She’s always preferred to let her music do the talking for her, but she’s come empty-handed tonight, her trumpet left behind in Hazuki’s messy bedroom.

“Yoshikawa-senpai!” Hazuki appears between them, waving a hand in Yuuko’s face to redirect her attention. “Riko-chan and Gotou-kun are looking for you, they’re at the takoyaki stand in front.”

“I haven’t seen Riko-chan in ages either!” Yuuko says, slapping her cheek with one hand. “I’ll catch up with you later, Kousaka!” And then, she disappears into the crowd, her braid tossed in the air.

Reina turns to Hazuki and whispers, “Thanks,” before noticing that someone else has joined them. It is none other than Midori Kawashima. Apart from her dark red lips and elegant heels, she doesn’t look like she’s aged a day since high school graduation.

Midori had left Uji shortly after Reina. Her parents sent her off to a private university in Tokyo, far enough that Reina didn’t need to be mindful about keeping in touch. Unlike her, Midori returned to Uji and had become a beloved music teacher in a prestigious girl’s school.

“Midori-san,” Reina begins, not quite sure what to say to the person who mailed her two tickets, one for tonight’s concert, and another for the train between Tokyo and Kyoto. Before she can muster the correct words, she’s drawn into a tight hug.

“I’m so happy you came, Reina-chan,” Midori says, making sure to squeeze hard before letting go. “Come now, let’s get a good view!” She takes ahold of Reina’s hand, doesn’t give her the chance to say anything more, and leads her through the sea of people, towards the platform stage built for the Agata Festival. The percussion, chairs and music stands have already been set up. The backdrop of the temporary set-up is adorned with a simple banner that reads: Agata Festival Opening Ceremony .

The audience is expected to stand for the stage performances, so as not to disrupt the foot traffic. They find an adequate spot between the clusters of people who’ve started organising themselves around the stage, just to the left of the conductor’s podium. Reina checks her wristwatch while Hazuki and Midori wave at other former members of the band who are also waiting around. There’s still fifteen minutes to go before the performance, and with no one else to distract her, Reina becomes aware of how sweaty her palms have gotten and the loud beating of her heart. She wishes she had her trumpet with her, even holding onto it would help her anchor herself, make her feel a little braver.

Instead, she scrutinizes her wristwatch, while Midori leans towards her and tugs at the sleeve of he blouse. Reina doesn’t realise it is a warning until she hears Hazuki say, “Shouldn’t you be backstage now?”

“We still have time.”

The sound of her voice sends a tingle down Reina’s spine. She keeps her gaze fixed onto her watch, the second hand ticks forward—one, two, three—and when she raises her eyes, they meet Kumiko Oumae’s with no resistance.

Her hair is longer than when Reina last saw her. She’s managed to straighten it, though it’s curling up just slightly at the ends in pure defiance. She would be unrecognizable if not for the euphonium clutched in her arms, and the strangled “Gwah!” that jolts out of her upon seeing Reina. It’s almost comical, for such an unflattering sound to come out of this woman who’s dressed in a lovely green and white uniform, but Reina is unable to laugh.

Hazuki and Midori have picked the perfect time to engage themselves in deep discussion with Riko and Gotou about the quality of the takoyaki, leaving Kumiko and Reina stuck staring at each other with no possible excuse to look away.

“R-Reina. Didn’t think I’d see you here.” Kumiko is the one who breaks the silence, her voice trembling just so.

Reina swallows, her mouth is painfully dry now that she’s at of loss for words. She reminds herself that she is a professional musician now, and should try to act like it. That is enough to bolster her to say, “Midori-san invited me. She told me you would be performing. I wouldn’t have come otherwise.”

“Ah, yeah, I didn’t think to tell anyone, actually. It was Haruka-san who invited Kaori-san, who told Yuuko-san, who told, well, everyone else.” Kumiko’s laugh is strained and awkward, and Reina smiles because she can’t help it. Kumiko notices, and pulls her euphonium closer to herself self-consciously. “I thought it was going to be a small performance. You didn’t need to come all the way from Tokyo just for this. Don’t you have to skip practice?”

“I applied for annual leave. We get that,” Reina informs her, words pulled taut in her throat. And then, because she cannot bear to meander any longer, the truth spills out of her: “I’ve missed hearing you play.”

“Ah.” It is a soft exclamation. Kumiko’s eyes glisten under the glow of the lanterns, matching the shine of her euphonium. She starts shifting her weight from one foot to the other, searching for something to say, still as antsy as Reina remembers her being.

She wonders how Kumiko remembers her, but is suddenly afraid of knowing the answer.

A forceful cough interrupts her thoughts, followed by a tentative question: “I’ll talk to you after the performance, alright?” Kumiko finally returns Reina’s smile.

Even though they are surrounded by a thickening crowd from all sides, they’ve been resolute enough to maintain the empty space between them, wide enough for Hazuki and Midori to pass through. Reina doesn’t know to how close the distance, except to raise her voice deliberately to say, “Good luck.”

Kumiko nods, taking one step back to signal her leaving, but not before adding, “I hope you’ll enjoy our piece.”

Just when Reina unclenches her hands, thinking it’s over, Kumiko rallies herself and declares, “I’ll dedicate it to you.”

It is bewitching and forgiving at the same time. Reina curls her toes at those words, finally feeling like she has permission to be here. To her surprise, Kumiko keeps her gaze even, doesn't slap a hand over her mouth, doesn't blush with exasperation, and only when Reina exchanges glances with her, does she turn around and walk off. It hadn't been a slip of her tongue. She'd meant to say it out loud. Kumiko had changed when Reina wasn't around to see. 

Reina watches her disappear behind the stage, still processing their short conversation. Their lives might be intertwined by messy partings and unintended meetings. After middle school, Reina had believed she would never speak to Kumiko ever again. But then, Kumiko fell down in front of her and proved her wrong. Perhaps some things were meant to stay the same.

 

 

“Where do you think you’re going, young lady?”

Reina kneels at her doorway, tying up her shoelaces neatly. “I need to say bye to Kumiko. I’ll be back before the moving van gets here.”

Before her mother can dictate an exact time to return to their soon-to-be former house, Reina grabs her handphone and keys off the shoe stand and locks the door behind her. Strange, how this is probably the last time she’ll be using this pair of keys to lock this particular door.

She tries not to think about such an insignificant action, and instead walks down to the street, in the direction of the Uji River. There are several factors to why they’ve decided to meet there today, the most important being that Reina wouldn’t be able to make it back in time if they climbed up Mount Daikichi. Another is because the row of trees along the Uji River blossoms beautifully in spring.

Kumiko is at her favourite bench along the river, sheltered from the afternoon sun by the tree overhead. She doesn’t have a euphonium, and neither has Reina her trumpet. She immediately feels a pang of regret for not asking Kumiko to borrow a euphonium from her university. She would’ve liked them to play together one more time, as cruel as that would be. 

Reina takes a seat next to her, careful not to let their shoulders brush.

Kumiko doesn’t bother with a greeting. She releases a small sigh and leans back against the bench. “It's strange, isn't it? Even though it's already been three years, it never really felt like you would be gone for good. It felt more like an extended trip, until today.” She combs a hand through her hair, against the river’s updraft.

Reina does not know what to say at first. She cannot tell Kumiko she'll be back to see her regularly. Once she graduates, she'll be working day and night to join an orchestra, and after she clears that hurdle, she’ll have to practice even more.

She decides to ask: “What are you going to do?” It’s the only thing that’s unclear between them. She knows that Kumiko is in the sociology course at university, mostly from her texts about a person named Foucault. Reina never had the time to do more than click the links Kumiko threw into their chat.

“You mean after I graduate? I still have a year, but I was thinking of applying for a job at the public service office, or any other openings like that.” Kumiko gives up on neatening her hair, and leaves it to the whims of Mother Nature.

Kumiko had always been like this, hasn’t she? She never did end up chasing after Asuka Tanaka. Though she qualified for a few universities in Tokyo, she chose a school to an hour’s train ride out of Uji. This should’ve been a good thing. Instead, it only makes Reina realise that Kumiko is content with missed chances for the sake of stability. She goes wherever the current takes her.

Reina is different. Reina intends to be the captain of her own ship.

“I want to become special,” she reminds herself, feeling young and foolish.

Kumiko straightens her posture and speaks without a hint of sarcasm, “You will be.”

“Then, what about you?” The remark comes out firmer than Reina intends. She holds a fist to her lips. She hadn’t meant to sound disappointed.

Kumiko's response is a sharp inhale of breath, and because Reina doesn't think she is in the wrong for saying those words, she looks at Kumiko. Really looks at her now. Reina has been so caught up in maneuvering this conversation, that she hasn't been savoring this proximity as much as she should. She doesn’t know when is the next time she’ll be able to see Kumiko in person. And so, she shifts closer to Kumiko, raises her hands to cup her face and brushes the unruly hair out of her eyes.

“Didn’t we promise each other we’d go to the Agata Festival every year?” is all Kumiko asks, her cheeks cradled in Reina’s palms. She’s lost a bit of weight from the stress of university, but she hasn’t her touch. She can still tear Reina open with one precise question.

The last time they went to the Agata Festival together, it had been their third year of high school. She already had a feeling that it would be the last year she could do something like that with Kumiko, Hazuki and Midori. Maybe that’s why it’d been so fun and yet so sad, watching the fireworks and letting shaved ice melt all over their fingers.

Reina withdraws her hands and says, “Promises we make when we’re children don’t count.”

Kumiko furrows her eyebrows with skepticism, which only makes Reina more determined to defend herself.

“You were the one who promised that you’d stay with me,” she says through gritted teeth, through the haze of her own hypocrisy. Her eyes close, and she thinks back to that day in the concert hall when no one else but Kumiko clapped for her, when Taki-sensei announced that she would be playing the solo. That had been Reina’s first taste of what it must be like to be special. She doesn’t know where that feeling has gone, and she doesn’t know whether she’ll ever get it back. Maybe it’s just meant to be one of those fleeting instances of growing up.

“Didn’t you say that you’d kill me if I didn’t?”

Hearing Kumiko’s response, Reina lets out a laugh, and Kumiko snickers too, but she can tell that both of them aren’t happy.

Wordlessly, she clutches Kumiko’s chin once more. Only, this time, she leans forward, into the shade of the plum blossom tree, and Kumiko does not make a sound. To feel the excruciating softness of her lips must be a kind of death in itself.

Kumiko takes hold of Reina's wrist the moment she pulls away. Her face is flushed, and she refuses to meet Reina’s stare. “That isn't the kind of thing you do to someone you're leaving.”

Come with me, then. The plea almost escapes, but Reina holds it back, tightens the twist in her gut. Kumiko wouldn't survive in Tokyo. Reina has to accept the fact that the sound of her euphonium will be locked away in this town where nothing happens.

This is how it should be. To become something great, shouldn't you need to sacrifice something in return? It’s all a rite of growing up, and Reina’s made plenty of sacrifices and none have felt like mistakes to her. This shouldn’t either.

Kumiko lets go of her wrist, and Reina watches her hand fall back into the empty space between them. The phone in the pocket of her skirt begins to ring. Bugler’s Holiday drowns out all the things left unsaid.

“I need to go.”

 

♫ 

 

<Hazuki Katou: running late>

<Midori Kawashima: Please go ahead and enjoy the view first, we’ll catch up!>

Reina locks her phone and slips it into the small zip compartment of her trumpet case. Kumiko is standing next to her, her hair subdued into a ponytail, scrolling through the same messages. Late yesterday night, Midori had taken it upon herself to create a group chat for the four of them, named it ‘Reunited At Last’ and embellished the title with emoticons of hearts and four girls holding hands. The name pops up on her screen with every notification, and Reina isn’t as upset with it as she should be.

She is, however, feeling mildly betrayed by Hazuki. Hazuki had sent her off on her own just now, explaining that she didn't want Reina to walk the extra distance to collect the tuba with her. Reina only realises that this is part of their plan when she arrives at the foot of Mount Daikichi and spots Kumiko, waiting alone.

Reina is not ungrateful enough to ignore all the work Hazuki and Midori have been putting in to get Kumiko and her to make up. She decides to play along, grabbing the handle of her trumpet case and turning to face the path up Mount Daikichi. Unlike their first climb, she is wearing sensible shoes and pants tonight. Becoming an adult has made her less spontaneous in some ways. Beside her, Kumiko, dressed in a plain shirt and shorts, heaves her euphonium on her back.

“This euphonium…” Reina trails off. She can still hear echoes of the piece they’d played yesterday.

“It’s mine. I saved up and finally bought one,” Kumiko says, voice softening with fondness. “It’s different, owning your own instrument.”

Reina had heard it for herself. It’d been Kumiko’s sound, and yet, clearer and more boisterous than anything she’d ever heard from Kumiko. It was what she’d wanted to hear for so long. It was a miracle that Reina had been able to stop fixating on Kumiko long enough to stand back and enjoy the performance. She even managed to weave through the celebrations afterwards to speak to Taki-sensei, whose hair has greyed but whose eyes have grown only kinder. He’d asked her how she was doing. He was one of the two people she could tell the truth to.

“My music. It’s missing something.” Kumiko is the second person, and so Reina repeats this for her to hear.

“Are you going to be cheesy and say that it’s because of me?”

Reina doesn’t satisfy Kumiko with a reply. Instead, she pivots on her ankles and marches up the path. Even mountains can change, if you give them enough time. She realises that it isn't the same anymore less than a minute up the gentle incline. They’ve drilled an elevator into the side of the hill. Reina walks past it without hesitation. Kumiko voices her discontent with one heavy sigh, but otherwise, does not stray from Reina’s heels.

“How is it, playing for a professional orchestra?” Kumiko asks after they’ve made a bit of progress. She’s a little out of breath, and Reina takes it as a cue to switch instruments.

“It’s torture,” she says as she hands over her trumpet.

“In a good way?” Kumiko asks, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth.

“In the best kind of way.” Reina takes the weight of the euphonium and straightens her knees, careful not to fall over.

Kumiko walks ahead and glances over her shoulder. “You’ve always been a little bit of a masochist.”

Reina does not disagree. She thinks that anyone who devotes themselves entirely to playing in an orchestra, to the hours of running through the same sequence of chords, to guzzling down water so that your lips don’t become dry from playing, to the constant reason for blood, sweat, and tears, must be at least a little perverted. That is the cost of chasing exceptionalism.

“I am, and I don’t care.” Reina adjusts the shoulder straps and continues forward.

“I know. That’s what’s always been so attractive about you, even now.” This time, Kumiko does not look back.

They are already halfway up the hill, and Reina had been meaning to save this until they could see Uji beneath their feet, but Kumiko saying those words in that vulnerable way is her ultimate weakness.

“Would you believe me if I said I still love you?”

“You’re cheating, Reina,” Kumiko teases with a shake of her head. “You never confessed your love to me to begin with.”

“I never needed to.” Reina remembers the first time they climbed up this very route. That had been the start of it all.

They don’t talk for awhile after, and in the faint buzz of nature around them, Reina finds acceptance for her feelings. When she recognises that they’ve almost reached the observation deck, she calls out to Kumiko. “Let’s change,” she instructs, careful not to let the euphonium drop loudly onto the ground.

Kumiko sees her chance, and takes it. “Did you feel good then, about leaving?” she begins, then catches herself, covering her mouth with a frantic hand. “I mean, I want to know if you were okay after you left. I was worried, but I didn’t want to distract you or let you think I was upset or…” She’s speaking through her fingers, but Reina is able to decipher her mumbles.

“I was devastated,” she says without fanfare, handing the euphonium back to its owner. “But I didn’t know if telling you how I felt would change anything.”

She’d skirted around her feelings, not because she was afraid of confessing. She didn’t know what Kumiko would do if they were forced to confront them.

“I didn’t want you to follow me to Tokyo just because of that,” Reina says, rolling her shoulders and taking the lead for the last stretch of the climb. “I can only say this now because it’s all in the past.” She slows her pace so that they're walking side and side , and remembers being sixteen and training to march to the beat for SunFest. There is no music now, but they fall in sync easily.

Reina watches Kumiko from the corner of her eye as they trek up, takes in the crease of her eyebrows and the straight line of her lips. It's only when the roof of the observation deck emerges at the far end of the path, that Kumiko breaks the silence.

“The reason why you never asked me to go to Tokyo with you—wasn’t it because you thought you were better than me?” Her words are transparent, without pretense, and that is the reason why they cut so deep every time.

Reina’s fingernails dig into her palms and her teeth sink into her bottom lip. And yet, the uncomfortable feeling that’s clung to the pit of her stomach for so long finally loosens. Ah, was this the real reason all along, why she felt so guilty?

“That sounds like something you’d say.” Reina replies, for old time’s sake, for all the times Kumiko has succeeded in calling her bluff. “You’re right. I wanted you but I couldn’t picture you up there, on the same stage as me. If I’m being honest, I don’t picture anyone else up there other than me. I kept this to myself, but that doesn’t make me any less horrible, does it?”

“It doesn’t. But, when I said I could never hate you, I meant it,” Kumiko says as they reach the observation deck and she plonks herself down on the bench, “—if climbing all the way up here with my euphonium didn’t make it obvious.”

“When I said I needed to hear you play, I meant it too.” Reina flips open her case and presses her hands face down onto the cold brass of her trumpet. She shouldn't be telling this to Kumiko after what she's said. But Kumiko, with her messy hair and long legs and kind eyes, with all the things Reina does not possess, leans over and bumps their shoulders together. 

“That’s just a roundabout way of saying you wanted to see me again. I would know.” Kumiko removes her euphonium from its case. It's a brilliant silver.

Reina lingers on the euphonium. It is a stark reminder that the cost of her ambition had been her absolute knowledge of Kumiko. She doesn’t know where she can start again, there’s so many things she could never ask in the polite texts they’ve sent each other over the years, with measured gaps in between to signal that they weren’t supposed to know each other as intimately as before. Reina had hated it, and had told herself that was what she deserved.

But haven't they already begun re-learning one another—on the climb up here, and even yesterday at the festival? There is no way she can possibly stop herself now.   

“Did you ever fall in love again?” The question worms its way out of Reina. Maybe because she's earned the right to ask it now. Maybe because she has been waiting to talk about all the nasty things they’ve omitted from their filtered LINE conversations all these years.

Kumiko positions the euphonium on her lap before replying, “I tried dating in university, but it never worked out. I was just… never really there for them all the time.” She is much less skittish than Reina expects, but she likes this side of Kumiko too. “What about you?” Kumiko asks.

“The year before I graduated, I started talking to a senior who dabbled in jazz. Didn’t last long. I still can’t believe I was swept away by jazz , of all things.” Reina laughs at herself, relaxing the grip on her trumpet. “I love myself more than I love anyone else. It didn’t make me sad. It only made me want to work harder.”

They're doing it again, exposing the weakest parts of themselves, like peeling off a scab long before it’s meant to flake. It’s painful, in the best kind of way.

“I had to make it, after everything that’s happened. I’ve played this trumpet every day for the past three years.” Reina holds it out in front of her, lets the moonlight dance down its body, thinks about all the sound she’s poured from this dear friend, and how she’s still nowhere near the place she knows she can be.  

“I heard you, you know.” Kumiko nudges her, and Reina nudges back. “In the recording, for the National Band Competition.” A smile spreads across her face, catching the glow of the city below them. “It made me want to do my best. That’s how I knew it was you. That’s how it’s always been, since high school.”

That’s right. The Orchestra provides the recordings for the required pieces in the competition every year without fail. Reina had been chosen to join the brass section and take part in the recording late last year.

“We still need to pass the regional qualifiers, but I intend to see you this year, at Fumon Hall,” Kumiko continues. “It’s been about a year since I joined the Uji North Wind Ensemble. It’s completely different compared to my club in university.”

Reina knows that this is because the band in Kumiko’s former university hadn't been a band at all. It was what Kitauji would’ve been like, if Taki-sensei hadn’t walked in through the clubroom’s doors.

“And hey, did you know? I’m at the Kyoto Art Center now,” Kumiko adds, her eyes shining with genuine happiness. “You were right about me. I wanted you to be special, but never really thought the same for myself. I applied and now I’m helping to run programmes to pass on the love for music that you and Asuka-senpai and my sister showed me.”

All this time, she'd become special, in the most Kumiko-like way. 

“I’m sorry, Kumiko,” Reina finally, finally says. 

"I was never angry at you for leaving." Kumiko had been ready for the apology, but—

"I'm not apologising for that. I'm not apologising for anything that's happened between us." Reina doesn't want to take any of it back, because that's what love is. “It's just that, if Midori-san hadn’t asked me to come back, I wouldn’t have known. I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you again. I'm sorry for not coming back earlier.” 

Kumiko smiles and shakes her head. “Even if you didn’t, I was going to go to Tokyo to find you. You beat me to it only because the Agata Festival comes before Nationals.” She reaches her hand out and threads her fingers through the shortness of Reina’s hair. “I’m glad I got to see you sooner than I thought.”

It’s strange when Kumiko uses her blunt honesty to say something nice. What is even stranger is that Reina might prefer this. Maybe she’s not so perverted after all. “What’s going to happen now?” she asks, pressing the valves of her trumpet, something she does when she’s nervous.

Kumiko turns her head to the dimly lit path leading up to the observation deck. “We play,” she says simply, as Hazuki and Midori come into view.

“Sorry we’re late!” Midori huffs, waving a hand at them. Behind her, Hazuki is grinning, which is quite a feat, considering that she is carrying a tuba on her back.

“We’re here to fulfill our promise!”

 

 

“One day, years from now, let’s meet again and play a song together!” Midori declares in the middle of autumn, during one of their cram sessions for university entrance exams. “No matter how far we go or how long we’ve not spoken to one another, let’s play.”

“You really think we’ll lose contact with one another?” Hazuki closes her notebook, glad for a diversion from studying.

“We won’t ever know what’ll happen in the future,” the shorter girl explains, brandishing her pen in the air. “But what will never change is that music connects us all. Don’t you think?”

Reina has looked up from her own workbook to see how the conversation will unfold. Over the past year, many schemes have been hatched in Kumiko’s bedroom. She thinks this might be the final one, which makes it even more precious than the rest.

“What song should we play, then?” Hazuki asks from her new position, lying on the floor.

“I know,” Kumiko pipes up, putting her pen down as a smile sneaks onto her face. “ A Trumpeter's Lullaby . Reina told me about it once. Leroy Anderson composed at the request of a principal trumpeter who wanted to have a solo, with a whole orchestra backing him.”

“That totally sounds like Reina,” Hazuki laughs, sitting up.

“That’s perfect!” Midori croons. She whips out her handphone and begins searching for the song, and Hazuki scoots over to join her.

Reina watches the two girls huddle on the other side of the kotatsu, already in deep discussion about the future. Underneath the heated table, her foot finds Kumiko’s.

“Kumiko.” She wishes she wasn’t wearing socks, so that she could feel closer to Kumiko.    

“Yeah?” Kumiko knocks her foot back skillfully.    

Reina leans forward, propping her elbows on the low table. “I don’t know who I’ll be ten years from now. I might be someone completely different. But I’ll always remember this moment.”

“Reina, you’re so sentimental.” Kumiko doesn’t bother to hide her chuckle under her hand, and it is a beautiful admission of her trust in Reina. “I don’t think you’ll change, not really. You’re much too stubborn. But I know, you’ll be someone special.”

“And you’ll be by my side, won’t you?” Reina knows it is not fair to ask this of Kumiko, but she is a terrible person and she knows Kumiko will let her get away with it.

“I’ll be where I need to be,” is all Kumiko says. It is her usual evasiveness, which Reina could never dislike.

She rests her head on Kumiko’s shoulder and decides that this is better than playing footsie. Catching the scent of the softener Kumiko’s mother uses for the laundry, and a faint hint of lemon shampoo, her heart beats twice as fast. Reina doesn’t know how to tell Kumiko her plans for the future, so she closes her eyes, sets aside all her thoughts about growing up, and doesn’t say anything more.

 

 

Reina points her bell of her trumpet out over the city, as the street lights fade out one by one. It’s midnight and everyone else is at the festival, listening to the Bonten Parade. She doesn’t remember the last time she played a piece without an audience in mind. When she does image-training, she always imagines a concert hall filled obscenely to the brim.

Tonight, there is no one in this darkness except the four of them and the moon.

It might be because of the scenery, the time of day, or the fact that she’s playing with a euphonium, tuba, and contrabass, but the moment Reina hits the first note of the piece, the music that flows from the trumpet is glorious. It is a tenor she could never produce up on that hill ten minutes away from her apartment. She might never be able to create this sound again, which makes it something she wants to cherish even more. The emotions well up in her chest, and she pours it all into song. She will cry later on.

Reina had practiced the chords daily until her lips were sore, determined to perfect it even at her loneliest and lowest. It had always been difficult, because A Trumpeter’s Lullaby is a different from all the pieces she’s played in concert before. A trumpet demands attention. A trumpet is loud and celebratory. A trumpet does not lullaby.   

Yet, here she is up on Mount Daikichi, playing it with the only people she ever could. Hazuki is rusty and Midori is too careful and Kumiko is still not as smooth as the euphoniums in the Orchestra, but the love in her music is pure and resounding.

After all that has happened, after all the ways she has created distance and wandered off and won and lost and found her way back again, Reina can finally say she doesn’t regret growing up. 

Maybe that is why her sound feels complete.

 

end