When Kumiko comes home from work, her third late night in a row, she's bone-tired, exhaustion set into the hollows of her cheekbones, a dull ache behind her eyelids. Gargling a mouthful of Listerine, she stumbles into her bedroom, ready to collapse into her inviting covers, but stops short.
Reina Kousaka is sprawled across her bed, her hair a mess of purple galaxy across the faded pillowcase. Her hands are all bunched up in the sheets, and she mumbles incoherently in her sleep, drool pooling at the corner of her lips.
The trumpet case sits at the foot of the bed.
It's the first time Kumiko's seen her in three months, but somehow, she prefers it this way, peaceful calm instead of terrible, terrible silence.
Kumiko throws a blanket over her and leaves the room without a second glance.
(She spends the night on the couch.)
When she pads into the kitchen the next morning, seven on the dot, Reina and a plate of slightly burnt bacon and eggs are already waiting for her inside.
"Morning," Kumiko says groggily, filling her mug with coffee and trudging over to the table.
"You should have woken me up," Reina blurts. Her eyes blaze like the sky before a storm.
"You looked pretty tired," Kumiko counters, fiddling with her crumpled blouse. "I didn't want to disturb you." Shoveling a forkful of eggs into her mouth, she chances a smile at her. "You didn't tell me you were coming back so early."
Reina shrugs. "Wanted to surprise you." She averts her eyes. "I'm sorry. I...didn't know you were working so late."
There's a lot you don't know about me.
But Kumiko knows it's a lie. After ten years, they have each other completely memorized, the good, the bad, and the ugly, each nervous tic and secret and nightmare, the metronome of their 2 AM heartbeats.
What they've chosen to love one another in spite of.
Kumiko carries the plate to the sink. "Thanks for breakfast." Just as she's about to leave the room, Reina catches her wrist and pulls Kumiko towards her, pressing an achingly gentle kiss to her lips.
Reina exhales shakily. "I missed you. So much. I...don't want to start like this. Not again."
Kumiko swallows back a gulp.
How long until you leave me again?
How long until you never come back?
They've spent so much time chasing after the wrong people, the wrong anatomy, the bobbing and cording of an Adam's apple, the angular plane of a chest, thin lips and the smell of aftershave.
She and Shuichi had given it a shot their last year of high school, when he asked her to the festival the third time in a row and she'd accepted on a whim. "I can't believe this is finally happening," he'd marveled. "I still feel like this is a dream."
Being with them had been comfortable, steady, but somehow, she found herself craving something else. Slender fingers instead of his calloused palms, heavy with the weight of the world when he touched her.
The ripple of a white dress beneath the night sky.
When they finally called it off, four months later (over the phone, no less), Kumiko spent the rest of the day in her room, staring at the ceiling hugging a pillow to her chest. Her mother simply put a glass of water by her bedside and patted her on the shoulder; even Hazuki and Midori dropped by to deliver a pint of green tea ice cream and their sympathy.
They all assumed she was heartbroken, and maybe that was what hurt the most.
Her sister eventually ambled in, plopping down on the edge of her bed. "Heard you broke it off with that Tsukamoto kid."
"Yeah," Kumiko mumbled, voice muffled by the pillow.
"And you dumped him?"
"It was him," she said, and hesitated. "I'm relieved, actually."
"Then why the hell are you moping?" Mamiko exclaimed. "You should be celebrating! Break-ups are a pain in the ass- you didn't even have to lift a finger, and bam! Relationship over."
"You don't understand." Kumiko puffed out her cheeks. "It's over, and I don't even feel sad about it. He was the perfect boyfriend, and that still wasn't enough for me. I never liked him back, no matter what he did...is something wrong with me?"
Mamiko grabbed her face and turned it towards her. "Kumiko, listen to me. You. Didn't. Like. Him. That. Way. And that's not your fault. No one gets to decide who they fall in love with- it's just not that simple. When you find the right person, you'll know that they're worth it, and you'll hold onto them. Clearly, Tsukamoto was not that person. So get up and start looking! Don't get so hung up about a guy you didn't want to date in the first place."
Kumiko pushed her hands away. "What if he was that person, and I was just too stupid to realize it?"
"Kumiko," Mamiko sighed, "Kumiko. When you meet that person...you'll just know. I promise."
(If only it were that simple.)
Some part of Reina will always love Taki-sensei. Kumiko has long since made peace with this fact.
(Somehow, he's still Taki-sensei, even after all of these years.)
We never really leave high school, do we?
When she talks about his latest project, how he's been getting recruited to teach at major conservatories and conduct world-famous orchestras, her eyes always light up, and Kumiko's stomach always churns at the thought that maybe she'll follow him someday, get pulled into the juggernaut of festivals and live performances and tours all over the world, leave her behind in this tiny town she can never seem to leave behind.
The rejection letter is still tucked into her top drawer, along with all of the other crap she's too sentimental to throw away.
We regret to inform you that we are unable to accept you into our music program.
She'd wanted so desperately to become special, like Reina, to catch up to her, but in the end, it hadn't mattered. This crazy, far-fetched dream, it just wasn't meant to be.
So she did what she knew best: she settled.
She left her euphonium to collect dust in her mother's attic, trudged off to a small community college and became an accountant, just because it was easy and she liked the slow crunch of numbers her brain, piles of figures and dollar signs so pretty and perfect, clean, mindless work. She'd chosen to stay in Uji because it was safe, what she'd known all her life, and each time, awaited Reina's return without complaint.
A crashing wave and a cliffside, eroded more and more each time they clashed.
After all, what is she to the hypnotic call of the world, the beautiful and terrible unknown?
Reina leaves again in less than two weeks (that must be a record, she thinks humorlessly), but that's nothing new. Just another airport, another boarding pass, another city- an endless cycle of coming and leaving.
Will you stay with me?
You won't abandon me?
If I do, you can kill me.
So unflinching, without so much as a heartbeat of hesitation.
(They were so young then. Too young.)
Kumiko watches her retreating back in the airport. Just who's abandoning whom, here?
It's rare, what with being more than ten years out of high school, but they manage to get together now and then, stop by at a local café and sip a latte, reminisce about the past and wonder about the future.
Future. Such a strange word.
Almost as foreign as "commitment."
Hazuki beams up at her from the table as soon as she walks in, and Kumiko's heart nearly stops at the sight of the ring on her finger. "Shuichi proposed last night!" she gushes. "It was our third anniversary, and he just got on one knee and...did it!"
"I...wow," Kumiko stammers. "Congratulations."
Hazuki, in love with the right person, even from the very beginning. Hazuki, so radiant, so self-assured, so confident about what she wanted.
As much as she despises herself for it, she can't stop that gnarl of jealousy from unfurling in her stomach.
Midori laughs and bats Hazuki playfully on the arm. "About time! What were you two waiting for?"
"Yeah," she echoes. "If anyone deserves Shuichi, it's you. I'm really happy for you guys."
Kumiko thinks back to that phone call. I think you're in love with someone else, I'm sorry I couldn't be enough for you.
Thinks about missed chances, regrets, the future that she's entirely powerless to stop, the future that's leaving her behind without a second glance.
She stops at the local bar every once in a while, when the loneliness becomes too much to bear and all she craves is a fog of alcohol to cloud her mind and her better judgment. There are men there, who leer at her from the pool table, and they flirt with her sometimes; if she's just tipsy enough, maybe she'll play along, let them buy her another drink and give them a few thin-lipped smiles.
(It's nice, to feel wanted.)
There's a girl there one night, and they strike up a conversation.
She's gorgeous, five years younger with auburn hair braided down her back and eyes that glimmer under the dim bar lights, but for the life of her, Kumiko just can't remember her name. It's easy to talk to her, though, nonchalantly trading jokes and not-so-accidentally brushing hands as they reach for their drinks.
"You got someone waiting for you at home?" she asks slyly.
"More like, across the ocean," Kumiko snorts, already on her third drink. Or is it her fourth? "She's never around."
The girl pats her on the shoulder. "Sounds rough. How long have you guys been together?"
"Damn." She whistles. "That's...wow. So, what's next?"
"I don't know," Kumiko confesses. "It's not like we can get married anyways…"
Oh God, marriage. If they could...would they? If it were five years ago, she would have done it in a heartbeat, given Reina everything without hesitation- her life, her love, her unwavering loyalty.
But hasn't she already?
This, whatever they're doing, isn't this marriage without the commitment? Without the idyllic waking up next to each other every morning, trading sleepy kisses right before bed, buying each other toothpaste and burning pasta together and walking through life, hand-in-hand?
Her chest is heavy with want, and it has nothing to do with the pretty girl sitting before her.
She has never felt more lucid, but for once, it's not a blessing.
"I have great news!" Reina says on the phone.
Kumiko yawns, towel-drying her hair over the sink. "What is it?"
"I...got a gig with the New York Philharmonic," Reina says breathlessly. "It's just six months, but still, it's something! It's exactly what I've been waiting for!" She exhales shakily. "Will you come with me?"
She laughs bitterly before she can stop herself, shaking her head in disbelief. "You can't just keep doing this to me, Reina. Just...taking off and expecting me to be okay with it. I know this is your dream, but I...can't wait for you forever, you know."
"Isn't this perfect, then?" Reina counters. "We can get married there. We can start our life together. Isn't this what we've been waiting for?"
"But what about my life?" Kumiko blurts.
Reina sounds crestfallen. "I thought...I thought you'd be happy for me."
"I am, Reina, more than anything. It's just that...my life is here. In Uji. You can't tell me to uproot it and follow you. My life can't just revolve around you."
They lapse into uncomfortable silence.
"Tell me what you want, then," Reina says stiffly.
What she wants...it's been so long since anyone's even asked.
Kumiko takes a deep breath. "I want us to hold hands and take walks together and have dinner with our friends, like normal couples. I want us to argue about what movie to watch. I want us to nag each other about our annoying habits. I want us to have a life together, here." She pauses. "What am I to you, anyways?"
You're my everything, Reina had told her once. You're my entire world.
Kumiko wonders if she's naive enough to still believe it.
"I love you," Reina whispers. "You know that."
Kumiko chokes back a sob and hangs up the phone, burying her face in her hands.
(She's not sure she wants to hear the answer.)
"Up you go," Kumiko murmurs, helping a more-than-tipsy Hazuki out of the car and up the front steps. She shakes her head in disbelief, smiling fondly as Hazuki slumps onto her shoulder and babbles incoherently under her breath.
Shuuichi opens the door and grins sheepishly at them. "Well, what did I expect?"
Kumiko shrugs, unable to repress a reluctant smile. "The perks of being designated driver, huh?"
Together, they heave Hazuki into her bedroom and tuck her in, leaving a glass of water and an aspirin on the table for the morning after.
"It's been a while," Shuuichi says, closing the door behind them. "Can I get you anything to drink?"
"Oh, no," she says hurriedly. "I don't want to trouble you- I should really be heading home-"
"It's no trouble at all," Shuuichi assures her, pulling her into the kitchen by the elbow, and busies himself at the counter. He hands her a gin and tonic. "It's the least I can do- I mean, considering she's not passed out in a ditch right now."
"Well, what are friends for, right?"
He slides into the seat next to hers, and they clink glasses. "To sobriety."
"Amen to that," she says appreciatively, and takes a sip. It's weirdly nostalgic; she misses the days when she could just drop by his house unannounced to play video games, when girls still had cooties and everything was so much less complicated.
It's funny, how you can miss someone when they're sitting right in front of you.
Shuuichi leans back in his chair. "Is Kousaka-san coming on Saturday?"
Kumiko heaves a sigh, swirling her drink around the glass. "That's...that's a little up in the air at the moment." She takes a deep breath. "She asked me to move to New York with her."
The words tumble out before she can stop them, but he barely looks fazed. "And?"
"I'm not proud of this, but-" Kumiko gives a vehement shake of her head, downs the rest of her drink, and exhales shakily. "So here's the thing.
"It's like...even when she's here, I feel like she's somewhere else, living her crazy, exciting life, and I...I was just so fed up with it, you know? Being second choice." She fixes her gaze on a crack in the table, runs her fingers across it. "I know Uji's always gonna be the same boring place, with the same boring people, but...this is my home. Hazuki and Midori are here, and my job's here, and I just- I couldn't do it."
"So what did you do?" he asks gently.
"I told her to choose." She bites her lip, desperately locking eyes with him. "Does that make me a bad person?"
"Only a selfish one." Shuuichi cracks a grin. "But that's not necessarily a bad thing."
Just as she's about to pull out of his driveway, he pokes his head out of the window. "Hey, Kumiko?"
"Dumping you was the most selfless thing I've ever done." In spite of it all, he's grinning from ear to ear.
Kumiko snorts. "Save it for marriage, idiot."
There's a moment of silence before they burst into drunken giggles, probably waking up everyone in a ten-kilometer radius as their laughter reverberates through the cool night air.
It's the best she's felt in months, half-drunk and sitting in her car and laughing with her childhood friend.
Enough to make her think that maybe, just maybe, things are gonna be okay.
Fifteen minutes before the ceremony, and still no word from Reina.
Still, she can't let that distract her anymore; after all, she has more pressing matters to take care of.
First and foremost, a panicked bride.
"I'm so nervous, I don't know what to do!" Hazuki frets, staring fitfully at her reflection. "I mean, are we rushing into this?"
"Just go get married, silly," Kumiko laughs, ruffling her hair. "It's gonna be perfect, I promise."
It is, of course, all matchbox chairs and pretty pink flower arrangements and flutes of champagne, the way Shuuichi's eyes light up when he sees Hazuki gliding down the aisle like she's the loveliest thing he's ever seen.
No one deserves her best friends more than they do each other, and that's a beautiful thing to watch.
Before the party starts, the guests start passing around drinks and giving toasts, the jokes getting sloppier as their cheeks grow rosier and rosier. Even though she does all she can to hide, pretty soon, Midori's handing her the mic and she's easing reluctantly to her feet.
Kumiko exhales shakily, gripping her wine glass so hard her knuckles flash white. "Some might say that it's reckless- getting married so young, being in such a rush to commit yourself to someone. But when you love someone as deeply as I know you guys love each other...you sort of have to chuck all rational thought out the window." That earns a chuckle from the crowd, and her gaze flickers to Shuuichi. He smiles encouragingly and gives her a thumbs up. "Love...it defies all reason. I mean, that a person can see the worst parts of you and still stay by your side...isn't that mind-blowing? It just...it takes everything you thought you knew about yourself and completely screws it over."
Hazuki leans her head on Shuuichi's shoulder, and he puts her arm around her and pulls her close to him, presses his lips to the part in her hair.
"It's weird and it's messy and it's never, ever perfect. And sometimes, no matter you do, it just doesn't work out." Kumiko swallows back a gulp, gives a shake of her head to clear her head. "But I know you two- giving up just isn't in your vocabulary. No matter what gets thrown your way, I know you guys will get through it together. I know you'll support and care for one another unconditionally. And to me, that's what makes everything worth it."
She meets Shuuichi's gaze, and they share a private smile across the room.
Thank you, he mouths.
Later that night, Kumiko sits alone and watches the newlyweds dance together, sipping her drink as they stumble around the dance floor.
She feels a tap on her shoulder.
"Hi," Reina says breathlessly. "Sorry I'm late- there was a delay, and my phone died, and it was just this huge mess-"
"Apologize to them, not me," Kumiko says curtly, in spite of herself.
"I don't know," she says softly. "They look pretty preoccupied to me."
And sure enough, they are, tripping over their feet and catching one another, giggling helplessly at themselves and exchanging sloppy kisses in the soft pink glow. So wrapped up in one another, blind to anything and everything else.
"That could be us one day," Reina remarks.
All the air is sucked out of her in that one instant.
"Taki-sensei offered me a job in his orchestra," she says, and it's like the world is crashing down around them. "Kumiko, I'm staying."
"I...okay," Kumiko stammers, still dazed. "Okay."
Reina threads her fingers through her hair and kisses her square on the lips, heedless of anyone who's watching. They sway back and forth to the music, press their foreheads together and fumble for one another's hands.
"I choose you," Reina whispers, and this time, it's a promise.