I've been writing this since May, and since the ending is finally in sight, Maki's birthday just feels like the perfect opportunity to finally bite the bullet and start sharing this with the world!


"Miss Akamatsu, I assume you know why I called you to my office."

Kaede, sitting directly in front of her academic adviser's fancy desk, leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms. "Well, I can't say I do, but I could probably guess," she said, looking around the various motivational posters and lesson plans hung up on the walls. "Is it because I signed up for too many music classes again?"

The woman behind the desk sighed. "Yes and no. Kaede, I've talked to you about this at the end of every year, but now that you're going into your senior year, I'm afraid I'll have to put my foot down." She typed at her computer for a moment, ending with a loud tap of the enter key. "So unfortunately, I can't allow you to take any music classes next year."

Kaede's attention snapped back to her adviser's stern face. "What? Why?"

"Every single one of your classes next year is a credit you require to graduate," she explained. "I understand you love music more than anything, and you could probably teach literally any music class better than, well, anybody in this building, but your three years of dedicating all possible time slots to music classes is catching up to you. If I even let one elective credit through, you won't be able to graduate on time."

Each word took the wind further out of Kaede's sails until the end, leaving her feeling defeated. She sighed and leaned forward in her chair. "Oh...right."

The woman behind the desk bit her lip, her expression softening. "I was lenient in the past because I know music is what makes you happy, but I want to see you graduate with your friends. In the future, you must focus better on planning for your future while keeping what you need to do in balance with what you want to do. Understand?"

"I got it, Mrs. Sato," Kaede said. "I'll just have to find my own fun with music next year. It's not like I don't have internet access or something." She had put on a fake smile to look less let down than she was, but with each word she spoke, she was actually convincing herself that this situation wasn't so bad.

She was met with a laugh and another smile. "You're right. I'm glad you understand. Well, I'll see you next year?"

"Absolutely!" Kaede stood from her chair and bowed at her adviser. "Thank you so much."

She turned and strode toward the door, but as soon as her hand touched the doorknob, she heard an error noise from the computer on the desk and her adviser muttering, "What the hell?"
"Is something the matter?" she asked, turning to face the woman who was growing increasingly pale.

"Uh oh," Mrs. Sato said. "Kaede, come back. We've run into an issue."

"I don't like the sound of that." Kaede scurried to the chair and sat herself back down.

The woman sighed again. "Well, now I feel bad for telling you to plan things out better. I completely forgot about that."

"What is it?" Now Kaede was getting anxious, palms growing sweaty and fingers nervously tapping her knees as though pantomiming playing her favorite melody would calm her.

It didn't.

Especially when Mrs. Sato said, "even with all these required credits, you won't be able to graduate on time next year."

"What?"

"Kaede, I'm so sorry. I forgot you need your physical education credit."

Kaede's face fell, her fingers stopped dead in her tracks, and the color drained from her face. The hulking monster that had been looming over her for her entire high school career was now impossible to ignore. "Physical...education? Are you saying I'm going to get held back for a single credit?"

Mrs. Sato shook her head. "Technically, it's two credits—one for each semester, but actually, not all hope is lost. The bright side is that you don't have to take a PE class, but the down side is your alternate course of action would be to sign up for a sport."

"A sport?" Kaede demanded, slapping her hand on the arm of the chair. "That's even worse! You do know why I've put off doing PE all these years, right?"

The woman laughed. "Yeah, I can guess. You're not in bad shape, so I can assume it's to protect your hands from any potential injuries."

Kaede giggled and put her hand over her stomach. Yeah, she wasn't exactly fat, but she had enough of a pudgy belly that she wouldn't have considered herself skinny either. "You got it in one," she said. "I have such a promising future as a pianist! I'd hate to hurt my hand in the last year before I can truly pursue that."

Mrs. Sato nodded slowly. "I understand." She opened a drawer in her desk and rummaged through it before producing several fliers for the different sports the school offered. "Unfortunately, I can't get you out of this, but I can offer several suggestions for you." She pointed at the three fliers immediately in front of her. "As far as our women's divisions go, we offer volleyball, basketball, softball, and soccer. Obviously, I think you'd want to do soccer, since it's mostly using your feet."

Kaede sighed, looking over the papers depicting her classmates playing various sports. She'd have been lying if she said their sweaty, focused faces and light clothing weren't distracting her just a tad though. Then—hold on. "Wait, what's this one?" Kaede asked, reaching for the desk and moving the volleyball flier to the side.

"Oh, that would be cheerleading." Mrs. Sato said, glancing at the pictures of one of Kaede's upperclassmen standing proudly on a soccer pitch in a tiny skirt and pompoms in hand. "I wouldn't recommend that."

"It counts as a physical education credit, too?" Kaede asked.

"Well, yes, but it is very intensive on your arms and hands. You do run the risk of injuring yourself in that one. Almost more than the other sports, I'd say."

"I see," Kaede said, putting a finger to her chin and leaning back in her chair.

"You don't have to decide right now, don't worry," Mrs. Sato assured her. "Sign ups will be first thing next year. Just don't forget, or else you'll be out of luck."

"Right. Thanks!" Kaede stood up and saw herself out of the office for real this time to let the next person come in to discuss their academic future.

The weekend came and brought the end of the school year with it. That meant that, as was her tradition for most of her life, Kaede was going to the nearby park. When she was a kid, she would celebrate the end of a school year by going to the playground with her sister, but as she grew older and her life changed, she would instead make the trip with her childhood friend Shuichi, and they would skip the stuff meant for kids to instead sit by the nearby lake, watching the calm waters while reflecting on the past year.

"You doing okay, Kaede?" Shuichi asked, noticing the pensive expression she was wearing.

"Yeah, I'm fine," Kaede said with a sigh. She sat down near the edge of the water, picking up a small rock and tossing it out to the water. The duo was silent until the ripples from the splash reached their feet. Shuichi took a seat next to her and hummed in thought. "There's no use in making you guess, is there?" Kaede asked with a weak laugh.

"Of course not," Shuichi said. "But I won't make you say it if you don't want to."

"This year marks ten years since my sister died." Kaede said it bluntly, trying to get the words out of her mouth as fast as possible.

Shuichi nodded, eyes glazing over. "Sure is."

"I miss her," Kaede said in a small voice.

"I know."

The tears had started, so now they weren't going to stop. "I'm sorry. I promise someday I'll go a year without crying to you about someone you never even met."

Shuichi shook his head and put a hand on Kaede's shoulder. "Hey, don't worry about it. She's kind of the reason we even met in the first place, so the least I can do is listen."

Kaede nodded. "You're right. God, do you think we thank your uncle enough for solving that for us?"

Shuichi laughed. He hadn't always been so open with his emotions around Kaede, but as they grew older, she felt privileged to be one of the few people who could hear his genuine laughter. "He actually talks to me about that sometimes. Every year when your family sends him flowers as thanks, he puts half of them on Minako's grave. So I don't think he minds all too much." Kaede couldn't help but let out a sob, which caused Shuichi's eyes to widen. "Oh my god, I'm sorry, was that the wrong thing to say? I'm so sorry, Kaede."

"No, it's okay," Kaede said through the tears. "That's so sweet of him."

Shuichi smiled, taking a rock and skipping it across the water. "So let's change the subject to get your mind off of things," he said, watching the rock land near the center of the lake. "I'm deadly curious about what you talked to Mrs. Sato about on Tuesday."

"Oh, that..." Kaede appreciated that Shuichi was trying to distract her from dwelling on her sister's nearly decade old murder, but the change of subject was hardly any better. "I, uh, have to do sports next year."

"You what?"

Kaede traced her finger over the stones beneath her hand. "I, er, didn't take any physical education credits. Ever. So now my schedule's so full next year that I absolutely have to go out for sports."

"Oh shit," Shuichi gasped. "So what are you gonna do?"

Kaede sighed, bringing her knees up to her chest and crossing her arms over them. "I'm not sure. My choices are cheerleading, soccer, volleyball, uh...cheerleading, and I think softball?"

"You said cheerleading twice," Shuichi said quickly. "And that's an option? Man, I nearly forgot we had a squad."

"I did?" Kaede let out a soft laugh. "I guess the poster of the girl in the miniskirt really distracted me."

Shuichi joined her in laughter. "God, you're hopeless."

"I don't mean to be!" Kaede said, voice taking on a higher pitch. "I just get...distracted by pretty girls."

"Can't relate."

The two shared some laughter and banter, finally lifting Kaede's spirits. "Okay, but seriously," Shuichi said once he got another jab or two out of his system. "That aside, you should probably try soccer, yeah? It would be the safest for your hands."

"I guess," Kaede said with a shrug, stretching her legs so she was sitting normally again. "I just don't care about soccer."

"We don't care about most sports," Shuichi reminded her. "All you have to do is survive it. You don't even have to do particularly well, so what does it matter how you feel about it?"

"Because if I'm gonna suffer through a sport for a whole school year, I'd rather it be one I can bring myself to enjoy to some capacity," Kaede explained.

Shuichi nodded, stroking his chin. "I see. Okay, I have an idea, then."

"Yeah?"

Shuichi turned to Kaede with the look she grew to dread as his idea face. "Why don't we try some sports this summer so you can go into the school year knowing what you wanna do?"

Kaede seemed stunned. "Us. Try some sports."

"It shouldn't be too hard," Shuichi said. "We just have to try, what, four sports? Volleyball, soccer, softball, basketball..."

"Where would we get all those balls?" Kaede said, quickly putting up a finger to stop whatever Shuichi was about to say. "No smart remarks, mister."

Shuichi stifled a laugh. "Well, that shouldn't be too hard. We can go to batting cages for baseball, the beach for volleyball, and then...I'm sure we have friends who own soccer balls and basketballs."

Kaede sighed. "I guess. But getting that is all on you, okay?"

Shuichi nodded sternly. "Right. Leave it to me to get some balls."

"You said it, not me," Kaede said with a laugh.

Shuichi's face heated up and he shook his head. "Hey, you said no smart remarks!"

And so, Kaede's summer got off to a rather different start than she was anticipating. Rather than doing small-time concerts or honing her skills, she was going to be traveling the city with her best friend to try several different sports and see how she felt about them.

The first stop came a week into break and found the kids at the batting cages. However, it only took a few minutes for Kaede to make her decision. After a few swings and misses, she finally hit the ball, after which she dropped everything to step out as quick as possible. "Nope, can't do it," she said, shaking her hands like they were wet. "I could feel the vibration of the bat hitting the ball in my wrists, and I can't do it."

Shuichi shrugged. "I don't know, just doing it for a school year wouldn't have long term effects, I don't think."

Kaede stomped her foot indignantly. "Well, no, but imagine if the ball hits my hand or something! Sorry Shuichi, I think softball's a bust."

"Would you like to swing some more?"

"No!"

Several minor complaints about having paid for her to only hit the ball once later, the two found themselves back at Kaede's house, Shuichi lounging on her bed while she tapped at her desk absentmindedly. "What's next on your list, Shuichi?" She asked, mentally playing Beethoven on the dark wood.

"Volleyball," Shuichi said. "My uncle has some extras lying around and the beach isn't too far away. We can make a day out of it."

"Did you say a date?" Kaede asked, snapping back to reality.

"Day," Shuichi said. "I know we made a pact to get married for the tax benefits if we're both still single at thirty, but let's not rush into that, huh?"

A week later, Kaede and Shuichi donned their swimsuits and took to the beach, volleyball in hand. They found a couple of extra strangers to play with, and even the socially anxious Shuichi had to admit he had fun with it.

"Thanks for playing with us," Shuichi called once everything was said and done.

"And thanks for being patient that we didn't know how to play," Kaede added.

The strangely dressed girl shook her head and put her arms on her hips proudly. "Don't mention it! To be completely honest, Ibuki doesn't know how to play either, so she made it up as she went along!"

The nervous looking girl next to her bowed her head. "She's right, and I only know how to play it from watching them play at the Olympics, so it was a learning experience for all of us."

"Catch you later, hobos!" Ibuki shouted as she bounded off, leaving her companion doe-eyed and shaking.

"I-Ibuki! You can't call people that! Come back!"

Not content to call their day over quite yet, Shuichi and Kaede bought some snacks and sat near the sand's edge, looking out onto the ocean. "They were nice," Kaede said. "Ibuki and, uh..."

"Mikan," Shuichi said. "I understand, it's hard to remember when Ibuki was the one who kept saying her own name."

Kaede chuckled. "Right. She reminds me of how you are around new people."

"Thanks." Shuichi rolled his eyes and quickly changed the subject. "So what did you think?"

"Volleyball seems..." Kaede let out a groan. "Complicated."

"Right."

Kaede brought her giant pretzel to her mouth and bit on it, staring at her free hand while she chewed. "I don't think that would be too hard on my hands, but it just doesn't feel...fun."

"Well, there's still two more sports we have to try," Shuichi said. "Don't give up yet."

"Basketball and soccer," Kaede said. "I have a feeling we can just skip basketball."

Shuichi's expression hardened. "Hey, I spent my uncle's hard-earned money on a brand new basketball, we're going to try it."

Kaede barked a laugh, nearly doubling over and dropping her pretzel. "Fine, fine, we'll try it. Tomorrow?"

Shuichi looked like he was deflating. "No, I'm so worn out from today."

"Fine. Next week."

"I think I can do that."

When Kaede got home that day, face red from the sun beating down on it and a jacket around her otherwise half-covered top half, she paused by a door in between the front door and her own room. She looked at the colorful wooden letters nailed to the door and breathed a heavy sigh. She placed her hand on the painting of an apple tree on the door and let her fingers trace the wood. "What are you thinking right now, Minako?" She asked. After about a minute of waiting for a response, she let her hand fall to her side and continued to her room, eyes welling up. Kaede speaking to her sister's bedroom door like she was expecting to hear something back wasn't a strange occurrence, but something about that day felt like a response was needed.

At least, more than usual.

"God, I don't get it," Kaede mumbled to herself the next week as she recounted the tale to Shuichi. "It's just one credit, why's this so hard?"

"Two credits, technically," Shuichi said, fingers drumming the basketball and eyes focusing on the group of rowdy teenage boys currently occupying the court. "But don't worry, we'll figure it out together."

"I just wish she was here to help," Kaede whined. "Though, if she would have become anything like me, she would have enabled me to join the hot cheerleaders."

Shuichi cracked a smile. "You're really still considering that, aren't you?"

"Well, maybe..."

Shuichi shook his head, gaze not leaving the boys playing the game. "We'll call that plan...er, H? J. Plan J. Z, maybe."

Kaede rolled her eyes. "Go back to watching your sweaty boys."

"Way ahead of you."

Finally, the basketball court cleared out and it was time to take Kaede in. She was actually pretty good at dribbling; at least, she figured she was based on how easy the motion came to her. "This actually seems like it requires some decent finger dexterity," she said.

"Let's see how well that dexterity comes in when you shoot," Shuichi said, jerking his head in the direction of the basket. "Go for it."

The moment the basketball left her hands, Kaede knew it wasn't meant to be. The ball soared so far in the wrong direction that Shuichi took some convincing to believe it wasn't flubbed on purpose.

"Well, that was a bust," Kaede said, jutting her lower lip out in a pout. "Hope you didn't spend too much on that."

"Nah," Shuichi said with a shrug. "Maybe I can give it to one of those guys who were here earlier as a gift."

Kaede smiled. "One more to go, huh? Next week?"

"Next week," Shuichi said with a nod.

Finding a way to play soccer was much harder than the others. The two spent what felt like the entire day scouting for anywhere with a soccer net installed, and finally just settled on looking for open, empty fields. Finally, they just settled on Kaede's backyard, where they kicked around the soccer ball halfheartedly, like a child lazily playing catch with the parent they got to spend the majority of their weekends with. "This is stupid," Kaede grumbled an hour or so after they started.

"Well, I'm sure an actual game has more running," Shuichi said. "But yeah, we kind of got the short end of the stick on this one."

Kaede puffed her cheeks out, humming in thought. "Aren't you constantly running in soccer?"

Shuichi shrugged, kicking the ball off and watching it bounce weakly toward the house. "Hell if I know. Neither of us are the type to watch sports. I would assume so, though."

Kaede let her eyes wander to the large tree looming over them. "Well, I'm out of options."

"Kaede?"

Instead of responding, Kaede turned on her heel and marched back into her house. Not even caring that she still had company over, she made her way to her room and slammed the door closed behind her.

When Shuichi caught up to her a moment later, she was sitting on the edge of her bed staring at the wall. "Kaede, what's the matter?" He asked, taking a seat next to her.

"I'm going to spend the last year of high school doing everything I hate and nothing I actually want to do," Kaede huffed. "Whatever sport I do is gonna be a wash, and even if I could be good at any of them, all my days are going to be stuffed."

Shuichi put a hand on her back silently.

Kaede kept talking, not caring who was listening, if anyone. "I guess it's my fault for putting this all off until the last minute."

"They do say that your senior year is either the easiest or the hardest," Shuichi said. "I guess you just got the less desirable option."

Kaede didn't respond.

"But you know I'll be there for you, right Kaede?" Shuichi leaned forward to try and catch a glimpse of Kaede's face. What he got when he found it was a stony look of determination.

"Cheerleading."

Shuichi raised an eyebrow, unsure if he actually heard her right. "Hm?"

Kaede shrugged and sat up straight. "I'll just...sign up for cheerleading."

"Kaede," Shuichi protested.

"I have to do something I'll hate no matter what, so why don't I do what will at least give me something to look at?" Kaede seemed steadfast.

Shuichi put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to look him dead in the eyes. "Kaede, I say this as your best friend: I know you think they're hot, but cheerleading would destroy you."

Kaede frowned, her determination temporarily replaced with frustration. "Hey! Are you saying that because I'm chubby? If that's the reason, then all of these sports would destroy me! Softball would wreck my wrists, volleyball would melt my mind, basketball would make me a laughing stock because I can't aim for shit, and the other girls in soccer would leave me in the dust."

Shuichi shook his head adamantly. "Kaede, you don't understand. You have to do tumbling in cheerleading. Tumbling!"

"I can make a blog to do that," Kaede spat with a smug grin.

The joke didn't seem to land, which was weird because Shuichi totally struck Kaede as the type of person to understand that reference. Instead, his face remained grim. "You have to do handsprings or whatever they're called. Lift people up above your head, all sorts of dangerous routines filled with a multitude of things that can go wrong! All it would take is one messed up stunt and your career as a pianist is over!"

The words were harsh, but they snapped Kaede back down to earth. Her eyes went wide and she could feel beads of sweat breaking out on her forehead. She held her hands out in front of her and stared at them, noting that they were trembling. "I...no, you're right, Shuichi. I don't know what I was thinking."

Shuichi breathed a sigh of relief, finally letting go of Kaede. "Sorry I got loud there, Kaede, but...I don't want to see you get hurt. I'd hate it if you threw away what you've worked so hard for just because of a hasty decision. You're my best friend, and I care about you too much to let you put yourself in so much danger."

Kaede could feel her eyes start to water again. She threw her arms around Shuichi and cried into his shoulder, all of her feelings of anger and frustration boiling over into tears. "Look at me, crying like a baby because I don't want to play a sport," she sobbed. "I'm so stupid."

Shuichi was shocked at first, but put his arms around her, patting the back of her head calmly. "It's okay, Kaede," he said.

Sniffling, Kaede sat herself up straight. "I'll just pick volleyball," she said. "I won't have to move around too much and the ball isn't too hard or heavy..." She could hear the uncertainty in her own voice, and it weighed on her shoulders like a grand piano strapped to her back, but she choked the words out regardless. "How's that sound?"

"Perfect," Shuichi said with a firm nod.

They parted ways that day with a promise to hang out one or two more times before school started again, and Kaede spent the rest of the summer telling herself over and over again that she was going to sign up for volleyball day one.

Volleyball, volleyball, volleyball.

Then, her final year of high school started. As most first days are, it was a fairly easy day, and as soon as she could, she marched herself down to the bulletin board with the sports announcements on it. The corkboard in question had many sign-up sheets on it, one for each gender division of each sport, and one extra for the cheer squad. Just for fun, Kaede read over the descriptions of the sports.

The girls' volleyball sheet billed itself as a fast-paced sport with a tight knit team. The basketball one had a similar description, and the soccer sheet boasted about the school winning the championship with last year's team. Softball looked pretty barren, both in names and a description. However, the cheer squad's sheet was...colorful, pastel and decorated with stars up top and little pompoms at the start of each line. The description said the team wasn't a competitive cheer squad, so they wouldn't be going to any major competitions or anything, just meant to perform at the school's various other sports events and pep rallies.

Two names were already scrawled on the sheet in the same messy handwriting, and they were familiar to Kaede as people in her year and even in some of the classes she had been to mere hours ago.

Kaito Momota and Maki Harukawa.

"What if I just…"

No.

Shaking the intrusive thoughts out of her head, Kaede dug a pen out of her bag—her favorite one, that wrote in purple glitter. She clicked it and turned her attention squarely to the volleyball sheet.

Volleyball, volleyball, volleyball.

Sign up for volleyball, Kaede.

Shuichi's words about hasty decisions rang through her head. So did Mrs. Sato's advice about avoiding cheerleading for her hands' sakes, and even her own conscience was yelling at her to make the smart move.

Everything in the universe was screaming at her that this was a bad idea.

Everything in the universe except her right hand, of course, which neatly printed her name on the sign-up sheet for the cheer squad.

Kaede coasted through the rest of the day high on the adrenaline rush that putting her name on the wrong sheet of paper gave her. That feeling spiked again when she got a text from Shuichi asking her if she remembered to sign up for volleyball.

Of course I did, she texted him back. We didn't spend all summer fretting over this for me to forget.

Just making sure, Shuichi responded.

Kaede knew that it wouldn't take long at all for Shuichi to learn that he was just lied to, but she took solace in knowing she could at least get through the rest of the night with a somewhat clear conscience. The thrill took Kaede all the way to bed that night, at which point her mood came crashing down. The night was lost to her twisting and turning, anxiety trapping her heart in a vice grip. Several times, she almost dragged herself out of bed and poured out a tearful confession to Shuichi over text, but the terror of his disappointment kept her glued to the bed sheets.

The morning came slowly, and when Kaede was finally dragging herself out of bed, she buried her face in her hands, letting a curtain of blonde hair fall around her face. One deep sigh later, and it was time to get ready for the second day of her senior year. When she thought of it that way after the night that felt like three years, she almost wanted to go right back to bed.

The first class of the day brought a somewhat new face to Kaede's life. She had finally convinced herself she could get through the whole day without having an anxiety attack when the teacher calling names for roll call recited a name she had just seen on paper less than a day ago. "Kaito Momota," she said, scanning the class.

Kaede tensed up and turned to see the source of the loud, boisterous "Here!" His name was familiar, and he definitely had a face that Kaede could remember seeing throughout her high school years. It helped that his hair was a gigantic purple rat's nest, too.

He didn't really strike Kaede as the cheerleader type, unless being loud was a requirement.

She tried to push all thoughts of what she had done out of her head, but the world had different plans, because as soon as that class had ended, she was descended upon by that hideous hairdo. "You're Kaede Akamatsu?" Kaito asked, approaching her as if he'd known her all his life.

Kaede stood from her desk and grabbed her stuff, holding it close to her chest. "Uh, yeah? What about it?"

Kaito smiled and offered her his hand. "Kaito Momota. Good to meet ya!"

Kaede raised an eyebrow, looking at Kaito as if his hand was liable to explode when she took it. "Um...sure?" She shifted how she was holding her things so she could put her hand in his, at which point he grabbed it tight and shook it firmly.

"I saw your name on the sign-up sheet and didn't recognize ya from last year, so I thought I should find ya to introduce myself," Kaito explained, not loosening his tight grip on Kaede's hand. "As luck would have it, ya just happened to be in home room with me!"

Kaede let out a weak chuckle. "Hah, yeah, lucky. Kaito, can I have my hand back now?"

"Oh, right." Kaito let go of her hand and she brought it back to her chest. "So what made ya wanna become a cheerleader?"

"It's a long story," Kaede assured him. "We'd be here all day if I told it."

"Fair enough," he said, looking like he'd just been told something highly philosophical. "Well, I'll see ya at tryouts! If you need any advice or anything, this will be mine and Maki Roll's fourth year straight doin' this, so feel free to come an' find us!" Without even waiting for Kaede to respond, Kaito turned and bounded out of the room, and before the door closed behind him, Kaede caught a glimpse of him meeting up with a girl with incredibly long black hair.

"This was a terrible idea," she whimpered to herself. Surely someone else heard that oaf loudly proclaiming that Kaede Akamatsu was going to try out for cheerleading, so that meant it was only a matter of minutes until Shuichi learned what she'd done.

Luckily, it seemed anyone who heard didn't really care, because he still hadn't caught wind of her deception when lunch came by that day. He did, however, notice the bags under Kaede's eyes and the way her hands were nervously twitching as she ate. "You okay?" He asked in between bites.

"I'm fine," Kaede assured him, flashing a weak smile. "I just didn't get much sleep last night."

"What happened?" The genuine concern in Shuichi's voice and face as he asked pained Kaede, but she took solace in knowing that she could answer his question without lying, at least.

"Anxiety," she said quickly. "I think the weight of everything that's gonna be going on this year is starting to get to me."

"Yeah, I don't blame you," Shuichi said, turning most of his attention back to his food. "A full schedule of required classes and an extracurricular activity to balance on top of all that sure does put a lot on your plate."

Kaede nodded as she started to space out. When she came back to earth, her eyes had landed on a table across the cafeteria, where she saw that unmistakable head of purple hair. He was talking and laughing with someone at his table, who sat with her back to Kaede. She decided to look back to Shuichi before Kaito could see her staring at the back of his companion's head, and she came back to a concerned expression. "What's going on?" He asked, starting to sound suspicious.

"I was just spacing out," Kaede said, her voice getting higher pitched. "No problem!"

Shuichi didn't seem convinced, but he let it go anyway. "Okay. If you need any help this year, just let me know, okay? I'll be glad to help you out."

"Thank you so much, Shuichi," Kaede said. Just hearing him say that felt like a weight off her shoulders.

Unfortunately, it also brought the guilt of lying back in full force, so the two sensations pretty much offset each other.

The rest of the day passed without incident, except for Kaede picking up on another name that was on the sign-up sheet above hers. Sure enough, Maki Harukawa was also in one of her classes, but Kaede didn't have to deal with meeting another somewhat new person, because once that class was over, Maki had disappeared from the classroom like a ghost. "God, the universe is just out to get me today," she mumbled to herself on her way out of the school once all of her classes were over. She ducked out quickly, avoiding contact with anyone she knew so she could just go straight home.

She felt stupid for thinking home would hold any feeling of relief from her stressful day, because the moment she had entered her room, her phone went off with a text: Kaede Akamatsu.

"Oh geez, Shuichi used a period in his text," Kaede said with a chuckle. "I'm in danger." She typed out an innocent yes? and practically tossed her phone across the room, terrified of what his response was going to be.

Seconds later, her phone went off twice in a row, which made the color drain from her face. "Oh fuck."

Unable to ignore that, she gingerly picked up her phone and checked her messages. The first was a picture of the sign-up sheet for cheerleading. She could see three familiar names under hers, but didn't bother to focus on what they were, because the next message read, care to explain?

I would, but I really can't, Kaede typed. It was a spur of the moment thing. I wasn't even thinking.

You sure weren't! Even through text, Kaede could hear the message in Shuichi's voice.

You're mad, she said, eyes welling up with tears as she typed.

A moment passed without a reply, but finally, she got another message. I'm not mad. I'm just disappointed, I guess.

"That's worse!" Kaede said to herself out loud. "Aw man, I fucked this one up."

Before she could type out an apology, Shuichi added, just...be careful, okay?

Will do.

Kaede threw herself onto her bed, head landing hard on her pillow. "Damn it, Kaede," she said to herself, letting her phone drop from her hand and onto the floor. "What would Minako think of you putting your whole future at risk because of some pretty girls?"

Now that Shuichi was aware of her lie, Kaede actually slept easier that night. It probably helped that he hadn't tried to force her to change her mind, or perhaps the fact that someone else knew helped soothe her anxiety. Whatever it was, she hoped she could avoid any further anxiety attacks until after try-outs.

She couldn't.