"More details are coming out about the mysterious Holy Salvation Society, a religious cult so dangerous and elusive, that it took the combined efforts of law enforcement, the Togami Corporation and, astoundingly, the Yakuza to take it down. According to newly received intel from an anonymous source claiming to be close to the case, their body count included everything from regular people to former and active government officials. Police were only able to detain them after a shootout and hostage situation around noon yesterday, so more details are expected to emerge at the press conference scheduled for tomorrow morning."
"Alright, that's enough," Shuichi's uncle said, changing the channel to something more his speed (spoiler, it was a game show.) "You know what happened, so why do you need to watch all this?"
Shuichi shrugged, not really sure of the answer himself. "I dunno. I just want to know how much they're telling the public."
His uncle chuckled, leaning back in his chair. "Okay, so do you want to miss school tomorrow to see the press conference?"
Now he was overestimating how much Shuichi cared. "I'd love to, but with the school year winding down, I don't know if I can afford to miss a day." He paused and fished his phone out of his pocket, looking at the empty screen for what felt like the millionth time since school let out a few hours ago. "I don't know if Kaede can afford to miss a day either, but..."
At the mention of someone he actually cared about, his uncle perked up. "Kaede wasn't there today? Isn't she buried in work or something?"
"You pay more attention than you claim to," Shuichi accused playfully.
His playful tone was met, thankfully, with another one. "Hey, I solved her sister's murder. I wanna make sure she's okay, too. I'd hate to be involved for both Akamatsu kids meeting an untimely end."
"I hope nothing went wrong..." Shuichi's thoughts went to Maki, and how if she had gotten caught up in the chaos the day before and got hurt, Kaede would definitely miss school over it. And considering Maki was also absent, that was the most likely possibility. His phone went off, sending his heart racing, but when he checked, it was just a text from Kaito. Funny, he never thought a text from Kaito would be "just" that, but here he was.
And then the door opened and in stormed Kyoko. "Shuichi," she said once she was in the living room. "Come with me."
"What? Wait, didn't we lock the door?"
"Shut up and get in the car."
It was a terrifying silence that pervaded the car ride to the hospital. Despite how short she was being with him, he didn't read Kyoko's attitude as particularly sour or upset. So why wasn't she telling him anything?
Finally, she pulled up in front of the Emergency Room and unlocked the passenger door. "I wasn't telling you anything because none of it is mine to tell. I'm just the one who got charged with picking you up."
"Get in there and let her explain. Like I said, it's not my place."
Shuichi stepped out of Kyoko's car and closed the door behind him. Her car sped off, leaving him to briefly wonder how he was going to get home.
All those thoughts left him when he entered the waiting room and saw Kaede. She was sitting in the corner with her head buried in her hands, shoulders trembling and body shuddering with each breath she took. "Kaede?"
She snapped to attention, looking at him with tear-stained cheeks and extremely red eyes. She jumped from her seat and ran to him, actually tackling him to the ground with the force of her high-speed hug. "Shuichi, you're here!" She sobbed into his chest loudly.
Shuichi took a moment for his head to stop spinning before he asked any questions, but when he was sure he was okay, he grabbed her shoulders and at least brought her up enough that her face wasn't buried in his shirt. "What's going on?" He asked.
Kaede sobbed again, looking down at the wet spot she had already created on his chest. "Shuichi, it's horrible! Maki got involved in a...a shootout, or a drug war, or something! And, and...someone grabbed me and...god, I just don't know who did it, but...Maki's—"
"Kaede, calm down!" Shuichi put a calming hand on her cheek and looked her in the eye. He felt bad raising his voice, but it brought her back down to earth for a moment. "Come on. We're causing a scene. Let me up and you can tell me what happened."
Kaede told the story of the day before in between bouts of tears, and whenever she would cry into his shoulder again, Shuichi's eyes would dart to the television, which was playing the news coverage of the raid. When she got to Maki getting shot, she heaved a deep breath and let out one more sob. "And that's what happened," she said. "I don't know if...if I shot her, or if the guy did, but Maki's in there, and she could be dying, and it's all my fault!"
Shuichi held up a hand. "Wait, are you telling me you haven't left this place since yesterday?"
Kaede nodded, sniffling loudly. "I drove straight here as soon as the ambulance took her away."
"Have you...eaten anything?"
Another sniffle, and a shake of her head, tousled blonde hair going everywhere.
Shuichi sighed. "Give me your keys. I'll go get you some food."
"I'm not hungry," Kaede whined, sounding ten years old again.
"You're starving," Shuichi snapped. "And with how much you've been crying, you're probably dehydrated too. Now give them to me. I promise I'll be right back."
Kaede took a deep breath, her whole body shaking as she did. Her pale face turned to look at Shuichi's, and she finally relented. "I don't care what you get," she said quietly. "Just...be back quick, okay?"
It felt like the most important errand Shuichi had ever run. Less then twenty minutes later, he was back in the waiting room, two bags of food in one hand and a drink carrier with two drinks in the other. "I got you a large," he said as he sat down and handed her one bag. "No complaining. You need all the nourishment you can get."
Kaede didn't even try a playful protest. She just reached into the bag and started popping food in her mouth.
And then her eyes went wide, possibly from the realization of how hungry she was. She started shoveling more fries into her mouth, and Shuichi had to intervene. "Whoa, whoa, slow down a bit. If you eat that fast, it'll all just come back up. Now take it slow. Here, I got myself something. Just eat at the same pace I am."
Kaede nodded silently, and now this situation was starting to look familiar. In the years immediately following her sister's murder, and every once in a while after, Kaede would have PTSD-related panic attacks that were identical to what she was going through right now. It was a depressing thought to have, but Shuichi thought about how lucky it was that he was used to handling her in this state.
They finished their food and Kaede emptied her drink cup almost immediately. Shuichi refilled it with water from the nearby drinking fountain, and they sat in silence for a while.
Shuichi looked around at the waiting room at all the others patiently waiting for their turn to be called. Nobody in this room looked familiar, so how did Kyoko know Kaede was here? Had she ever even seen Kaede before? His questions were temporarily set aside when Kaede finally spoke, voice hoarse from crying. "You can leave now."
"Excuse me? No." Shuichi shook his head and crossed one leg over another. "I'm staying right here. With you."
Kaede kept speaking, almost as if she hadn't heard him. "I'm sure you'd rather be with Kaito right now."
"No," Shuichi said again. "Stop it. I'm staying here with you for as long as it takes."
He knew she wasn't going to say it in the moment, but as soon as it was over, he knew she owed him a thanks or two, which would probably be delivered with tight hugs. He looked forward to it, but the knowledge that it was coming didn't make the wait any less excruciating.
The two best friends sat in that room for hours as the sun went down and an entire crowd's worth of people came and went. There were still so many questions buzzing around in Shuichi's mind. What happened after Maki got shot? How did Kyoko know to bring him to the emergency room? How the hell did Kaede find her way into the middle of the very situation he was trying so hard to keep her out of? Despite them all, he didn't want to interrogate Kaede and force her to say more than she was prepared for until they knew Maki was okay, so he settled for people watching. Between the clock on the wall, the TV playing endless news coverage, and his phone, Shuichi was painfully aware of the passage of time, each minute feeling longer than the last as they stretched into hours. As he felt sleep start to creep up on him, he looked to his right to see Kaede, still wide-eyed and staring at the floor. He thought about suggesting she get some sleep, but of course, that was when they got what they were waiting for.
A frazzled looking nurse came into the waiting room, looking around for someone, and when Kaede caught a glimpse of her, she perked up. They made eye contact and the nurse came closer, a clipboard tucked under her arm. Kaede looked about ready to jump to her feet, but the nurse held up a hand. "Wait. I still can't take you back to see Maki."
Kaede looked devastated. "What…?"
"I came out to tell you that she's alright," the nurse continued. "She'll make it through just fine. But she's still asleep."
"Why is she asleep?" Kaede asked. "Is she going to wake up?"
"It's nothing to be worried about," the nurse said. She was clearly experienced in helping frantic people calm down, judging by her steady tone. "She's only asleep because we needed to put her under to get the bullet out. While she sleeps, we'll double-check to make sure everything's okay, and then we'll let her go."
Kaede nodded. "Okay. I hope you aren't telling me this to get me to leave, because I won't move from this spot until she can go home with me."
The nurse chuckled, a small smile coming to her lips. "Not at all, I just wanted to make sure you were caught up on the situation. I'll come back out once she's conscious."
Shuichi leaned back, a weight lifting off his shoulders. "Thank you for telling us."
After the nurse left, Kaede turned to Shuichi, a light in her eyes for the first time that day. "Whew, that's such a relief," she sighed. "I guess that means you can leave now, if you want to."
Shuichi shook his head. "Yeah, can't do that even if I wanted to. See, I didn't drive here. Hence why I needed your keys to get us food."
Kaede blinked slowly several times, processing that information. "But...how did you...?"
"Don't worry about it," Shuichi said with a chuckle. "What matters is that I'm here for the long haul just like you are. I'm sorry you'll have to be making two stops on your way home, though."
Even though they weren't going anywhere yet, Shuichi took a stand and stretched his arms, letting out a yawn as he did. Before he could sit back down, Kaede got to her feet and wrapped her arms around him again, this time making sure not to take him to the ground in the process. She squeezed him tight, burying her face in his chest. "Thank you for coming and sitting with me," she said. "I don't know where I'd be without you right now."
Shuichi returned the hug, gently placing his chin on top of her head. "Of course, anything for my best friend."
Kaede's grip on him grew tighter as he said that, and he could feel the air getting squeezed from his lungs. "K-Kaede," he gasped. "You're squeezing me too tight. Can't...breathe."
Kaede let him go and gave him a weak smile. "Oh, sorry."
After placing a hand on his chest and taking a moment to catch his breath, he said, "I swear Kaede, your breasts could be used as lethal weapons."
"That's not what Maki said about them."
Between how unexpected that comment was and the playful glint Kaede got in her eyes as she said it, Shuichi nearly doubled over in laughter right there. "Glad to know you're feeling better enough to make lewd jokes," he said when he finally collected himself.
Despite his protests, it felt nice to be thanked like that, and he was glad Kaede was feeling better. But there was still a lingering feeling of guilt nagging at the back of his mind. He knew everything Maki was involved in, and he had the power to warn Kaede not to get caught up in it. There was a part of him that blamed himself for the situation they were in, and he wouldn't be able to reconcile that until he came clean to Kaede.
But this wasn't the time. She was finally feeling better, so he decided not to bring the mood down. Instead, they waited another hour or so for the nurse to come back and escort them to Maki's room. She looked worn out and gave them the feeling that her shift was nearing its end, so they decided not to barrage her with questions on their walk.
The ICU was a scary place, and they could hear the noises of every type of machine around them as they walked. Nurses and doctors scurried from room to room even at this time of night, and the occasional groan or scream of pain would echo from doors that weren't latched all the way closed. Finally, the nurse opened a door for them and they stepped inside to see the person they were there for.
Maki was sitting up in her bed, noticeably paler than usual and hooked up to several different machines. Shuichi had to physically restrain Kaede from hurtling herself at her girlfriend, and once he pointed out that the machines were probably insanely expensive, she was able to keep herself under control.
Still, even without the physical display of affection, Shuichi felt like he shouldn't be in the room to see their reunion. He watched as Kaede gingerly took Maki's hand and gripped it tight. Maki squeezed her hand back and looked at her slowly. "Maki, I'm so glad you're okay," she said, voice wavering on the verge of full on sobs.
"Are you okay?" Maki's voice was hoarse, but she asked the question quickly, as though she'd been waiting for hours to ask it. "What happened after I got shot?"
Kaede looked into her eyes, taking a moment to respond. "I'm fine. After you fell, the girl with the sword came in and killed the guy who was trying to take the gun. Then...well, I don't know what was happening around me because she went to call an ambulance and I just...sat above you and cried."
Maki smiled weakly. "Somehow that doesn't surprise me. But I'm glad. I would never have forgiven myself if I'd gotten you killed."
Kaede shook her head. "I don't think I'll ever forgive myself for possibly shooting you."
"Don't worry. I'm fine." Maki shifted in bed as much as she could without breaking anything, exhaling through her mouth before she continued. "They said the bullet mostly missed my vitals. I'll...be able to go back to a hundred percent soon." Suddenly, her eyes went wide. "Wait. Kaede, I have to sit out of cheerleading for the rest of the year, since they said I shouldn't try to be active again until summer. Go to Ophelia next time you can and see if you can take my place on the squad."
Kaede was a bit stunned at the direction Maki took that news. "Wait, really?"
"It was my first thought when they told me," Maki said. "I'm wasting a spot as I am now. You might as well get your credits."
Kaede didn't have the energy to argue, just to move on to the next topic. "Okay, I can do that, but...what about you? Are you sure you'll ever be the same?"
Maki shrugged as well as she could. "I should be. You probably saw where it hit me. It didn't hit anything I need, and they were able to get it out and make sure it didn't get infected. I'll be fine. I'm sure."
Kaede leaned forward, bringing her face closer to Maki's. "God, Maki, I'm so sorry. If I hadn't done that, you wouldn't be here right now. This is all my fault!"
Maki sighed, her chest shaking as she did. "Kaede, I love you, and I forgive you, but I really have to say it. That was the stupidest thing you, or possibly anyone, has ever done." After a pause, Maki continued, "but you did it for me. And that still means a lot."
That was when Shuichi joined the conversation. "I feel like I should take some of the blame, too." The girls looked at him, one confused and the other indifferent to his presence. "I should have told you more about the situation. If I had, you wouldn't have gotten yourself into so much trouble."
"Funny, I was about to say the same thing," Maki said in a tone that betrayed that she didn't find it funny at all. "I did tell you some of the story, but I didn't tell you enough. I should have told you where I was going when I split off at the museum."
Kaede chuckled. "I appreciate you all apologizing to me, but it's all okay now, isn't it?"
"As okay as it can be, I guess," Maki admitted. "The past is in the past. There's no changing it. What matters is that..." Her eyes went wide again as a realization hit her all at once. "I'm free. I think. I won't have them breathing down my neck anymore. I can do...whatever I want."
For the first time ever, Shuichi saw tears form at the corners of Maki's eyes. At the sight, Kaede could feel her own eyes well up. "Maki, you did it," she whispered.
Maki's head hung low, and she let out one single sob. "It's finally over."
Shuichi could feel himself getting emotional too, but he decided not to say anything, instead letting the girls cry into each other's arms. Or, try to, with all the medical equipment in their way.
The three of them stayed in the room for a while until a doctor came in and told them Maki was free to go. He had her visitors leave so he could unhook her from all her machinery, and after so many hours, a trio that was noticeably worse for wear was lumbering their way out of the hospital. One had bags under her red eyes and unkempt blonde hair, one was feeling the burn from being awake for his best friend all night, and the third had a noticeable limp, even while her girlfriend was helping her walk down the halls.
Shuichi decided to drive, since he was the most alert, but when he shifted into drive, Maki handed him a phone from the backseat with an address typed into it. "I don't think you want to drop yourself off and trust Kaede to get home safely, so we can all stay at my house tonight," she said. "Just follow the instructions. We'll tell you when we get there."
It was definitely the most unusual invitation to someone's house Shuichi had ever gotten, but he did as she suggested. He regarded Maki's house with some of the same wonder Kaede did, but he was far too tired to relish in it, and the girls were too dead to the world to care, especially considering the sun was starting to peek out from the horizon as he pulled into her driveway. He crashed on a couch in Maki's living room, and the girls collapsed into Maki's bed, and the three of them were asleep the instant their respective heads hit the fabric underneath them.
The last thought Shuichi could remember having before falling asleep came from the picture of Maki telling Kaede she would be back in top form shortly, and the uncertain look in her eyes when she said it.
It was probably the hardest week of any of their lives. Maki was slower due to her limp and was late for several classes, and Shuichi found himself struggling to focus after losing a day to the embrace of Maki's couch, but none were so impacted as Kaede. The end of the year was looming, and she missed out on several vital class periods in the time she was away, so she was feeling the burn. She was also intensely anxious about confronting Ophelia. It definitely didn't help that the coach didn't work at the school, so she would have to wait until Friday afternoon to do it.
Finally though, the time came, and she walked into the gym with her shoulders slumped forward. The other girls (and Kaito) were doing their stretches, but Ophelia was nowhere to be found. Tsumugi was the first to notice her and came running to her on sight. "Kaede, are you okay?" She asked, taking note of the bags under her eyes and her backpack that was fit to burst from all the books in it. "You look like you've been through the wringer!"
Kaede smiled weakly. "I have. It's a long story. Like, crazy long."
Tsumugi crossed her arms and hummed in thought. "You'll have to fill me in on it sometime. But uh, why are you here? You got kicked off the squad, didn't you? Ophelia won't be happy to see you here."
Kaede perked up a bit. This was the perfect opportunity to talk it out before she actually said it to Ophelia. "Yeah, actually that's why I'm here. Maki got injured over the weekend, so she can't be in the squad for the rest of the year. I was coming to see if Ophelia could let me back on and give me my credits back."
Suddenly, Ophelia spoke up from behind Kaede. "Is that so?"
Kaede and Tsumugi jumped out of their skin and the latter rushed back to doing stretches while the former turned and looked at her coach feebly. "Er, yes. Maki's fine! She just...won't be able to be active again for a while, and she was wondering if I could take her place for the end of the semester. That way I can get my credits back."
Ophelia sighed, putting her hands on her hips. "I see. I'm sorry, Kaede, but I can't do that."
Ophelia looked physically pained by this conversation. "I would love to accept you back, but...you should go ask your adviser why I can't do that."
Kaede looked back at the squad, eyes landing on Miu, who was dutifully doing her stretches and pretending not to notice anything. "I will, sorry coach," she said before storming out of the gym and directly to the office she was sitting in when this whole affair started.
Mrs. Sato didn't seem very thrilled to be having the conversation either. "I'm sorry, Kaede. Ophelia approached me with the news that you were getting removed from the squad the moment cheer practice ended last week. After that, I put it all through and...well, as of Monday, you are officially getting held back."
Kaede's eyes went wide and she watched in horror as her adviser continued speaking, every word like a new knife in her chest. "You've been removed from everything regarding graduation, and putting you back in on such short notice wouldn't be possible. I'm sorry, Kaede."
Kaede leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees and staring at the carpeted floor beneath her. "I..." No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't even muster the energy to protest. Finally, she just sighed. "I understand. Sorry for disturbing you."
Any other words fell on deaf ears as Kaede left the office and went straight home. She didn't know when she stopped crying that night, or even if she ever did.
The end of the year came and went. Finals were studied for, and despite the knowledge that any failed classes could just be re-taken next year, Kaede powered through and passed as many of them as she could. As the week of finals pressed on, she watched from the sidelines while Shuichi, Maki and Kaito all prepared for graduation. She helped Maki shop for a dress to wear under her graduation gown and vehemently rejected any attempts to make her feel better about not graduating. "Hey, don't worry about me," she would always say. "This is your graduation, and your energy would be better spent feeling good about yourself than feeling sorry for me." It didn't always work, but it was usually enough to get the subject dropped for a few minutes.
Then, the yearbook came out. It was obvious that a last minute dash was made to remove all evidence of Kaede's fancy senior pictures and the quote she picked out, which only made it more heartbreaking that she couldn't be listed in those pages alongside her best friends and her girlfriend. Still, she tried her best to hide her pain behind a smile as the group admired their entries in the dedicated senior section at Kaito's house one day. Kaito's senior picture was, of course, him posed in front of a starry sky backdrop looking proudly in the distance, and, true to his boneheaded nature, he picked his own cheesy quote to be displayed alongside it.
"Nice quote, Narcissus," Maki teased as Shuichi squinted at the quote about the impossible being possible and tried to make sense of it.
"I don't know what that means," Kaito declared proudly. "But thanks! You know me, I've been slingin' that quote around since before we met, and it just felt wrong not to include it."
Maki shook her head. "I guess you can at least say you picked a quote that means something to you. I just picked something at random."
Even though Maki wasn't thrilled with her page becoming the topic of conversation, they turned to hers to inspect it. Her senior picture wasn't nearly as fancy as Kaito's or Shuichi's, and in fact Kaede could remember taking it just days before it was meant to be submitted. It was a picture of Maki standing in front of the orphanage she called home for much of her life, but her gaze was distant and cold as usual. When she told Kaede that was what she wanted to portray in the yearbook, she almost couldn't believe it, but there she stood, a black gown flowing in the wind in front of the pure white building that, up until very recently, had housed a dark underbelly. It wasn't a professional picture by any means, but it seemed to mean something to her, and that was what mattered the most.
However, Kaede had a hard time believing the quote she picked was completely random. Sure, it was from someone she'd never heard of before (though she guessed they were a poet of some sort), but its message was one that she felt oddly applicable to their situation:
"Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. -Rabindranath Tagore."
Days later, graduation was upon them. Kaede sat in the stands with Shuichi's uncle and Kaito's grandparents, a heavy weight on her shoulders as she watched the graduating class file in, looking for the heads of hair she would recognize as belonging to her friends. She was happy for them, of course, but it was still a struggle not to cry knowing that she should have been down there with them. The knowledge that they would be moving on with their lives and leaving her behind when the next school year began was almost too much to bear, but she did what she did best and hid her looming sense of dread under the enthusiastic shouts and screams she gave when their names were called. Her cheer nearly caught in her throat when she watched Maki limp across the stage, but she couldn't get distracted and not be the loudest voice for her girlfriend!
Then, she couldn't lie, it felt good to silently extend a middle finger into the air as Miu's name was read. She couldn't get away with that if she was sitting down there at the center of everything.
Still, another school year coming to an end meant another trip to the park, as was her and Shuichi's tradition. This time, however, they had a couple of others coming along to join them. The four of them sat at that familiar table near the shore of the lake, looking out at the still waters and the wildlife emerging into spring as they spoke about the past year and all the twists and turns it brought them.
"And then I said 'your breasts could be used as a lethal weapon,'" Shuichi said.
Kaede laughed and added, "and I was like, 'that's not what Maki said about them!'"
All four of them shared a laugh, even Maki, who shot back with, "yeah, I have extensive experience with those."
"Boobs or lethal weapons?" Kaito asked.
Another laugh was shared, giving way into a peaceful silence. Finally, Kaede happened to glance at Maki, who had a hand gingerly placed on her midsection. "Does it hurt, still?" She asked in a small voice.
Maki nodded. "Yeah. It's been hurting longer than I thought it would. I also still can't exercise very well still."
"Well, they did say it'd get to feeling better around summer time, yeah?" Kaito asked. "We still have time before then."
Maki gave him a hollow assurance that he was right. The three of them who were in the hospital room that night were starting to come to the shared conclusion that Maki was never going to be quite the same as she was before, but none of them wanted to say anything, especially not on such a happy occasion.
Perhaps sensing a faint melancholy, Kaito changed the subject, injecting his trademark optimism into his words. "Well, where're we all headed next? For me, I'm straight off to join NASA!"
"You can't go straight to NASA, idiot," Maki snapped.
"Well, yeah, I know that," Kaito said quickly. "But now I can start focusin' on the stuff that matters! No more English or History classes for me. No, from now on I'm strictly off to subjects fitting Kaito Momota, Luminary of the Stars!"
"Shuichi, come get your man," Kaede called playfully, snapping him back to the conversation. "He's going off about the stars again."
"Only if you don't get mad when I say the same thing to Maki next time you get started on pianos," he shot back.
Kaede feigned insult, putting a hand to her chest indignantly. "How could you? Maki, surely you won't let him talk about me like that?"
"Nah, he's got you there," she said, leaning forward. "Couldn't justify getting mad at him if I tried."
The friend group shared a laugh, during which Kaede's hand dropped to her side and took Maki's, squeezing it tight and receiving a tight grip in return. "So where are you going, Shuichi?" Kaito asked. "I figure since this is such a milestone, it'd make sense to share what our plans are from here on."
Maki glared at him. "Maybe we shouldn't in front of Kaede."
"No, he's right," Kaede assured her. "It just makes sense. Besides, I know if Shuichi doesn't say what he plans to do, he won't do it."
"Thanks for that," Shuichi said sarcastically. "But, well, since you asked, Kyoko has extended an offer to me to be her apprentice. I didn't want to be a detective growing up, but it'd just be stupid to turn down tutelage from one of the world's greatest detectives."
"Oh, nice!" Kaito flashed a cheesy grin. "I'm glad you're growin' more open to it! Just keep in mind that, by solvin' mysteries, you're helping people."
Shuichi nodded, glancing at Kaede. "Of course. I wouldn't have my best friend without that."
Kaede wiped a tear from her eye as attention shifted to Maki, who looked elsewhere as she spoke. "I don't know yet. I want to begin training as an athlete like Kaede suggested, but I need to get back to a hundred percent before I can do that. The Yakuza promised to pay my medical bills and keep me living healthy, but still, maybe I'll just get a real job to pass the time and wait for Kaede to finish. That way we can start our next step together."
Kaede gave her girlfriend a warm smile. "That's so sweet, Maki. Don't worry, I passed...er, almost all my classes, so I won't have to do an extracurricular to get my PE credit next year. This won't happen again."
"That also means you have more free class slots to use for music like you wanted to," Shuichi suggested, earning finger guns in response.
"Speakin' of which," Kaito said. "How's your wrist doing?"
Kaede let go of Maki's hand and brought her wrist up to her chest, where she grabbed it with her other hand and rotated it. "It's, uh, not all better yet. Turns out, having a gun fire in your hand is not very good for a sprain. My wrist has been aching on and off since, but I've been gentle with it, so it should bounce back just fine." She had no idea if that was a little fib or a big lie, but she wore her best convincing smile nonetheless. "Once this next school year is over, I'm gonna hope that I haven't lost my eligibility for musical scholarships and get right on that."
"I'm glad you're taking this in stride," Shuichi said.
"Me too," Kaede agreed. "Honestly, I can't quite believe I'm not more devastated, but when you think about it, this isn't such a big deal. I have my whole life ahead of me, so what's one wasted year, huh? I'll make it through just fine. You all just have to promise to come back and watch me graduate, okay? And of course we have to come back here after."
"Sounds like a plan to me!" Kaito cheered. "I promise I'll be back here same time next year!"
Shuichi nodded. "I've been coming here with you so long, it'd be wrong of me not to."
Kaede smile at the boys and turned to look at Maki, who smirked at her. "What, you expect me to put it in writing or something? Kaede, I'm going to stay with you, so I'll be going where you go. That's a promise."
Kaede looked to her favorite tree, taking note of the single apple hanging from the branches. She couldn't help but wonder what her sister would think if she was among them that day. Would she be dressed up with the others, just another person graduating before her? Would she also have found a special interest to get held back over? Would she judge Kaede for putting love of some girl over her academic success? It was hard to tell.
Still, she got the distinct feeling that Minako wouldn't mind too terribly much, because her sister was happy. In the time since her death, Kaede would freeze up when thinking about the future. She had always felt guilty planning her life out while her sister had that opportunity robbed from her forever, but now, something about the people at her side and the love she found in the last year meant that Kaede was able to look ahead. For the first time in a decade, looking to the future felt much, much easier than dwelling in the past. She didn't know what her future held, but now she was finally able to decide that for herself.
And the first thing she planned to do was kiss her girlfriend.
When I started writing this story well over a year ago, I never could have dreamed how big and out of control it would get. Whoops... Regardless, thank you so much for reading this whole thing, and maybe drop a review if you liked it! Or even if you didn't. I dunno, I'm not your dad.