Asuka poked her head into the slightly messy Japanese-style study room and smiled at its lone occupant.
Kaede sat with her legs folded under the kotatsu, head bent over a wooden surface cluttered with research papers. The sliding door opened quietly and she remained oblivious to Asuka’s presence. Whenever she concentrated on something, it was as if she could tune out the rest of the world.
Asuka liked to observe her during these moments when she was free from the pressures of her work and her family name. Kaede’s lips were drawn into a bit of a pout as the tip of her pen hovered over the paper. Her tracksuit was partly unzipped to reveal a bright yellow tee with a stylized American superhero in a dramatic pose. Her oversized glasses were starting to creep down her nose and a few rogue strands of smooth brown hair had escaped her conservative bun.
She looked considerably younger than her twenty-six years, more like an overworked college student than a teacher grading papers. She was, in a word, cute.
Asuka cleared her throat softly to broadcast her presence, and any feeling of guilt for staring so shamelessly was soon chased away by the warmth of Kaede’s smile.
“I made you some tea,” she said, shuffling closer and carefully sliding the tray onto a rare unoccupied corner of the table.
“Thank you,” Kaede rubbed at her neck and turned her head for a chaste kiss as Asuka leaned over her shoulder. “What time is it?”
Kaede groaned piteously. Asuka followed her gaze to the stack of unmarked papers and winced. Kaede had mentioned wanting to be done in time to cook herself dinner, but the likelihood of that seemed slim.
“I can get some take-out for you,” Asuka offered.
Kaede waved her off with a grateful smile. “No thank you. I’m not very hungry yet. Don’t worry about me, I’ll just heat up some leftovers later.”
That was what she said, of course. Asuka suspected that if she hadn’t interrupted just now, Kaede would have worked nonstop into the night and crawled into bed empty-stomached and dehydrated. Despite how professional she appeared in public, she was surprisingly terrible at taking care of herself, especially when her workload got heavy. Asuka’s thoughts must have showed on her face because Kaede flustered. “H-hey, don’t look at me that way! It’s not as though I’m going to forget to feed myself.” Her cheeks darkened even further as she said this, which somewhat undermined the confidence of her statement.
“Of course, of course,” Asuka giggled, a feeling of endearment spreading through her as Kaede reached over to playfully poke her in the nose.
Suddenly, the idea of leaving Kaede behind to meet her friends didn’t seem appealing at all, even if it was just for a few hours. Itsuki and Sakuya usually spent the evening bickering like an old couple. Machi and Michi rarely showed up. The movies they chose were hit or miss.
Then... there was Nao. Nao, her faithful little sister, her miracle drug. Nao, who’d taken care of her without complaint for most of their shared childhood. Nao, whose room she moved out of less than two years after they began their studies at the nursing academy. Nao, who’d grown pensive and melancholy as of late.
And there it was, the reason Asuka could never cancel on one of their bi-monthly movie nights. A year ago, she and her sister were inseparable. Now, they rarely talked to each other outside of class. Nao hardly ever took the initiative anymore. Knowing her, she didn’t want to be a burden on Asuka, now that she’d clearly set her sights elsewhere. Nao had always accepted defeat with dignity - though Asuka wondered why she saw Kaede as competition in the first place. After all the kindness Nao had shown her over the years, Asuka felt obligated to make some extra effort. Maybe if she could get Nao to spend a bit of time with Kaede outside of class, she’d warm up to her and stop keeping her distance from both of them. One could only hope.
For a moment, Asuka enjoyed the thought of spending time together with her two favorite people. “You know, Kaede... there’s usually enough food to feed at least one more person. And significant others are always invited.”
Kaede fidgeted with her pen. “Oh... I really shouldn’t...”
They’d had this conversation before, of course, on previous Saturday nights. Wouldn’t it be a bit awkward? Kaede would say. Relaxing around Asuka was one thing, but keeping a bit of distance from the other students would allow her to maintain a sense of decorum in the classroom. Asuka understood her reasoning, of course, and knew that there was little chance of persuading her. But after spending most of the day studying, she wasn’t ready to part ways with her just yet. “Nao, Itsuki and I won’t be your students for much longer,” she pointed out, leaning closer with feigned innocence, looking up at Kaede from beneath her long eyelashes. “And Sakuya’s in another class now.”
Kaede’s green eyes drifted ever so slightly toward Asuka’s lips. Asuka couldn’t help a twinge of glee that the effect Kaede had on her was mutual. “I want to spend time with you, Asuka, I do. But…”
Something else was clearly on her mind. And it seemed to be something serious. A lingering insecurity in Asuka was almost afraid to know what it was. She stayed silent as Kaede found her words, channeling the gentle patience she’d learned in training.
Finally, Kaede’s shoulders sagged. She wore the faintly comical expression of a child caught stealing cookies as the grave truth spilled from her lips. “I cry during movies. Even the silly comedies. If a student sees me like that, they might tell everyone else. Then no one at the academy will take me seriously again.”
Asuka’s immediate reaction was to laugh. But no, Kaede was being completely serious. Asuka cleared her throat and schooled her features carefully as she digested this information as gracefully as she could. “I see. I understand.”
A certain strainedness in her voice drew Kaede’s narrowed eyes to her face. “You’re laughing at me. You are! I can’t believe it.”
“I would never,” Asuka promised solemnly. And to her credit, her poker face lasted for a good handful of seconds. But the slightest quiver in her lips gave her away, and Kaede flicked her on the shoulder as she finally succumbed to her giggles.
“You are a terrible girlfriend and an even more terrible nurse,” Kaede chastised, an amused grin of her own taking away the sting of her words. “What if I’d been a patient?”
“Then, as your caregiver, it would be my duty to tell you that your powers of focus decline after several consecutive hours of work. And that as counterintuitive as it may seem, not taking breaks negatively impacts your efficiency,” Asuka recited flawlessly, and stuck the tip of her tongue out.
Kaede laughed. “How cheeky, using my own lecture against me.”
“I do hang on to your every word,” Asuka admitted honestly, smiling happily at Kaede’s blush.
Her smartphone buzzed. It was her reminder to leave so that she could stop by the convenience store for snacks and get to the dormitory in time.
Kaede gave her a reluctant look. “Is it time to go?”
Asuka nodded apologetically. “I’ll be back a little later than usual. We’re going to study for next week’s exam.”
“Have fun,” Kaede scooted out from under the kotatsu and pushed herself up to give her a kiss. “I’ll miss you.”
Asuka met her lips softly and pulled her into a prolonged hug. “I love you. See you later tonight.”
On her way out, she gave herself a once-over in the full-length mirror by the door. Her yellow sundress complemented her nicely, though her hair was getting a little long. She pulled a floppy wide-brim hat from the hat rack and adjusted it before nodding contentedly.
Before stepping outside, Asuka unlocked her phone to set another reminder to herself: 8:00 PM - text Kaede so that she remembers to eat.
One effect of living with the older woman - and of sharing certain intimacies with her - was that Asuka had become more confident and responsible. For years, her more sensible sister had meticulously seen to her needs. Cooking, cleaning, helping her study, waking her up. She had such an impeccable sense of time that Asuka sometimes imagined that there was an internal clock built into her brain.
Asuka had wondered at one time if she would be reliant on Nao forever, and in hindsight, she felt a little embarrassed by her dependency. Now that she lived with someone who was sometimes just as forgetful as her, she was surprised to find herself stepping up in a lot of ways. She wasn’t quite as meticulous as Nao, nor as thoughtful. But rather than being taken care of, she and Kaede took care of one another. It was... nice. More than nice.
Between her first adult relationship and her remarkable grades, Asuka felt more capable and mature than ever.
The walk to the store took almost thirty minutes. It could have taken twenty if Asuka had set a brisk pace, but the temperature was warm and she took her time to enjoy the sunshine and the breeze. It was a relatively quiet area. Modest two-floor residences neatly lined the one-lane street She’d seen only a handful of cars in the last ten minutes.
A wall of cool air chilled her skin as she stepped into the doorway with the glass windows and the glowing neon sign. The store owner, Mr. Suzuki, greeted her from behind the register. She cheerfully said hello in response.
As Asuka retrieved a handcart, her phone buzzed in her pocket.
Message from Michi [5:35}: Hi everyone! Machi and I can’t make it today. My cousin Mochi, a massage therapist, is visiting from Canada. We’re going to eat tacos at the aquarium.
Asuka huffed out a laugh. Their excuses were always so oddly specific. She unlocked her phone to write back, absentmindedly turning a corner -
And ran headlong into a tall figure. Her forehead bounced against a darkly-clad shoulder.
Asuka tried to catch herself by stepping back, but her center of balance was too far gone. She cried out in surprise as she tipped backwards, hat falling from her head. She braced for the fall, already mentally apologizing to [name] for making a mess of the shelf full of canned soup - but the moment of impact never came. Bony, smooth fingers caught her around the arms. She allowed herself to be pulled upright and looked up in gratitude-
It was dark and still, and quiet except for a slow, rhythmic beeping that sounded suspiciously like a heart monitor. As consciousness flooded in, Asuka’s breath caught in her throat and the beeping near her head sped up.
“I think she’s waking up,” a soft voice murmured from somewhere to her right. Kaede.
“Thank God,” another voice wavered from her other side, younger and sharper. Nao. It sounded like she was crying. “I-I thought…”
Asuka slowly opened her eyes, not surprised to see the two concerned faces that crowded around her. Surprised, however, at her surroundings.
Fluorescent lights, white walls lined with medical equipment. A hospital.
“Asuka,” Kaede breathed, and stroked her cheek. “I’m so glad that you’re okay.”
“Hi…” Asuka reached up to lightly squeeze Kaede’s hand, through her eyes were drawn to the tears running down Nao’s face. “What… happened? Why am I -”
Kaede frowned. “You don’t remember passing out?”
Asuka closed her eyes, trying to focus. Nao spoke up before she could. “Asuka, Asuka, that doesn’t matter right now. I’m so sorry. If I’d known you were sick, I would have brought you to a doctor much sooner -”
Asuka reached out with her free hand to grasp Nao’s with her own, smiling hazily at the fleeting thought that she was finally spending time with her two favorite people together. That is, until Nao’s words fully sank in.
“Wait… sick?” she repeated with confusion. “I don’t feel sick.” Of course, she’d accumulated enough medical knowledge by now to know that there were many major illnesses that could very easily advance to an incurable stage before the patient feels definitively ill. Her stomach lurched as her mind supplied her with a long list of possible illnesses.
“No, no!” Kaede quickly cut in. “They haven’t actually found anything. A-at least, not anything diagnosable.”
Asuka blinked, looking from Kaede to Nao, then back to Kaede. “Huh?”
“You fainted in Sakuya and Itsuki’s room,” Nao explained. There was a nervous flutter of fingers against her hand. Nao was fidgeting. Which was unusual since she was normally so poised. Asuka nodded encouragingly at her, rubbing her thumb over the back of her hand in an attempt to reassure her. Nao drew in a shaky breath. “You went to the bathroom, and you didn’t come out. I found you laying on the floor. You were still breathing, but we couldn’t... couldn’t wake you up. So I called an ambulance.”
Asuka tilted her head. Try as she might, she couldn’t remember being in Sakuya and Itsuki’s room at all. The last time she could recall going there, it was two weeks before, when they watched Hanabi .
“Did I miss movie night?” she wondered aloud, and something about the question made Kaede frown, though the expression was so subtle and fleeting that Asuka would have missed it if she hadn’t spent months in close proximity to her.
If Nao was similarly bothered, she didn’t show it. “No. You arrived right before me. The four of us studied until eight or so, and then we watched Kimi no Todoke , just like we planned.” She looked questioningly at Asuka, as if to gauge if any of this was jogging her memory. It wasn’t, but Asuka nodded anyway.
“It’s really not important,” Nao gave her an apologetic smile, like it was silly of her to have troubled her with such trivial details as the order in which she arrived or the name of the movie they watched. “Just focus on getting better. Nothing else matters.”
Asuka couldn’t help but blush under that strange but familiar intensity. “Nao…” she said, feeling touched and lucky to have such a sweet sister, but never really knowing how to to respond in moments like this.
She was saved from having to formulate a more eloquent response, because Nao just kept on talking. “The doctor told me that they had to give you a blood transfusion because you were severely anemic, though they haven’t found a specific cause. Your organs seem healthy.”
Asuka nodded. Healthy organs were good at least.
“They ran a couple more tests last night, and if the results are normal, I think they’re going to let you go home.”
At this, Asuka smiled. She did hate having to fall asleep in an unfamiliar bed.
“I’ll take as many days off from class as need be. That way I can stay with you and keep an eye on you until everything’s back to normal.”
“I feel fine as it is,” Asuka said honestly. “Really, I’d hate for you to go through so much trouble.” For all her childhood ambitions of being a nurse, she’d grown to dislike the feeling of being a patient. If the tests came back normal and the hospital gave her a clean bill of health, she would much prefer to resume life as usual.
Just then, a ringtone filled the room with chipper electronic notes. Nao, perhaps expecting a call, had her phone in her hand in less than a second. Her eyes darted quickly to the screen and Asuka followed her gaze to an unfamiliar number, right before Nao hit Ignore.
“Don’t be silly,” she insisted quietly. “It’s no trouble at all. I’d do anything for you. Anything.”
Asuka squirmed a little and gave Kaede a ‘help me’ look, to which she smiled consolingly. “It’s up to you, Asuka. Barring anything -”
Nao’s phone rang again. She silenced it immediately and murmured an apology.
“Barring anything unexpected,” Kaede resumed, “the doctor said you can go back to class immediately. But if you wanted to take a few days off, I’d be happy to catch you up on what you missed.”
“I really shouldn’t, not with the exam coming up. Could you imagine if I lost my grade point lead to Itsuki? She’d never let me hear the end of it.”
“I’d imagine not,” Nao acceded, though she looked a little sad. It occurred to Asuka that Nao hadn’t made that offer solely out of concern for her health, but also because she wanted to spend more time together. Asuka made a note to herself to make it up to her somehow… just, not in a way that would impact Nao’s grades. After all, what kind of big sister would let her younger sibling slack off in classes to take care of her when she wasn’t even feeling sick?
Her phone rang again. This time, she took it, excusing herself with a murmur of apology.
Asuka watched Nao as she stepped outside and quietly shut the door behind her. Her voice when she answered the phone was soft and muffled. It faded away altogether as her footsteps carried her down the hallway in search of a more private space.
A few minutes after Nao left, a bespectacled old nurse came into Asuka’s room to discuss her lab results (which were perfectly normal), and to question her about other symptoms she may have experienced recently (of which none were particularly alarming, or relevant to her anemia problem).
An hour later, she was discharged - though it took another hour or so of Nao fussing over her for her to be on her way.
It wasn’t until they sat down next to each other on the train home that Kaede began to visibly relax. The shift was so subtle that Asuka wondered if she’d imagined it. Though, now that she really took the time to look at her, there was a lingering pensiveness that seemed to drape itself over her like a heavy fabric. Her movements were just a bit slower. Her expressions were just a bit dulled.
“Nao worries about me way too much,” Asuka said as a way of starting conversation.
“She loves you,” Kaede replied simply, slipping an arm around her shoulders. Asuka shifted her weight toward her, leaning against her so that both of them could enjoy the proximity.
“I know,” she chuckled. “She reminds me of a mother hen. Not that I can blame her. I wasn’t exactly the most confidence-inspiring big sister when we were young.”
“Young? From what I hear, you weren’t the most confidence-inspiring big sister up until a year ago,” Kaede teased.
Kaede laughed softly. “I’m sorry. That was mean of me.” Asuka wasn’t really offended of course, and Kaede knew this. But rather than play along with her mock-wounded reaction and soothe her with kisses like she normally would, she gazed out the window at the passing buildings. “In truth, my relationship with my sister was a lot like yours with Nao.”
“Oh?” Asuka’s curiosity was piqued. It was common knowledge among students that Kaede’s sister Haruko had received a Nightingale Award. But Kaede rarely mentioned her at all.
Kaede nodded, looking back at Asuka with a smile that didn’t quite permeate the somberness in her eyes. “Our teachers always thought of her as the smart sister. The sensible and dependable one. And who could blame them? She always did take excellent care of me.”
“You know,” Asuka commented, “when I first met you, I definitely wouldn’t have expected you to be me in this comparison.”
Kaede gave her a sidelong glance. “You mean the day I wore my nurse’s uniform to class and didn’t realize it until I went home that night?”
“I had no idea,” Asuka admitted. “I would have worn my training uniform if it weren’t for Nao.”
Kaede shook her head in incredulous amusement, leaning against her slightly. “My, what a pair we make!”
“We do, it’s true! But you were telling me about Haruko.”
And just like that, the pensive look was back in full force. “Mm, it’s nothing important. I’m just idly reminiscing.”
“Still, I like hearing your thoughts.”
Kaede smiled appreciatively at her and slipped her hand into Asuka’s. “When I met Miyuki, no one was more critical of our relationship than Haruko. For all that she teased and complained, I think she liked being relied upon.”
Asuka nodded in understanding. “That makes sense.”
“I like that we take care of each other,” Kaede said. “As easy as it was to be taken care of, I’m glad for the opportunity to be capable in my own right.”
Asuka couldn’t help but grin because she remembered having these exact thoughts from the day of the incident. “Me too.” Not for the first time, she felt that she and Kaede were truly drawn together by fate.
There was more on Kaede’s mind than the apparent similarities between Haruko and Nao. But Asuka knew not to push any further. She trusted that if there was anything they needed to discuss, Kaede would speak when she was ready.
All in all, it took Kaede less than a week.
They were laying in bed with the curtains open, gazing up at a clear, starry sky, when she finally spoke up.
“Your sister wasn’t joking about the severe anemia.”
Asuka snuggled in a little closer, feeling Kaede’s heartbeat against her cheek, letting her know through the subtle movement that she was awake and listening.
“You nearly died.” Kaede’s fingers brushed through her hair. “The ER nurse had to give you an emergency blood transfusion. They were able to stabilize you without any complications. But no one could explain how you lost so much blood in the first place. There were no wounds. No track marks. No internal bleeding. Anything chronic would have showed symptoms long before you got to that point. But there was nothing. Aside from missing more than three pints of blood, you were perfectly healthy.”
Asuka rolled to her side and crawled up a little so that she could see her face. Kaede’s beautiful features were outlined by moonlight, her silver-green eyes transfixed on Asuka. It was the kind of sight that might have led to making love on any other night, but the look on Kaede’s face was an altogether foreign one. She looked… fearful. Her grip around Asuka’s waist was just a little too tight for comfort.
“You’re not going to lose me,” Asuka promised.
“From a medical perspective, none of it makes sense,” Kaede said.
Kaede sighed, giving her an apologetic look. “Nao warned me not to push you for any details.”
Asuka frowned in surprise. “She did?”
“She wanted you to focus on recovery and avoid any unnecessary stress.”
Well, that did sound exactly like Nao. Asuka felt a stab of sympathy for Kaede. No wonder she’d been so reluctant to speak her mind.
“But you're afraid of it happening again,” Asuka prompted.
“How could I not be?” Kaede asked desperately. “There was no warning whatsoever. You looked perfectly normal when you left the house. I didn’t even know that something was wrong until Nao called me at one AM. If there’d been a diagnosis or any kind of reasonable explanation...”
Asuka exhaled, not really knowing what to say. She’d gone over the events of that night several times even without Kaede’s prompting. After an experience like that, how could she not? But despite her best efforts, there were still these wide, gaping holes in her memory. Ordinarily, she would have just attributed it to tiredness or a bad memory, but now...
Now there was Kaede, laying next to her beneath the window in a night lit up by stars, unable to enjoy any of it because she was afraid. And her fear was understandable, Asuka knew this. She racked her mind for words that would put her at ease, and found none that were truthful. She wasn’t sure if she could lie to Kaede, even if she wanted to. Kaede was too perceptive, and Asuka had never been a great liar.
Finally, Asuka settled for the truth. They took care of each other. That’s what they did.
“I’m scared too,” she admitted. Kaede ran her fingers along the small of her back in consolation. “The truth is… I wouldn’t be able to tell you the details of that night.”
Kaede’s brows drew together curiously. “Why not?”
“Because I don’t remember any of it,” Asuka sighed. “I went inside the convenience store to get snacks for movie night and… that was it. The next thing I remember was the hospital.”
Kaede thought back, searching for a middle point. “Ah! Nao mentioned watching Kimi no Todoke. Do you remember that?”
Asuka puffed out a breath and shook her head. “I don’t even remember arriving at the dormitory.”
“Hmm. Did anything strange happen at the store?”
“No, nothing…” Asuka didn’t feel as certain about that as she should and searched her mind for something she was sure she’d forgotten. “Wait… I think I ran into someone.”
This drew Kaede’s attention. “Someone you knew?”
Asuka squeezed her eyes shut and tried to bring herself back to that moment. In her numerous attempts to piece together what had happened, this was always where the blackout began. She’d rounded the corner to the aisle with all the chips. Mr. Suzuki was talking to her about his daughter and her head was turned in his direction. She collided with someone. They caught her from falling backwards, their fingers cold against her arm. She opened her mouth to thank them and… and…
She gave up. “I’m really not sure. I’m sorry. I can’t remember their face.”
Kaede considered this for a moment, some amount of dread slipping into her expression. “Is it possible that that person slipped you something? Is it possible that you didn’t even -” she cut herself off mid-thought. “No. You were definitely at the dormitory. I have concrete proof of that.”
Now that was a surprise. “You do?”
Kaede nodded and pulled her smartphone out from under her pillow. The blue-ish light from the screen illuminated her profile, giving her an almost ethereal aura… at least, until she had to squint with the phone a few inches from her nose since she wasn’t wearing her glasses.
Once she found when she was looking for, she handed her phone over. Asuka found herself looking at a series of unfamiliar text messages.
Asuka [8:01]: Hi! ｡^‿^｡ How’s grading going? Have you eaten yet?
Kaede [8:01]: The end is within sight! And I’m just about to.
Kaede [8:02]: What about you?
Asuka [8:03]: We just finished studying. Sakuya made soup!!
Kaede [8:04]: What kind of soup?
Asuka [8:04]: Delicious soup!!!
And there, beneath the text, Asuka saw herself smiling up at the camera with a spoon full of some kind of delicious-looking chicken-cabbage-noodle concoction. She salivated a little. “Aww,” Asuka whined. “I would have liked to have remembered eating that.”
Kaede, who had been watching her reaction, wore an expression of bewilderment. “Wow. You really don’t remember.”
Asuka shook her head pathetically. “No. Though, now I know for sure that I was definitely in Sakuya and Itsuki’s room. I recognize that poster.” Her hand went to her forehead, her heart racing. This whole situation was surrealistic and bizarre. “Maybe… maybe there’s a simple explanation to all this. You know, I’ve always had a really bad memory.”
Kaede gave her an inscrutable look. “Have you forgotten whole chunks of time before?”
Asuka’s mind drifted to picture books and hospital visits, and a faceless, eventless void where there must have been a childhood. “Yes. But… that’s normal, right? We all forget things as time passes.”
Even as the words fell from her lips, Kaede’s expression reflected what she already knew: that these experiences really weren’t normal at all.