Author's Note: Here we are at the final chapter. As this story comes to an end, I'd like to take a moment to thank everyone who has read all the way through. I'm glad I was able to share this story with people who enjoyed it. Thank you all for reading.
Final Chapter: Wish
"What happened?" Hiroko asked, drinking deeply from his mug. Gran had left the kitchen to deliver cocoa to the others and give them a sense of privacy. As humiliating as it had been to be yelled at in front of Hiroko, her grandmother knew how to be tactful when it mattered the most.
"The camera cut out when Koruka was pleading with me, right?" Sakura knew the video well at this point. Try as she might to avoid seeing it, the recorded evidence of her battle with Koruka was playing everywhere she turned. Hiroko nodded and urged her to continue.
"I was ready to do it," Sakura said. "I thought taking him out was the right thing to do. When I went to end it, though, something happened."
"Something he did, or…?" Hiroko asked. Sakura took a swig of cocoa before denying the suggestion.
"Neither of us did it," Sakura said. "Not intentionally, anyway. When he knew I was going to do it his energy flared up in response and interacted with mine. I can't really explain it, but it was warm…Comforting, almost. In the split second that my conviction wavered, our powers worked together and I saw another vision."
"One of Koruka's jacked up fantasies?"
"No," Sakura said, clutching her mug with both hands. "This wasn't something he wanted. It was something I wanted, something I'd wondered about since the day I learned the truth."
"What did you see?" Hiroko was hooked on her every word. She admired his attention for a moment before getting back to business.
"I saw the life that could have been," Sakura told him. "Our powers blended together and I saw the world I could've had, that ideal reality where nothing bad ever happened and the name Koruka never existed."
The flash of the camera robbed Sakura of her sight. She was starting to see spots and it only got worse with every picture. She held her pose as long as she could before the camera blinded her again. This was some new kind of torture. It had to be. It was hard enough to stand there in the hot summer sun dressed in all black without having to deal with the business end of digital photography.
"One more!" called the woman who'd spent the better part of an hour snapping away with her camera.
"No!" Sakura shouted, a smile creeping onto her face. "If I have to deal with that flash any longer it's going to do permanent damage. What kind of graduation present would that be? Besides, you've taken enough to fill an entire album and the ceremony hasn't even started."
"Alright," sighed the woman, lowering her instrument of visual torture in defeat. "I'm just so proud of you, Sakura. This is your big day!"
"Come on, Mom!" Sakura laughed and tried not to blush. "I still want to meet up with my friends before they make us sit down for an hour."
"Let Sakura have some fun," said the man standing next to her mother. Her dad was looking sharp in a suit, although she had no clue how he wasn't sweating. "You can play paparazzi later."
"Why won't either of you let me love my daughter?!" wailed her mother dramatically. "She's growing up and moving on with her life faster than I can handle! Soon she'll be moving in with that boyfriend of hers and having kids and I'm going to grow old all by myself!"
"You still have me!" her father said, puffing out his chest proudly. "We can be old and alone together!" Her mother looked the man up and down and shrugged.
"Better than nothing," she said. Sakura tried not to laugh as her father hung his head in defeat. "Unless Kiyo decides to live at home forever…?" She raised her eyebrows at the proposition and gave the fourth member of the family a wink.
"I think I'll pass," Kiyo said, backing up a step. He turned to Sakura and mouthed "help me" as their mother inched closer to her youngest with her arms out. Kiyo was growing into his teenage years better than a lot of the other freshman at the Tsukuta School. He never really had a lanky phase. She'd heard more than a few girls talking about him around the campus. Sakura knew the next three years of his high school career were going to be a breeze for him.
She turned to the girl who had shouted her name. Jogging up to her with a grace Sakura would never be able to match in her graduation gown was Teri Kyono. Sakura had a moment of insecurity when she saw the way her friend looked. Teri was the only girl in the school who could take such an unflattering outfit and wear it that well.
"There you are!" Teri said excitedly when she reached Sakura's side. "Everyone's hanging out by the fountain. We were waiting for you." Teri leaned in so only Sakura would hear her whisper. "A certain earth carrier a little more anxiously than the rest of us, I might add." Sakura felt her heart skip a beat.
"Teri Kyono, how are you moving in those heels?" Sakura's mother asked. "I'd have broken an ankle by now!" Teri lifted the hem of her gown to show off the white heels she was wearing.
"Oh, these?" Teri said sweetly. "I found them at a dress shop in the mall." She turned to Sakura and winked. "Trish hooked me up." A sneeze captured Teri's attention like a bird spotting something shiny. Her eyes lit up when she saw Kiyo and she grinned. "Look who's rocking a new haircut!" she said brightly. "Short hair looks good on you, little man."
"Thanks?" Kiyo ran a hand through his finger-length hair.
"A bunch of us are meeting up by the fountain if you wanna…" Teri batted her eyelashes and struck a pose that had sent other men into cardiac arrest. When she spoke again, her voice was hot and heavy. "…come with me?"
"I promised Mom I'd hold the camera for her when Sakura walks," he said, oblivious to Teri's flirtatious suggestion. Teri doubled over as if he'd punched her in the gut.
"Still immune as always, huh?" Teri giggled and straightened her back. "If you don't fall for me soon I'm going to get self-conscious." Sakura took her friend by the arm and dragged her back towards the fountain.
"I'll see you after the ceremony!" Teri called, waving to Sakura's family. "Tell Granny Maur I'm looking forward to the party!"
"You have got to stop hitting on my brother," Sakura chided when they were far enough away from her parents. "You live with my grandmother! You're practically family! If I have to spend one more get-together watching you solicit a minor over dinner I'm kicking your ass."
"It's so easy for you to say that, but do you know what I'm dealing with here?!" Teri bellowed melodramatically. "I'm the only one in our group who's still single! Jill has Dan and you snatched Hiroko up before I even had a chance."
"Weren't you the one who broke it off with Derek?" Sakura asked doubtfully. Teri briefly broke character to glare and mutter threateningly about bringing up her ex. "Is this really that big of an issue to you?"
"Of course it is!" Teri moaned. "Do you know what it feels like to be this gorgeous and be the only single girl in the circle? Maybe I'm too beautiful…You and Jill managed to pull boys, after all."
"What is that supposed to mean?" growled Sakura.
"Seriously?" Teri cocked an eyebrow at the dark carrier. "Take a good look at yourself, like a real good look," Teri waved her hands around Sakura, "and then look at me. Come on. Do the math."
"Are your parents coming to graduation?" Sakura asked as serenely as possible.
"We're on speaking terms again, but asking them to come to a school full of carriers is a bit out of the question," Teri said. "Why?"
"I just wanted to know if they were going to have to watch their daughter get strangled to death," Sakura said. Teri yelped as Sakura lunged at her and bolted across the courtyard to the fountain. "How are you outrunning me?! You're in heels!"
"Hey!" shouted Jill as Teri sprinted into the relative safety of their friends. "Stop chasing Teri!"
"If you knew what she said about how we look-!"
"I don't care if she said that gown makes you look like a sentient trash bag!" Jill said, pushing her glasses into place. "There will be no murder today!"
"No murder!" Jill took a calming breath and sat on the edge of the fountain next to Dan. He was the only one not wearing a cap and gown and the only one who didn't attend the Tsukuta School. He was here for Jill. "You can kill her after the ceremony."
"So…" Sakura crossed her arms. "Instead of strangling her I get to bludgeon her with the frame they give us with the diplomas?"
"You know, my girlfriend could burn me to a crisp if she ever felt like it and yet I'm still more afraid of Sakura," Dan observed. He stroked his chin in thought and snapped his fingers as an idea struck him. "I bet it has something to do with those homicidal rages of yours."
"I've got a rage with your name all over it, Dan," Sakura said.
"I think it's cute when you threaten our lives," Hiroko said, sliding up to her and kissing her on the cheek. She smiled up at him, the touch of his soft lips calming her down faster than a prescription pill could. "Hey, beautiful."
"You missed the photo shoot," Sakura said, nudging him. "I think my mom wants to work for a magazine one day." She jumped back from Hiroko's embrace as Jill's earlier comment echoed through her mind. "You don't really think I look like a trash bag, do you?"
"You look amazing!" Jill exclaimed, leaping up so suddenly that Dan almost fell backwards into the fountain. She took Sakura's hands and squeezed them. "I'm so jealous of how great that gown looks on you!"
"Are you kidding me?" Sakura made a show of checking out her oldest friend. "I can see your curves through it! You fill it out so much better than I do!" Jill squealed and started jumping in place with Sakura.
"We're graduating!" Jill cheered. "We're gorgeous and we're graduating! I'm so glad I'm with my best friend and my boyfriend today! I feel bad for any single girl on a day like today!"
"Shots fired," Teri said, holding her hand over her chest and jerking around as if Jill's words were bullets aimed at her heart. "I'm bleeding out from that one…"
"That's for whatever you said about me," Jill said. "I don't need to know what it was to know it was nasty." She grinned at Sakura. "I can't believe you went along with that without asking questions."
"The shrieking and jumping threw me off," Sakura admitted, laughing. "Dear God, could you imagine if we were actually like that?"
"You'd officially be the two most annoying girls I'd ever have met," Dan chimed in brightly.
"And you're one comment away from being the most dumped-on-graduation-day guy I've ever met," Jill muttered. Dan opened his mouth and Jill cut him off. "And I swear that if you say that sentence made no sense I'm shoving you into the fountain. It got the point across." Dan shut his mouth and held up his hands in surrender.
"Congratulations, everyone!" said someone behind Sakura. She turned around to see who was approaching their circle. Her platinum blonde hair was held up in a bun on top of her head save for the two long strands of black framing her face. The woman's dark eyeliner and lipstick made a bold statement given her pale complexion. Sakura was almost sure she knew who she was although she couldn't put a name to her.
"Kitana!" Jill said brightly. Now that she had a name Sakura remembered how she knew her. Kitana was an art teacher in the school and a talented painter. Several of her pieces decorated the offices of the senior staff. Jill had taken every class she could with her.
"I'm so excited to see you walk across that stage!" Kitana said, flashing her perfectly white teeth in a grin. "Have you kept up with your charcoal work?"
"Mm-hm. I've been using a desk lamp to play with some different lighting effects," Jill said.
"You've always had such a talent for conveying drama with your work," Kitana said. "I still have that piece you drew for your midterm last year. It leaves me breathless every time I see it. The feeling of being trapped, of suffocating in a prison and fearing what it means to break free…"
"Thank you very much," Jill said. Sakura could see how uncomfortable the praise was making her and couldn't help but grin. If anyone had a talent that demanded respect it was Jill. She was going to have to learn how to take a compliment if she kept up with her art.
"I hope you'll come visit me if you can find some free time in the adult world." Kitana locked her fingers together behind her back and swayed gently from side to side. "Verdon and Bleu would love it if you kept in touch, too. We'll all have to go out again in the future. In a couple of years I'll finally be able to show you that bar we practically live at."
"Definitely!" Jill exclaimed.
"Great!" Kitana checked her watch. "I hate to break up your social circle here, but it's time for you all to find your seats. Congratulations again! To all of you!" Sakura thanked the woman and gave each of her friends a quick hug. She was going in a totally different direction than the rest of them. Her seat was on the stage.
After a few words by the principal, Dr. Sadako Noya took to the podium and announced the first of the student speakers. Each element was represented by the student who stood at the top of their respective class. One of them doubled as the valedictorian and spoke last. This was the first year where there were more than six student speakers. Sakura listened to her peers and fought down her nerves as her turn to speak came closer and closer.
The student representing the water carriers of the school finished his address with a shout-out to his friends that sent the crowd into a frenzy. Sadako returned to the podium after he'd sat back down. "And now we have our final student speaker. For the first time in the history of the Tsukuta School, we had to set seven chairs out for the class representatives. Even though we had to scrap any idea of symmetry thanks to this student…"
Sadako wagged a finger at Sakura. The way the teachers and administrators around her on the stage chuckled made Sakura think Sadako was only half-kidding. "…I believe she's worth it. It is my honor and privilege to introduce the very first representative of the dark element and your class valedictorian, Sakura Urematsu."
Sakura walked up to the podium with a stack of index cards in her hand. She set her speech down in front of her and stared out into the cheering crowd. Hiroko was sitting near the stage, beaming up at her. She waved to him as the applause died down and cleared her throat.
"Friends, family, and fellow classmates…" Sakura began, reading the top card word for word. When did she write this, again? She couldn't remember sitting down and scribbling out her speech. It was her handwriting, her messy, curving letters, but reading it out loud made her feel like the words belonged to someone else.
"We are here today…to…" Sakura looked up from the cards and into the sea of people. She saw Jill cleaning her glasses with the folds of her gown. Teri was sitting a few rows behind Hiroko. When Sakura looked at her, she felt…sad. She felt the pain of loss.
"-Here today to celebrate the beginning…" Sakura trailed off again and peered out into the rows of family seated around the students in a semi-circle. Hiroko's mother was one of the few on her feet. She was clutching the handles sticking out of his sister's wheelchair.
"-The beginning of the rest…" Sakura saw her mother and father, both of them looking proud. The calm, collected face of her brother stood out to her as clearly as if he were swinging a flag back and forth above his head. "…the rest of…" Sakura whispered, gazing down at Kiyo.
And Sakura became aware that it was all nothing more than another vision.
"I can't do this," Sakura announced, tearing up her index cards. A murmur swept through the crowd and several students started whispering to each other. "I was going to stand here and tell you a few funny stories, congratulate you all on making it, and hopefully leave with a few words of wisdom. I can't do that, though. Half of what was on these cards never happened. They're all lies, as fake as this graduation."
Sakura grabbed the sides of the podium and used it to steady herself. "As amazing as this is, I know it's not real. This is just a beautiful dream, and as much as I want it to last forever, I know it has to end. All dreams do eventually. No matter how much you kick and scream, you're still going to wake up.
"I wish I never had to leave this place. I wish I could spend the rest of my life here," Sakura picked Teri's face out of the crowd. "That way I wouldn't have to say goodbye a second time. Even though I know it wasn't real, having a chance to see some of you again, the brief time where I could hear you call my name or congratulate me, was more than I could've asked for.
"The worst part of it all…is that this didn't have to be a dream. This is a future I could've had, a future we could've had. No one died here. I didn't have to watch the people I love come to a premature end. In this fantasy, this possibility that will never come to be, I have everyone I've ever loved by my side…" Sakura sniffed, her eyes threatening tears, "…and they're all happy.
"The truth isn't nearly as perfect as this. Reality isn't going to give me the fairytale ending that I wanted. I've lost my chance at a perfect ending if only because…" Sakura turned to her parents, "…I can't have all of you with me.
"Knowing what I do now, knowing how close I was to living this life…is almost enough to kill me. I lost it when I lost Kiyo. He asked for help more times than I can count. If just one of us had listened to him, if we hadn't ignored his cries for help, we could've salvaged this perfect world.
"I wonder what would've happened if my mother had taken him home when he begged her that day? If she'd driven him home and he never saw Kim again, maybe he'd still be Kiyo. If Hiroko had gone out of his way to tell someone about the turmoil he was suffering with inside, would that have been enough? When Jill saw the madness taking hold of him she kept it to herself. There's a chance she could've gotten him the help he needed before the tragedy that took the lives of my parents.
"I could spend a lifetime thinking about the 'what-ifs' involving everyone else but what would be the point? They're not to blame for all of this. The truth is that none of this should've moved past me. I had forgotten entirely until he told me about it. Kiyo had come to me first. He had come to me for help and I failed him.
"If I had only listened to him that night he came into my room then none of this would've happened. I had the power to make this dream a reality and I let it slip through my fingers." Sakura wiped away the tears streaming down her cheeks.
"I thought I knew how to make it right again," Sakura whispered. "I was wrong. Kiyo doesn't deserve to die any more than the other victims of this war, because that's what he is: A victim. He deserves better and I…" Sakura stepped back from the podium and watched the fictional world begin to fade. It crumbled away in pieces, the sight of lost loved ones fading into the abyss.
"I made a promise over the graves of my parents," Sakura said as she woke from the vision. She was once again standing over the light carrier, posed to strike the final blow. Koruka was cowering on the ground, pleading with her silently. "I swore I would find my brother and take him home. Today is the day I fulfill that promise."
Sakura closed her eyes and made a wish. If instinct had guided her into discovering new powers before, then let it grant her one more miracle. The darkness surged in response to her prayer and collided with the warmth of Koruka's light.
SIX MONTHS AFTER THE FALL OF THE BARRIER
Hiroko left school the week before spring break. He told her he was going to visit his mother and sister, which, although not a lie, was only part of the truth. The last she'd heard, Mai had had surgery on her legs and was currently in physical therapy. Sakura just thought he wanted to be there with her. What she hadn't known was that Central Festival kicked off the same day as spring break. Hiroko spent the extra time off he took organizing a reunion for the opening night of the festival. It was thanks to his efforts that Sakura was attending the festival for the first time in years.
The festival went with a medieval theme this year. Vendors and game booths were styled after stables or workshops or gray stone castles. Knights paraded through the streets and occasionally paired off to showcase their swordplay. Most of the children present were fascinated by the armor-clad heroes. Melly, Kelsey, and Jacob, however, had their sights set on taking down a dragon.
The dragon costume Hiroko had found could pass for pathetic on a good day. The zipper stuck out at an awkward angle on the neck and the green fabric had been patched at every seam. It was the person wearing the costume that made it larger than life. Jill was putting on one hell of a show for the kids by spewing fire out of the mouth. Her roar left something to be desired, though.
Melly, Kelsey, and Jacob stood at the side of a single man. He was their captain in this fight and he took his job seriously. "We can take the beast down!" Kiyo shouted, waving a plastic sword around gallantly. The kids mirrored the gesture and cheered. "On my mark, we flank the devil!"
Sakura leaned against a stone wall a few yards away and watched her brother command his troops. Verdon and Bleu stood to one side of her and Hiroko occupied the other. "The kids really seem to have taken a liking to him," Bleu observed. "I've never seen Melanie open up so quickly to someone."
"Much as I love spending some quality time with the man who tried to kill all of us," Verdon mumbled, "I can't say I'm comfortable with him around the kids."
"He's not the same person he was," Sakura insisted. Her princess costume was itchy and uncomfortable. Sakura had never been one for dresses, but Hiroko had been so proud of himself she couldn't find it in her heart to refuse to wear it. "Koruka doesn't exist anymore."
"You can say that all you want," Verdon said. "Doesn't change the way I feel about him." The nature carrier was wearing his usual tank top and jeans ensemble. Hiroko hadn't even gotten the jester hat out of the bag when Verdon shot him down.
"My element overpowered his and turned his light against him. Everything that led him to become Koruka was erased along with his memories of Kim," Sakura explained for the hundredth time. No matter how many times she told Verdon that her brother was harmless he wasn't interested in listening. "He can't even use his element anymore, unless you count that light trick he can do with his hands…"
"Gave him a clean slate, huh?" Verdon huffed. "I'm glad you got your brother back Sakura, but if I even think he's slipping back into his old habits I won't hesitate to take him away from you again."
"Verdon!" Bleu held her hands in front of her mouth in shock. She wasn't the only person to take offense to that. Hiroko was practically foaming at the mouth.
"Why can't you just trust Sakura for once?" Hiroko growled. "She saved all of our asses and you can't take her word on this?" He was wearing armor he'd made himself out of stone. He even had a sword tied to his waist, which she doubted security would let slide if they knew wasn't plastic. Sakura spared the costume a look of longing before addressing Verdon's threat.
"He doesn't have to," Sakura said. She met Verdon's glare and didn't waver. "I know Koruka is a thing of the past. Verdon can keep watch over Kiyo as long as he wants. The only thing he'll see is a man making the most of the second chance I gave him."
Verdon kept the staring contest going and Sakura stubbornly refused to back down. The tension between them built to an oppressive level. She could feel it in the air, weighing down on anyone who came too close. Verdon snorted out a laugh and diffused the situation.
"That's all I needed to see," Verdon said, satisfied with the results of his test. Sakura let out a breath. Without the distraction of conflict she once again became all too conscious of the scratchy fabric clinging to her body. "You've grown up a lot, kid."
"Hey, you're speaking to the one and only dark carrier, hero of the barrier conflict!" Sakura proclaimed, pounding her chest and repeating the title a local news station had given her. It was so ridiculous that she had to memorize it. She was considering introducing herself like that from now on. "Show some respect!"
"I'll give you your respect when I'm good and ready!" Verdon shouted in the same obnoxious tone she'd used. "And I will not be ready until I have feasted!"
"Charge!" Kiyo roared, reminding everyone that there was still a fierce battle waging against a vicious beast. The kids ran forward and leaped up onto Jill. When they'd managed to knock her over they started clubbing her with plastic blades. The fight was so one-sided that Sakura almost wanted to lend the mean old dragon a hand.
"Okay, I think she's dead," Kiyo said, wincing with every blow his army delivered to the dragon. He looked over at Sakura, his eyes wide with concern for Jill. It wasn't hard to see why. She was taking a nasty beating. Melly had climbed up on the dragon's stomach and was stomping on her aggressively. "Good job, troops!" Kiyo tried. "I order you to return to my side immediately so we might feast in honor of our victory!"
Kelsey and Jacob came running back to Kiyo. Melly got in one more kick for good measure before joining them. "In recognition of your victory, you shall be escorted to a private feast by the king and queen personally!" Kiyo pointed to Verdon and Bleu, both of whom picked up on their cue without missing a beat.
"Brave warriors, you have saved our kingdom," Bleu said regally, bowing to the kids. "Let us abjure to the dining hall!" Melanie cheered while Kelsey and Jacob giggled. It was nice to see them all having a good time, free from care.
Kelsey slipped past Verdon and tapped Sakura to get her attention. "Thanks for keeping your promise," she said. Sakura had to think for a minute to know what the girl was talking about.
"When I said we'd go to the festival together I meant it," Sakura said. "I'm glad you're having fun."
"Full disclosure?" Kelsey started in her best "mature" voice. "I'm a bit old to be playing games like this. I won't be able to goof around like this when I'm in high school, so I want Melly to have as much fun as she can until then."
"That's very considerate of you," Sakura said, patting the girl on her shoulder.
"Jacob and I used to play like this when we came here with Mom," Kelsey shared. "Even if it's only for tonight, it's fun to act like a little kid again. I think that's why Jacob's doing it too."
"Come on, Kels!" Verdon shouted. "We're getting dinner!"
"Coming!" Kelsey answered. "Are you coming with us, Sakura?"
"I promised a couple of people I'd wait for them here," Sakura confessed. "You go ahead. We'll meet up later tonight and watch the fireworks together." Kelsey nodded and ran off to catch up with Verdon and Bleu.
"Sis?" Kiyo called out to her from his place next to Jill. "I think they really did kill the dragon."
Sakura walked over to Jill and crouched by her head. She poked one of the comically sized eyes on top of the costume. "Well, evil dragon? Is Kiyo right?" She prodded Jill a bit more. "Are you dead?"
"Yes," moaned Jill. She sat up with a loud groan and pulled off the head of her costume. "Those kids pack a punch…Especially the little one. I didn't know someone that small could cause that much pain."
"Sorry," Kiyo said with a frown. "I didn't think they'd go all out like that. Are you alright?"
Jill eyed him warily. Sakura couldn't blame her for being suspicious. This was the man who had aged her into her twenties and enslaved her for two years. He'd taken more from her than almost anyone else he'd wronged when he went by the name "Koruka." Jill was hesitant to trust in Kiyo's intentions, probably would be for the rest of her life.
"I'm fine," Jill said firmly. Kiyo didn't read between the lines of her reaction. A loud rumble came from his stomach and told Sakura he had something else on his mind.
"Good!" he said brightly. "I'm gonna go grab something to eat with the others. I'm starving." He glanced over to Sakura. "You alright waiting for Gran without me?" Sakura waved at the question.
"Go get yourself some mutton from ye olde butcher," Sakura joked. "I've got Hiroko to keep me company." Kiyo didn't need to be told twice. He apologized to Jill again and jogged away in the direction of the twins. "Meet me on the hill for the fireworks!" Sakura shouted after him. He answered in the affirmative with a thumbs-up.
"You weren't kidding about him changing," Jill said as Hiroko hoisted her up to her feet. "I wasn't sure about coming out tonight but he really isn't Koruka anymore, is he?"
"I don't expect you to accept it right away," Sakura told her. "I know you've had a…complicated relationship with him. I'm sorry I can't block it out for you like I did for him."
"Like every other amazing trick I've seen from you, it was a onetime thing, huh?" Jill pawed at her dragon costume and scowled. "Why was I the one to get stuck in this stupid thing?"
"It's your punishment for disappearing for six months without so much as a phone call," Hiroko said immediately. He'd been waiting for the subject to come up. He hadn't expected the bleak response in her body language that came from his comment. Sakura leaned in to ensure she had Jill's attention.
"Listen to me," Sakura said softly. "You'll find him. He's out there somewhere and you're going to find him."
"I know," Jill said, wiping a smudge off her lenses on the costume. "I didn't mean to let it get me down. Sorry, Hiroko. We're here to have fun, not mope around thinking about the past!"
"I love that kind of energy!" Sakura heard Granny Maurine say. The old woman was leading the way for Matthew, who she'd enlisted as her personal pack mule for the evening. The teen was carrying three bags in each hand, all of them from a different vendor. "Makes me feel young again!"
"Really?" Matthew asked bitterly. "Because the way my body hurts from carrying this much crap is making me feel ancient."
"If you were going to take after one of them why couldn't you pick Bleu?" Maurine asked, rolling her eyes. "The last thing I need is another smart mouth. Verdon is vulgar enough for the lot of you."
"What did you buy?" Sakura couldn't fathom how her grandmother had found enough things worth buying to weigh Matthew down like that.
"A few mementos of the night that I thought would look good around the house," Maurine said with a shrug. Sakura had a strange mental image of the woman buying a mace. Matthew's strained expression gave credence to the idea. She'd been wondering what Melly would do if she managed to get her hands on a medieval weapon when her grandmother gasped. "Is it that late already?!"
Sakura scanned the lampposts lining the pathway for a clock. "The fireworks are going to start soon," Sakura said. "We should get to the hill."
"I am not watching the display in this…disaster," Jill stated as she yanked at the dragon costume. "I'm going to change first and meet you up there."
"Really? Can't you just power through it?" Sakura tried, knowing there wasn't a chance in hell of her convincing Jill to stay. "Try to be quick. You know where to meet us, right?"
"It hasn't been that long, Sakura," Jill said. "I'll be back before you know it."
"I wouldn't mind putting everything in the car first, now that you mention it," Maurine confessed.
"Seriously?!" Sakura gasped. "You all know the fireworks are starting in a few minutes, right?"
"Sakura, calm down," her grandmother said, retrieving her keys from her handbag. "We'll be back with time to spare. Stop worrying so much and go stake out a good spot." Jill shuffled away as quickly as the costume would allow and Maurine strolled away at a leisurely pace so Matthew could keep up. A flutter of anxiety made her feel hollow inside. Her tempter flared up in response to the fear and she marched off towards the hill.
"They had all night to take care of this crap," Sakura grumbled to Hiroko. "They had hours to take care of this and they pick right before the fireworks to do it." She came to a relatively even area of ground by the top of the hill and waited for Hiroko to catch up.
"This isn't just about the fireworks, is it?" He wasn't asking so much as confirming the obvious. Hiroko took her hand and traced her knuckles with his thumb. Sakura sighed.
"This is exactly how it went last time," Sakura said, looking around the hill. It was nearly deserted, as always. After all these years this was still the best place to watch the show. She still remembered anxiously waiting for Dan and Jill, the despair that welled up inside when she saw smoke on the horizon…
"Sakura," Hiroko said, holding her hand with both of his. "This is nothing like that night. Everyone will make it by the start of the show. You'll see." It was strange how something so brief, something so simple had been exactly what she wanted to hear. Hiroko always managed to pull through when she needed him, always put her fears to rest and made her feel safe.
Something told her it wasn't what was being said so much as who was saying it.
As if Hiroko had said the magic words, everyone started finding their way up to the hill. "Here we go!" Bleu's voice made her turn away from the man by her side. She saw the water carrier spread a blanket over the grass for them to sit on. "Get comfy. The show's about to start."
"I planned on it," Verdon said, sprawling out along the blanket as if it were meant only for him. Bleu pursed her lips in frustration and he grinned up at her. He stretched and rolled into a sitting position to give the others space to sit. "I can't wait to tell Harrison what he missed. He's gonna be so mad that he couldn't make it!"
Kiyo arrived shortly after Kelsey and Jacob settled down between the twins. Melly puffed out her cheeks, clearly unhappy with the spot she'd ended up with on the edge of the blanket.
"When I was your age my Dad told me a secret," Kiyo said to Melly, intercepting the oncoming tantrum before either Verdon or Bleu had a chance. "Do you want to know what it is?" Melly nodded, her cheeks still flushed. "He said that the best way to watch fireworks wasn't on a blanket. Blankets got nothing on this."
"What is it?" Melanie asked, her fury subsiding by the second.
"It's high up in the sky!" Kiyo exclaimed as he scooped Melanie up into the air. She giggled as he swung her around and sat her on his shoulders. "I'll bet you could catch a firework way up there," he said as she laughed and stretched towards the clear night sky.
Jill was the next person to climb the hill. She was breathing heavy, worn out from what had to have been a challenging battle with the costume. "I thought I'd never get out of that thing…" she said, dropping to the ground near Hiroko. "So glad I don't have to watch this as a dragon."
"This is the perfect night!" Maurine declared as she reached the group. Matthew was a few steps behind, visibly worn down from lugging around the old woman's spoils. He filled in the empty spot next to Bleu on the blanket. "I'm here with both of my grandbabies and all of the children who have overrun my house. The whole family is together!"
Just like Hiroko said, everyone was together when the first firework burst above them. Kiyo stood tall between Sakura and the blanket, hands around Melanie's ankles to keep her from falling as she reached for the colorful shower of sparks trailing through the air above them.
"It's like when we came here with Mom and Dad," Kiyo said softly. "Almost feels like they're here, watching this together again."
"Yeah," Sakura agreed, feeling the same rush of nostalgia that her brother had. "It feels good to be together with everyone," she said. Hiroko tightened his hold on her hand, his warmth making her palm tingle.
Every eruption of color Sakura watched fill the sky drowned her in bliss. The memory of her last visit to the hill faded in the glory of the fireworks above. All the pain of that night was replaced piece by piece with the joy she felt standing with her family and friends.
Sakura wanted to live like that for the rest of her life. She wanted to spend every day surrounded by the people she loved. She wanted to believe that all the challenges were in the past, that the only thing waiting for her in the future was the pure happiness she felt standing under the fireworks with her family. As the colors burst above and shrouded the hill in their light, Sakura dared to wish that the rest of their days could be and perfect as that night.
When Hiroko tugged at her hand and kissed her during the explosive finale, she knew that it would come true.