Ban was too late, and he knew it. The fact that he’d just heard was no excuse; you don’t finally show up at a friend’s grave over a year later. Still, it was better than never coming, and it was that thought that propelled him amongst the graves, bouquet of mismatched flowers in his hand.
He stopped short when he saw a woman up ahead. A part of him hoped desperately she was there for someone else, or it was one of his sisters, but he knew: that was Sen’s grave, and she was Umeko.
He was about to leave, but again he was too slow. She was looking straight at him, not bothering to mask her surprise. “Ban?” Her voice wasn’t as boisterous as he remembered, but it didn’t waver. He said an internal thank you to whomever was responsible for the fact she wasn’t crying.
“Uh, hi, Umeko,” he said, taking a few awkward steps forward. “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” She didn’t say anything, and as the silence went on, he couldn’t take it anymore. Everything he’d been stewing over the trip here seemed to come spilling out of his mouth. “Umeko, I’m so sorry. I didn’t hear until just now, and— I feel really bad for not being here when— I’m so, so sorry.”
Her face contorted into a smile. “You’re here now.”
“Ban,” she said, still smiling, “we’re detectives. We all understood when you weren’t here. Sometimes you’re busy on a case. Sometimes you get shot. It’s all part of the job.”
There was something very wrong about the way she said that, even to Ban’s insensitive ear. At first he couldn’t pinpoint it, but then he remembered the last time she lost someone she had loved. He looked closer, but Umeko didn’t move. Her smile didn’t look forced, but then, she’d probably had a year of non-stop practice.
He fleetingly wished Jasmine were here, so he could ask her if over this past year Umeko had been pretending like she was now, but he didn’t really need the answer. She was smiling and happy on the surface, because people expected her to be. Because—and this thought made something heavy settle in his stomach—there was no one left to tell her to be herself.
Although it had been many years since, he still remembered the day he saw the real Umeko with sharp clarity. It had been a revelation for him, and for his opinions about her. It wasn’t a problem to remember what he had said. “It’s okay.”
Her eyes widened as her smile fell. It seemed she remembered that day with as clearly as he did. Umeko’s eyes darted in indecision.
“You don’t have to force it,” Ban said again. That seemed to break something inside Umeko, and she rushed forward into his arms, sobbing.
As she let out the tears of the past year, he realized just how isolated she was making herself. He resolved then and there to help her through this. She wasn’t alone anymore.