Things had changed over the years- not by a lot, not all at once, but little by little.
The Detective Boys never disbanded, nobody moved, nobody died, but Ran got her own place after she graduated. Kogoro's detective agency grew, and he had a few interns here and there that ran their time and carried on like clockwork. Eri had moved back in, though the two weren't sleeping in the same bed again (not that they ever said, no, Ayumi had merely made the guess because there was a warmth that wasn't quite there yet). Shinichi-niisan and Heiji-niisan were still best friends; Sonoko and Kazuha and Ran and Sera, they all hung out, had girl's nights. Haibara (Miyano? Shiho? Ai?) would join them when she wasn't working on something with the professor (who she still lived with, who was still like a father to her). Mitsuhiko found the time to balance the Detective Boys and the Science Club-- he was their president, after all, got Teitan High further than it ever had gone before in the finals despite the lacking company. Genta was still their club's strong arm, though what was once body fat was now muscle and height. He towered over most boys in their school by their first year, scared a few third-years back when. His love for food had been channeled into a love of cooking, his hobby when he wasn't solving a case or manhandling criminals. Conan had disappeared. That was that. She'd come to accept it. It still broke her heart.
Ayumi, she felt alone these days. Genta and Mitsuhiko were still there but…
Genta had a girlfriend now, small and sweet and every bit a cook as him, though her skills strayed in the area of sweet-making. Mitsuhiko would deny it until he was blue (Haibara had hurt him, hurt him so bad, and Ayumi was the only one who understood because she'd felt it too, and that pain held him back, more than he let on, and Ayumi supposed he kept it all in while she only mourned to herself) but there was a cute girl with big glasses and a sincere smile who was always looking at him. (He liked her, Ayumi could tell, but he wasn't taking that plunge and she didn't blame him).
She was the only girl left in the Detective Boys, and the only member left who had no other hobbies-- well, she dabbled in makeup as homage to a memory long past, but it was nothing she spent time on. She sorted through and selected cases, she gathered information, she put clues together as much as she could until she had Mitsuhiko's and Genta's help. The days passed, and though each hour took three to pass, she could tell the years were moving quickly, so quickly that it would almost seem right-on-time if she were to receive a letter from Conan. But she didn't. He'd left them a note and hadn't said goodbye, just that he'd be in touch but he never was. She shouldn't have been surprised, not after the fifth empty year (that's what she told herself when she started crying for no reason after a case, when she'd hide away in the bathroom for a few minutes because only Sato would see her there and know, and nobody else needed to see, nobody needed to worry, she was fine, she was fine).
Shinichi, kind as he was, tried to fill Conan's shoes, they could all tell. He was their self-proclaimed mentor, a friend and a protector (there was a fear in him and a fury she only saw when they were in danger, something she could never quite place). He taught them and molded them for a year before he seemed to back off, and she wondered if that was because he knew he couldn't replace Conan, or because he'd deducted that they all felt he couldn't. Besides, he was probably tied up with Ran-neechan. Last she'd heard, he'd moved into that apartment with her when she'd taken the leap from the agency. Haibara, she seemed to keep her distance. Sometimes Ayumi thought she wanted to reach out, but that outstretched hand would retract, and she would be cold again, and eventually it stopped killing her that she wouldn't (no it didn't, she was just used to it, expected it; Mitsuhiko wasn't there yet).
Ayumi was a social butterfly, but butterflies hardly ever stayed in one place, and she flitted from one group to another without ever truly belonging, just long enough to know names and faces. This was why she and Mitsuhiko were so alike, she'd shut down, too.
Come their third year, Ayumi was closing cases all on her own. Mitsuhiko and Genta came when she called, but she tried not to (she was scared that eventually they wouldn't come). She wondered if Shinichi knew all the trouble she was getting up to (she wondered if he cared-- why? Why did it matter if he cared?) He had to hear about it through the police, or deduce that it was her from the nameless papers drawn up hours after she'd closed her cases. She shrugged off the thought (but there were eyes in her dreams, odd ones, like a memory that she's so curious to touch but terrified to recall).
Regardless of the people and the cases and the criminals and the failures, she could put her cases on her resume, and that meant she'd get into a good university. Somewhere far away, somewhere near a beach, somewhere suburban and away from Tokyo. So she took Himura University's offer and didn't bat an eye at the distance. Her mother and father cried and fueled her packings full of microwavable food (it was enough to make the seven-year-old Genta she once knew salivate), and Mitsuhiko and Genta squeezed the daylights out of her and all three of them stood at the train and wept for an hour straight, right up until the train was making its final call and she had to go.
(Haibara and Shinichi hid a few aisles over, clutching badges they no longer wore as she cried and he pretended not to notice for her sake-- and for his.)
She got set up in the dorm room easy enough. She made her bed, hung some pictures (she debated setting the frame of the Detective Boys, all five of them, on her nightstand, and instead hid it face-down in her drawer). It took a few hours for her roommate to arrive, but she was beautiful and tan and had green eyes that sparkled when she said hello. Her name was Akiko Nishimura. They shook hands and something warm started chipping away at the cold patch where Indigo used to be.
She was scouting out her semester's classrooms and got lost when she ran into Katashi Sasaki-- and she nearly died when she looked into his eyes and saw Conan's. No glasses, just blue, familiar all the same. His hair was styled differently, more of a western cut and as yellow as the sun, but his face and his lips and his ears and his eyes… She dropped her books and he cocked an eyebrow at her and said "I was gonna ask if you needed help with those. Guess that answers my question." She'd gone red in the face, huffed and said:
"Thank you, I'm okay, though."
He tapped her head with her Math textbook and said: "Liar. Where are you headed?"
The rest was history.
She was studying on the second floor of the library, brushing up on her English and failing miserably when a boy sat down across from her. Brown eyes, auburn hair- a foreigner like Katashi, but less American, more European. He cracked a book open, glanced up at her, blinked, then turned his attention back to his textbook with a yawn. They didn't speak, though the uncomfortable air compelled every cell of her body to. She tried to concentrate on English, sound out a difficult word, but she kept stressing the R and couldn't say the L. She grimaced. "I can practically hear your brain imploding. I suggest dropping the class and studying a different language." And that was the first thing Yori Smartass Sata ever said to her. She'd glared and reminded him to be polite to strangers and returned to studying. Five minutes later, he'd proclaimed himself her tutor.
Takumi Ikeda was a frail, cowardly boy who reminded her of Mitsuhiko the first summer after Haibara and Conan had left-- a shut-in gamer who slept in the day and lived for the nightlife his roommate-less dorm-room afforded him. He was as pale as the moon itself, bright enough he nearly blinded her when she first saw him stumbling out of the nearby cafe with layers of bags under his eyes. Despite the lack of sleep, his face was rounded and baby-ish, cute with the round glasses that were falling off his nose. His large baggy sweater dipped over his shoulder as he passed by her with a murmur about "finishing Devil Souls". He'd dropped his wallet, and she'd spent the rest of the day deducing what dorm-room was his, determined to return the small bit of yen and the student ID she'd found inside. It'd taken her until the early evening, but she'd knocked and interrupted his playthrough of the newest Sunshine Valley RPG…. so it was only fair she stay and help him farm with the tricks she'd learned from the previous games.
She hadn't meant to stumble into the football locker rooms, she really hadn't, but the tan Osakan guy with a wide cocky grin and a mouth full of wit she wanted to stuff with his dirty socks- Youta Oshiro- didn't seem to have any intention of letting it go. She had the unfortunate luck of being in his Math class and in his English class and even free during the time she'd set aside in her schedule for lunch. "Caught you sneaking a peek earlier, ya just have to ask, ya know." He'd taken to clinging at her side, like he thought she had a crush on him or something, and it drove her up a wall. The other personalities she'd been used to, but a guy like him was new territory in an already-new situation, and she grew more disgruntled each day. He knew Akiko, apparently. Grew up in the same town, though they didn't speak much. He used it as an excuse to get closer to Ayumi, though. He ate lunch with her and flashed his muscles (which he certainly did have as the star football player, she'd admit), and he asked her questions about class (was actually kinda helpful when she didn't get something, almost symbiotic). She was starting to get attached to him, hardly fought against it when Katashi joined them. They were rivals? Or something. They butted heads, and she wagered it had something to do with Katashi's dad being a cop and Youta's being a shady lawyer with suspicious sources of information. She wasn't sure, but she was starting to feel at home (she could see Genta and Mitsuhiko going back and forth over the picnic table as Agasa Hakase settled them down).
She'd gotten calls from home a few times by the third week. Most were from her parents, who found the time to call despite their work schedules, but the occasional call from Genta or Mitsuhiko would trickle in. They asked how she was, if she'd taken up any cases, if she was making friends (great, not really, and more than she'd thought possible). Mitsuhiko's classes were going well, extremely so, of course, and he was confused by the attention he was getting from complete strangers (all girls, and Ayumi wondered how a boy as smart as Mitsuhiko couldn't see that the ladies were flocking to him, and wondered if maybe he was willingly ignoring it for modesty or something more painful). She'd laughed and told him to spend some time being more social; he declined initially, but she knew he'd fold. Genta was in culinary school and having the time of his life, learning new dishes, learning new tricks with knives (the thought of which made her nervous in the worst way). Neither had taken up any cases, necessarily, but the towns surrounding their schools were quiet, at least not as rambunctious as Tokyo had been. Hearing their voices was like smelling a candle that carried the scent of home, or feeling a warm blanket fresh out of the dryer. It brought tears to her eyes, and she sat on the side of her bed stifling her sobs because she didn't want Mitsuhiko or Genta to hear, didn't want them to worry because she was fine.
Akiko came home to find her leaning over her knees, burying her head in her hands and whimpering with the phone on End Call. She'd sat beside her and rubbed soothing circles into her back. "It'll get easier," (spoiler: actually, as this story unfolds, it only gets harder) she murmured, and "you've got friends here too" (another spoiler: some might not actually be friends). Ayumi leaned into her shoulder, wiping the tears from her eyes and forcing a smile. For the moment, she wasn't alone, maybe wasn't for the first time in a long time. "Hey," Akiko picked up her phone and playfully tossed it in the air for good measure, grinning at Ayumi's red-rimmed eyes. "Why don't I give Youta a call? He knows the best ice cream place and he won't tell me, but maybe he'll tell you if we guilt him with your big sad puppy eyes!"
"Akiko-chan! That's so mean!"
"Don't worry, don't worry! He owes me anyway! I did his essay last week and he still hasn't paid me."
A small bead of sweat dripped down Ayumi's head.
It took Youta only a few short minutes to arrive at their door, a scowling Katashi in toe for some reason. Ayumi didn't mind; she took it as a sign that she was meant to be with these people right now, and that was okay. Youta wrapped an arm over her shoulders and argued with Katashi about the statistics of crime in Japan and other things she had a hard time following, and Akiko clung to her other side and egged either end on like a referee who was biased (depending on who she thought was winning) and dirty. Ayumi stood, surrounded by the chaos feeling oddly serene. Whatever tears had been in her eyes before were gone, for the moment, maybe for longer, and she'd be thankful for the whirlwind she found herself at the center of right now.
She didn't notice the black car parked across the street, or the familiar eyes that haunted her dreams watching her from behind the cracked window.