The Last of Our Summers
None of the teachers tell them off for missing most of homeroom, though Kazuha can tell from his face that Mr. Narumaki is kind of thinking about it. They’re shuttled off to the nurse’s office, where they’re all handed cold medicine and advice to change into their spare clothes.
Once they’re all in their ridiculous white PE clothes, they sit on the beds while the twins take turns to sneeze.
"Ai's on her way," one of them whispers, tone positively rapturous despite the giant wad of tissues clogging her nose. "We get to see Ai first thing in the morning. Lucky."
"You nearly died first thing in the morning."
Hinata-or-Momoko clicks her tongue. "Details."
Kirigiri makes an impatient noise and shifts in the corner he's standing in.
"You're being awfully flippant for two people who put lives at risk with your recklessness," says Chizuru.
She’s a goddess in her shorts and T shirt, with her hair undone and drying around her shoulders. Without her glasses there's no filter to how bright her eyes are, how her glare is full of sharp-edged ice.
The twins wilt into each other. One of them says, "We're sorry for putting Kazuha-senpai in danger."
"At which point in this interaction did you think you were on first name basis with her?" Kirigiri snaps.
"That's ridiculous," Kazuha snaps back before she can stop herself. Kirigiri's eyes swing to her with the force of a physical shove.
"Yeah? And you don't think it's ridiculous that you nearly got hit by a car?"
"Kirigiri, come on–"
"It's Ai! She's here!"
The door slides open. Kazuha unfists the blanket from her grip and looks up, straight into the bemused gaze of Yoshioka.
"Ai!" the twins are squealing. They've thrown their arms around Yoshioka and hug her, their noses burrowed in her neck. "Ai, you came!"
"Yeah yeah," Yoshioka pushes them away by the forehead, totally unfazed. "Heard my shitty juniors had a throwdown with the boringest girl alive. What's going on?"
The door opens a little more to reveal Natori, and Sugino pops her head from behind Yoshioka. They all traipse into the nurse's office, the twins still clinging to Yoshioka like clams.
"There's a rumor going around that Kajiura jumped in front of a car to save a kitten, like a delinquent with a heart of gold," says Natori. "Is it true?"
Sugino scrunches her button nose. "Oh. The one I heard said she stopped a train in its tracks. Like a superhero. Are you okay?"
"We're just peachy!" the twins chorus before anyone else can say anything. "Kazuha saved us! You should have seen her, Ai! She was almost as cool as you!"
"Both of you really need to learn how to chill out," Yoshioka grumbles.
The twins cling to her harder. "Nuh-uh! Not when it comes to you!"
Yoshioka grimaces. Her eye catches Kazuha's, and she flushes.
"My juniors from track club," she says gruffly.
"Ai is our idol!" the twins sing.
"They always like this?"
"Hey, you'd get it if you saw Ai run! She's like the wind. Like a beautiful gazelle. Like a-a boulder rolling down a hill. And now Kazuha too!"
"Imagine if they combine forces!" the other twin exults. "If Kazuha joins track team we'd be unstoppable!"
"You two wanna take a breather before you ship me with a walking alarm clock?"
"Hey," Kazuha protests, lukewarm.
"What walking alarm clock," Kirigiri says. His arms are crossed.
Sugino, Yoshioka and Natori exchange glances. It's a quick little thing that bounces like lightning between the three of them, and then Yoshioka starts shepherding the twins out. For all her protests, she checks them both thoroughly for injuries before they go.
They leave after a lot of bowing and squealing and promises to thank them in the near future, a bright spot in a room otherwise overtaken by Kirigiri’s thunderous mood.
“Don’t you have PE today?” Kazuha asks, when the silence from Kirigiri gets to be too much. She doesn’t know what else to say. “What are you going to change into after that?”
A vague shrug. “I’ll figure something out.”
Kazuha clenches her fists. “Going to be tough. Hey, you can borrow Natori’s.”
He looks at her, finally. The relief is short-lived, because he looks as done with her as he’s ever been. “Yeah, whatever.”
Chizuru steps between their beds.
“Kazuha, you owe us an explanation,” she says gravely. She comes and sits down beside Kazuha, and puts her hand on top of hers. “How did you know that those twins were going to get hurt?”
Coincidence, Kazuha's brain tells her. I just happened to see them rushing.
Don't tell them without knowing for sure. They'll only be upset.
But then Kirigiri says, low-voiced, “The truth, please. Not whatever you’re thinking of right now.”
Kazuha flips through frustration, embarrassment and guilt in quick succession. Outside, the rain has subsided.
When she sounds speaking, she barely recognizes her voice:
"The first time it happened, I thought I was dreaming."
She tells them the gist of it, her head hanging low. Chizuru’s hand tightens around hers when she mentions sprinting up the stairs to catch her on time.
“So…what,” Natori says blankly. “You see a timer till someone’s…what? Hurt?”
Chizuru is brittle, carved out of stone. “There was more than a slim chance that I would have died on the rooftop that day. That girl isn't the type to back down."
Their eyes glint with curiosity, an echo of Kazuha's own: who was she, anyway? But nobody asks. Chizuru's shoulders are hiked up like a shield and she looks like she might snap any second.
It’s Kazuha’s turn to squeeze her hand.
Yoshioka's leaning back against the headrest of one of the beds. She clicks her tongue. "Huh. If you weren't so straight-laced I'd ask if you were smoking something, robot girl."
"It does sound kind of out there," Sugino agrees.
There's something cold congealing in her stomach. I shouldn't have told them.
"Why the taste of salt, though? That's so weird."
Kazuha thinks of seawater in her mouth, fragments of light and sound, all distilled through a veil of fear. Not being able to breathe.
She can't speak.
"Maybe it had something to do with that whole thing where you drowned?"
How did Yoshioka know?
"Drowned?" Sugino's frowning.
"It happened right before summer," Kazuha says, rigidly. Her breaths come in uneven and fast. "I was out on the beach, and I--I guess I did technically drown, for a couple of minutes? But then Kirigiri pulled me out, and I was fine."
"Oh, I think I see what you mean, then, Yoshioka," says Sugino, nodding to herself. "You're saying it might have been some kind of near-death thing."
"Right. People start seeing all sorts of stuff after they die."
A crack! as Kirigiri stands up and the chair collapses beneath him.
They stare at him, wide-eyed.
"Kajiura didn't die," he says, quiet and intense. "She's fine."
Sugino shoots Kazuha an unnerved glance, but Yoshioka's smiling at him, insouciant.
"We know, big guy, seeing how she's here. Unless she's some kind of zombie girl right now," she laughs. "What's got you in a tizzy?"
Kirigiri shakes his head. Fine tremors run along his folded arms.
Kazuha looks at the girls, unable to face the way Kirigiri's still clearly mad at her for the accident.
"I know it sounds ridiculous. But I'm not lying and I'm not going crazy."
She looks at Chizuru, pleading. Chizuru's eyes are distant in thought.
This was such a bad idea. It was so–impulsive, she just got caught up and thought–what? That a group of practically-strangers would believe in her weird hallucinations? This is why she shouldn't be around people, she never had a feel for these things–
"You have to stick as close to them as possible," says Chizuru.
"If the timer gives no indication of what it's actually counting down to, you have to stick close to whoever has that timer. There's simply nothing else to it. Do you have any sort of way that you can tell someone has a timer without actually seeing it?"
Kazuha blinks. "Um. Yeah. I start to taste salt."
Movement from Kirigiri's corner, where he's been holding still so far. When Kazuha looks, though, he seems calm, his face a blank mask.
Chizuru nods. "I figured. In that case, the best course of action would be to mark the person early, and make sure they stay away from dangerous situations."
"We'll help," says Sugino.
Natori says, "What if the cause is something internal, though?"
Chizuru and Sugino exchange looks. "I suppose we'll have to cross that bridge when we get to it."
"Oh, is that what you were talking to my mom about?" Sugino says. "Did you read those docs she gave you?"
"What if the timer's for a super short time though?" Yoshioka says, in the tone of humoring a group of lunatics. "Like. Faster than robot girl can react to. Or the other way around, if it's just a long ass time."
Everyone, with the exception of Kirigiri, looks at Kazuha.
"Well, the timer's always had three sections," Kazuha says, slowly. When she hesitates Sugino nods. "Um. During Chizuru's I figured that the last two sections were the number of hours, and minutes. The first was always set to zero."
"Could be days," says Natori.
"In which case you're screwed."
Sugino bonks Yoshioka. "In which case you'd have to watch over them for a while."
"What if it's for years?"
Yoshioka meets Kazuha's eye and shrugs. "Eh. At that point you'd just have to cut your losses."
Sugino makes a face and makes a violent grab at Yoshioka, who laughs as she dodges out of the way. Natori looks startled, his hands coming up to pull them apart before he seems to realize they're just playfighting.
When Kazuha meets Chizuru's eyes, she squeezes Kazuha's hand. And Kirigiri--Kazuha can't look at Kirigiri yet.
They're all startled when a loud ringtone blasts across the room.
Kazuha flushes and reaches into her bag to turn her alarm off.
“We should get to class,” she says. “We might catch the last bit of homeroom if we go now.”
Chizuru nods. She keeps their hands linked as she stands up.
Kazuha drums up her courage. Anchoring herself on the warmth of Chizuru's hand, she turns to call to Kirigiri.
"Hey, dumbo," she says. A little too aggressive. Overcompensating. "Are we going or--"
Kirigiri turns to face her. He's outlined by the view of summer through the window, the rain-drenched sunlight that falls on his broad shoulders, the sky clean and bright.
Above his head is a timer that reads 60:00:00.
(End of Part One)
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