Chapter 20:

Keepers of Souls

The Last of Our Summers

Her alarms still go off, though she's learned to ignore them. Turning them off completely feels too much like giving up.

Right after the first one for the day, a knock on her bedroom door. She sits up groggily.

Natsuki lets himself in. He stands at the door, looking around her room and then, finally, at Kazuha.

"Slept well?"

She can't read his expression. She tips up her chin.

“When did you last eat?”

Kazuha roots around her memory. She remembers making ramen in the dark. "Last night."

Natsuki nods. "Good. And when are you going to school?"

"I was going to go today," she says. It's not a lie. "I don't need you to check up on me, you know."

He quirks an eyebrow, speakingly.

Kazuha frowns and gets out of bed. Her room's not as much of a mess anymore: she picked up after herself last night, thoughts quiet and giddy under the light of the moon.

He says, "Here. Eat this," and tosses her a cereal bar.

"I'm not hungry."

Natsuki hums. “Okay," he says. He opens one of his own and starts to eat.

Kazuha’s not in the mood for Natsuki’s understanding silences. A shapeless anger forms in her stomach, its serrated edges cutting through the numbness.

“I’m not. Hungry,” she grits out.

He clicks his tongue –always a sound of brotherly disapproval, ever since Kazuha was young—and says, “I heard from your teachers that you haven't been focused on university lately, but you need to go to school, at least. Finals are next week."

“Yes, yes, of course,” Kazuha sneers. She turns to face him, is briefly vindicated by the way his calmness slips into wide-eyed surprise. “You don't have to brag to me, Natsuki, I was here for the whole thing. You had the perfect high school life. You got better grades than me, you had more friends, all the girls liked you. I’m well aware of how much I pale in comparison, brother.

“Kazuha,” he says, after a beat of hesitation. The soft way he says her name makes her hands curl into fists.

Something has broken in her brain. "I'm sorry, I know you're not trying to gloat, I know. I just wonder if I would be happier if I wasn’t so—” she bites her lip. She indicates herself. “Desperate. Or, or if I wasn’t so boring. If I was a little bit more reckless. If I was lovely and lovable instead of—this.”

“Kazuha,” his voice is more urgent now. “You aren’t—”

“You know, Natsuki, no one I’ve ever liked has liked me back,” she says, and oh, it hurts to say it, hurts to think it. “Or maybe I just liked one person my whole life, and he never even thought of looking my way.”

She drags in deep inhales through her nose. The room is silent, colored by a cool, muted dawn.

Natsuki has gone completely still. She’s never seen him so blank-faced. Something in her shakes loose in response. Kazuha’s never seen him like this: Natsuki has one of those expressive faces full of sunshine.

His eyes are wide and shocked, as if something Kazuha said has reached down to his beating heart and stopped it. 

But if Kazuha's a machine, doesn't that make her brother one too?

“Why’d you get divorced, Natsuki?”

He doesn’t move. He’s just a doll person in Kazuha’s room, wearing the face of the brother that she once loved more than anyone else.

“What was it? Did perfect become too boring for you? Or was it all those promotions? Did you get sick of being the best person in the room no matter which room you were in?”

No movement. His eyes are glassy. That’s fine; he makes for a good target.

“Or did your wife just realize that you’re no different from me? All the shiny glitter on the outside can’t hide that we’re so empty inside that it echoes. You could shake a Kajiura by the shoulders and we’d rattle. We’re so—hungry for everything that we fill ourselves with all the scraps of love we can find but it doesn’t change that—that we’re worthless. We’re worthless, Natsuki.”

“We’re not,” he says, quietly. He even sounds like a doll: mechanical, robotic.

Kazuha exhales through her teeth. She stalks to the door. “You don’t have to pretend. You raised me to be just like you. I know you better than anyone else.”

Natsuki closes his eyes.

“I asked for the divorce,” he says. His voice is as still as a lake. “I just didn’t want to be this tired anymore.”

Kazuha didn't know. Her eyes widen.

“And I guess I moved back because—the last time I remembered being happy, just purely happy, was in this house. Back in high school, when everything mattered. Even if I felt like the worst kind of faker half the time. I was so desperate for something. Now I’m just. Empty, like you said.” He shakes his head. “I wasn’t as done with this part of my life as I thought.”

Kazuha blinks. “What does that mean?”

“It means maybe high school is where everything went wrong,” Natsuki says. “Maybe if I think of it as two different paths I could have taken, I can come back to the beginning and start over.”

“You sound like you know what that other path is.”

“Maybe you helped me see what it was.”

Kazuha cocks her head. Natsuki meets her eye, and laughs, suddenly. It carries a note of melancholy, but it’s Natsuki’s laugh, her favorite.

“I’m not brave enough to let you see exactly how much of a mess I am, Kazuha,” he says. "Eat your cereal bar."

Out of surprise, Kazuha raises it to her lips and takes a nibble. It immediately makes her feel better.

“It would be nice if we can sit down together somewhere one day and introduce each other to the people we are now.”

"I don't think you'd like me much," Kazuha says. 

Natsuki's lips twist, and he looks so young for a moment–scared, like he never let himself be around her. "Me neither."

"But then–"

"We'll love each other anyway," Natsuki says. "I may not like you, but I'd never not love you. You're my baby sister."

Kazuha feels her knees tremble, and she clenches her shaking hands into fists and hisses, "Embarrassing."

He's laughing at her now, his face bright with a spark of mischief. "And who taught you to be so mean, anyway? You were such a lovely, romantic child."

Kazuha flushes. "You were the one who told me to never tell lies!"

"That's true." He sobers. "I taught you a lot of things that weren't necessarily true."

“You didn’t know better. You raised me the best you could."

He laughs, a little sadly. “Then I’m sorry for leaving just when you got into middle school.”

“Don’t be. I turned out alright, didn’t I?” 

He pauses so long she thinks he's not going to answer, but then he says, so fierce and quiet she barely hears him: “You did. You really did.”

This is embarrassing; she's going to cry. Natsuki's smiling at her, that knowing, crinkle-eyed smile that means he knows that the tears are coming. She chews her lower lip and scowls at him.

"Oh, and by the way, your friend's here to pick you up."

For a moment, the tears freeze behind her eyes and her heart stops.

"She said her name was Chizuru, I think."

Kazuha resumes breathing. She scowls, punching his arm as he laughs at her. "Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

He's still grinning fondly at her as he moves aside to let Kazuha barrel past him.

Chizuru is downstairs, looking directly ahead like a soldier on a mission. She's holding her bookbag by both straps, not a hair out of place, devastatingly beautiful in the cold empty space of their house.

Kazuha makes a noise, deep in her throat, wholly involuntary. Chizuru's head snaps up.

"Ah," she says. "Kazuha."

Just that. Just that, but Kazuha's overcome. She's here. She's real.

"Chizuru," she breathes.

Chizuru's eyes are restless, scanning her face. When Kazuha says her name her eyes widen, and a smile begins to dawn.

She's very proper, though, even as they both smile at each other, breathing in their proximity. I missed you, Kazuha wants to say, if only because she's surprised at the discovery. I wish you came earlier.

Chizuru reaches out one hand, and Kazuha scoops it up gladly.

"Will you be coming to school today?"

"Yeah," says Kazuha. "Wait for me. I'm coming."


As much as she had wanted to, Kazuha had not forgotten that finals were in a week, and she doesn't find it that strange when Sugino invites them out for tutoring.

"Just us girls," she says, in a careful tone that says that she knows, or has pretty much guessed.

And it would have been difficult not to: Kazuha can feel herself instinctively turn to, and then away, whenever Kirigiri comes into her line of sight. Kirigiri's not much better; from the glimpses Kazuha gets of him, she sees that he's distracted, constantly asking people to repeat themselves, rubbing at the dark circles under his eyes.

Good, she tells herself savagely.

But the actual surprise is Yoshioka: it takes Kazuha a while to notice, but when they all sit across from each other in their usual café it becomes obvious how restless Yoshioka is.

"What's your deal," Kazuha frowns.

Yoshioka's eyes land on hers briefly, before they flit away. "Nothing. None of your business."

"She got rejected too. Not that it was ever gonna work, in a million years," Sugino says, overhearing as she comes back from the restroom. "She's been weird since. Not as weird as you, obviously, Kajiura, but in a world where Kajiura and Kirigiri don't get together it's insane to think that a teacher would even hear out a confession from a student. Props to Narumaki for that, at least. I guess."

It hurts, but it's better than them tiptoeing around it. Probably.

"I just confessed to get it off my chest," Yoshioka says. She's looking out the blue-tinted windows. "And, I guess it made me realize some other shit."

Kazuha frowns at her. She's speaking to them, but miles away, her palm fused to her cheek. When she moves she knocks the little wicker basket of sugar packets over but she doesn't even seem to notice, moving as though she's wading through a dream. 

"Speaking of realizations," says Sugino, seemingly unaffected by the tension. "My mom said she remembered that a colleague of hers that did the research that she talked to you about, Kajiura."


"She said she could introduce you so you could talk. This is about your weird timer thing, I assume."

"Yeah," Kazuha says faintly. "What–when's a good time?"

"To go meet her? Any time, I assume. She's at the hospital right now. I could ask her if her colleague's available too, if you want."

Yoshioka, whose cheek is cupped in her hand as she looks outside, is clearly paying no attention. She starts. "Hey, check it out, it's your doppelganger."


"Oh," says Chizuru, leaning over Kazuha to look outside. "It's your brother, Kazuha. Did he tell you he was coming into town today?"

Sugino also peers outside. "Oh, he looks exactly like you. Weird. Who's he with?" A pause. "Is that Mr. Narumaki?"

Yoshioka flinches. She covers it up badly, laughing faintly as she says, "Holy shit you're right."

Weirdness aside, it is them: Natsuki's a little shorter than Mr. Narumaki, so he has to lean up a little to say something in their teacher's ear. As they watch, Mr. Narumaki says something to Natsuki that makes him laugh.

Kazuha’s breath catches. It’s Natsuki’s dorky little laugh: the one that exposes the canine tooth he’s so self-conscious about. Kazuha hasn’t seen him laugh like that since he moved out.

Her heart aches with love. Following on its heels is a rush of acceptance, almost contentment.

Natsuki looks so happy.

"They went to high school together," Kazuha says, her voice soft with wonder.

Someone sighs. When Kazuha looks at her, Yoshioka exhales again, as if she's teaching herself how to do it.

They watch as the pair dip into a café across the street from the one they're in. 

Kazuha thinks of the stories Natsuki used to tell her when she was younger: sci-fi, because he wasn't interested in anything else. Something he once said comes back to her: an android that's the only one of its line is a special thing to be, but androids of the same line share a soul. 

Kazuha hopes that Natsuki buys something sweet for himself, and holds on to that sweetness for the rest of the day. She hopes it makes him smile. 

She's smiling, too. 

Steward McOy
Xan Ti