The Last of Our Summers
"We have to," Yoshioka says.
She's leaning into Kazuha's space, smiling wickedly when Kazuha winces and leans away. She's back to her usual self, or close to it: even as Kazuha pushes her face away she's half-glad that Yoshioka's not so vague or distracted anymore.
"We don't–we could just call his mom," Kazuha protests.
She plants her feet and doesn't budge as Yoshioka tries to push her towards the door.
"Seriously, Kajiura," Sugino says. "Either go in and ask him or don't. Standing outside his house is just something a serial killer would do."
"Kazuha's too much of a romantic to ever kill someone she loves," Chizuru says, unhelpfully. "She'd be a great stalker, though."
"Oh yeah, I can totally see that."
"Can we not," Kazuha hisses, "discuss this right here?"
"We can discuss after," says Yoshioka, pushing her forward. "Let's go inside."
Sugino purses her lips at both of them, and goes to the door. Before Kazuha can yelp No! she's ringing the doorbell.
Yoshioka's hands drop from Kazuha's shoulders. She looks a little queasy. "Oi, Sugino, I wasn't really–"
The door opens.
Something in Kazuha goes quiet. "Oh, Yui," she breathes. "You're so big now."
Kirigiri's little sister looks up at them. When Kazuha saw her last, she had been in pigtails, laughing as Kirigiri gave her a piggyback. She looked almost nothing like Kirigiri except for their laugh: loud, large, overspilling.
She's not laughing now. A grave, serious little girl with her hair down to her shoulders and a smartphone in her hand examines them with oddly expressionless eyes.
"Big sis Kazuha," she says. "Brother's not at home."
"You're Kirigiri's sister?" Yoshioka gets down on one knee. "Wow, you look nothing alike. You're a cutie though."
Yoshioka shoots Kazuha a bewildered glance. Kazuha doesn't get it either. Yui used to be a warm child, tripping to keep up as she played with them. She came from one of the happiest families Kazuha's seen.
What was this aura of coldness coming from her now?
"Is your mom home, Yui?" Kazuha tries.
Silence. "Yeah," she says, finally opening the door a little more. "She is."
Kazuha doesn't know what to say to her. "Thank you for having us," she says awkwardly as they traipse in.
The house is unchanged. Kazuha wants to stop and touch every single one of the tables, the countertops, the chairs–there's the shelf of knick-knacks Kirigiri's dad brings down from abroad, and there's the doorpost where they had carved in their initials, awed at how they matched.
Kazuha stands in Kirigiri's living room and breathes in their history.
Childhood friends don't stay friends forever.
But there is a deeper truth that wafts up: they are woven together too tight for them to ever fully separate.
Kirigiri's mother, the kindest woman Kazuha knows, is coming out of the kitchen. Kazuha is six, saying, carry me please. Kazuha is eleven, saying I wish you were my mom. Kazuha is fifteen, thinking you're who I want to be.
She feels herself break into a smile. "It's been a while, Auntie."
"It certainly has." Kazuha finds her cheek being squeezed. "Look at you now. Kazuha tells me your studies are thriving. You always were so smart."
It's never been more comfortable to tell someone. "Actually, I'm slowing down on university a little. I don't think I ever really wanted to get into such a big university anyway."
Gravely, she asks, "And is that making you happy?"
A beaming smile. "Then that's such good news! I'm so happy for you. Your heart would never lead you wrong."
Kazuha doesn't know where to look. She clears her throat, tries to will down her burning cheeks. "Um. These are my friends, by the way."
Sugino, Yoshioka and Chizuru look a little cowed. Kirigiri's mom has that effect on people: her personality is hard to contain in four walls, and her kindness is relentless. It's probably not hard to see how someone like her raised someone like Kirigiri.
"We, um." Chizuru looks uncharacteristically lost for words, almost bashful. "We wanted to see if he was in. Kirigiri, I mean. Oh–I mean, Kazuha-kun."
"He's not. I think he's still at basketball." She looks fretful. "Final exams are so close and he's still spending so much time playing around. Of course, I hate to say anything if he's happy as he is."
Sugino frowns a little, but says, "I'm sure he has it under control. After all, if he needs help he can ask the smartest girl in the grade. And she can tutor him."
They all make faces. Kazuha protests, "I think I'm good at explaining things now, you know? You haven't even tried being tutored in a while."
"Ma'am," says Chizuru, cutting off whatever incredulous thing Yoshioka was about to say. "We wanted to ask you something about some research we found while, um, doing a project."
Sugino, Yoshioka and Kazuha snap to attention.
Kirigiri's mother looks surprised. "Oh?"
"It mentioned that there were some people who could predict deaths? It sounded like something out of a sci-fi novel, so we didn't really believe it," Chizuru rushes to explain. "But then, um. It turned out that some of the test subjects that were interviewed were a pair of twins called Kirigiri."
Her frown clears. Her gaze drifts above their heads, and out the window facing the sea. "Ah. That old story."
"Did you know them?"
"Not well," she says, and lets out a small sigh. "All I know are the stories my husband sometimes tells. They were his older brothers, and inseparable. I think you must be talking about how they kept saying they saw timers above people's heads."
Kazuha's breath gets caught.
"Both of them? He said--I mean, the report said that one of them saw them his entire life, and the younger one only saw them when he was a little older."
Kirigiri's mother shakes her head. Her eyes have gone a little wide. "I'm afraid I don't know the details. Where did you say you saw this mentioned?"
Sugino laughs, loud and awkward. "Some research paper. We were just surprised because we recognized Kirigiri's--errr, Kazuha's--wait. Um. Your son's name. This is a nightmare," she complains as an aside to Kazuha. "One of the two of you need to change your name."
Kirigiri's mom is laughing, the confusion on her face faded. "Cute. It's my life's biggest joke that I named my son the same name as his best friend."
"Big sis Kazuha isn't brothers best friend!"
Kazuha startles. Oh. It's Yui.
"If she was his best friend they'd always be together! But now brother has to–he has to hang out with other girls. Since he's lonely. Because big sis won't stay with him."
"Yui," says her mother, looking devastated. "What's gotten into you? What are you saying?"
"I followed him," says Yui. She looks furious, but also like she might cry. "That day you were supposed to meet up with him. He said he was going to meet you but he met some other lady instead, He–"
Chizuru, of all people, steps up. "You don't need to worry about that, little Yui," she says, smiling. "That was probably the manager from the basketball team. They have to discuss strategy a lot, you see."
Kazuha frowns. The basketball team's manager is a boy named Takahashi.
Yui looks disbelieving. "She looked older."
Yoshioka's eyes widen. Then, bafflingly, she looks at Kazuha.
Then, Kazuha gets it.
I'm not the only girl he went out with, Yoshioka had said.
"You aren't supposed to say that about girls, Yui, haha," says Yoshioka, visibly anxious. "She was probably wearing a lot of makeup or something. There's a look that's really popular in our grade. Right, Kajiura?"
There is a feeling in her stomach, as if she's been unmoored.
Yoshioka hits her harder. "Right, Kajiura?"
Kazuha can't focus on anything. "Yeah."
"Really? Big sis wasn't leaving brother all alone?"
"She would never. If anything Kirigiri–uhhh, Kazuha-kun's the one who needs to shake her off. This big sis here hangs on like a barnacle."
Yui's eyes dissolve into tears. Soundless, except for the little gasp of breath she takes before she speaks.
"I was so worried. He looks so, so sad all the time."
It jolts Kazuha back into her body. "Yeah, Yui. I'd never leave your brother alone."
The little girl runs into her mother's side, and allows herself to be hugged tightly. Kirigiri's mom looks troubled.
"It's certainly true that he's been acting strange," she says.
"Ma'am I swear that the girl was probably the manager–"
"Not that," she shakes her head as Yoshioka stumbles over her words. "He's so quiet now. So very quiet. I know that he's growing up, but sometimes I look over at him sitting at our table and wonder where my boisterous little boy went."
"And he sleeps a lot," Yui adds. "He never plays with me anymore. He sleeps instead. He says he's too tired."
"He never talks to me anymore," Kirigiri's mom sounds quietly sad. "He looks like he's carrying a weight he can never put down, but he won't tell me about it no matter how I ask."
It's time for both of us to move on, Kirigiri had said.
Kirigiri's timer ended at the end of summer.
"Ma'am, I'm sure he's fine," Sugino is saying. She's picked up on their desperation, but she's as calm and even keeled as usual as she smiles at Kirigiri's mother. "We're all really stressed, it's our last summer of high school after all. If there was something he wanted to talk about, Kirigiri has a lot of really good friends. I'm sure there's nothing to worry about."
Kirigiri's mom nods. There is a sadness in her eyes that speaks of her love.
"As a mother, all that's left for me to do is hope," she says. "So I believe that he is stronger than whatever it is that troubles him."
They stand in front of Kazuha's house, looking at each other.
"Well, we've gotta shake it out of Kirigiri, right? Whatever he's been keeping secret this whole time, because he's freaking me out too now. Even I had no idea he was going out with random older women."
Chizuru frowns at Yoshioka, but says, "It wouldn't be a bad idea to ask Natori. If he doesn't know already, he has the biggest chance of finding out. Next to Kazuha."
That last part is an untruthful kindness. The way he's been avoiding her at school suggests that Kirigiri would rather walk over hot coals than say anything to Kazuha.
Kazuha looks up. The moon is an imperfect thumbprint in a starless sky.
"He's got a timer," she says, into the chill of the approaching night.
A hiss of breath.
"He's had it for a while now. It ends on the last day of summer break."
Yoshioka grabs her collar. The shock of it makes her head jerk forward, Kazuha's eyes going wide.
"And you didn't tell us? You didn't tell him?"
A thought Kazuha didn't know she held inside her bubbles up: "I think he knows. I think that's why he's being so strange."
Yoshioka's eyes go wide. "And you're letting him? That's cold, Kajiura. You were always an icy bitch but--"
"Of course she's not letting him!" Chizuru pulls Yoshioka away from Kazuha. "She knows when it's going to happen, doesn't she? It's not like she can prepare for something that's so random."
Yoshioka's still staring at Kazuha.
"I swear, you and Kirigiri deserve each other. You've been carrying around the fact that the boy you're in love with might die this whole time?"
"We still don't know what the timer counts down to! It could be anything! Nothing bad's happened yet!"
"You only have to fail once, you fucking idiot!"
"I'm not going to fail," Kazuha says, breathing evenly. "I'm going to save him. No matter what it takes."
"Why won't you tell him, then?"
"We have years of history," Kazuha says, something dark and terrible moving through her. "You think I don't know him? You don't have to teach us how to be friends. We pre-date you."
Yoshioka lets go of her.
Kazuha stares her down, cold.
Yoshioka's eyes are full of disgust. She looks like she can barely stand to be in the same space as her. She begins to walk away, turning back after ten paces to call,
"You know, Robo-Girl. You really have no heart after all."
Sugino throws Kazuha a sympathetic look before she takes off after Yoshioka.
Kazuha stands in the light of the streetlight. The pit of anger won't go away, even when she can't see Yoshioka anymore.
"You know she doesn't mean it," Chizuru says, softly.
"Kirigiri not telling you things doesn't mean you've done anything wrong."
A hand around hers; a squeeze. Kazuha's heart is in freefall, but she has this.
She doesn't know how she survived before Chizuru.
"I'm still here."
Kazuha shivers and shivers, until the moon dips under a cloud, and that passes too.
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