Chapter 23:

Hothouse Flowers

The Last of Our Summers

On the last day of finals week, Kazuha Kajiura sits on the roof.

In her heart are the last dregs of panic of seeing her last exam paper. Final exams for the semester had taken up the whole week, and she had powered through them with gritted teeth. Until this very last one.

Mr. Narumaki had looked so anxious for her as she rushed out. She has no doubt she has a lecture incoming. From him and Natsuki both, if she's unlucky.

Vague fantasies play out before her eyes. 

What if she runs away? What if she just lets her family's hopes for her down and just goes to work in a bakery somewhere?

It would be nice. Peaceful. She'd like to do something with her hands. 

She'd miss her friends.

Almost as if on cue, a voice rings out across the roof and Kazuha starts.

“Oh, it’s studybot. Did you override your command module?”

Kazuha covers her eyes against the sun.

It's Yoshioka, closing the door to the roof access behind her. Kazuha should have jammed the lock or something.

"You can really tell you haven't hidden up here before," Yoshioka says dispassionately. "If you sit there everyone downstairs can hear you talking."

She crosses over to the other end of the roof and perches on the railing. The sun frames her head like a crown, the sky a stark, cloudless blue around her.

"That's dangerous," Kazuha says.

Yoshioka slashes her a grin. "Aww, it's like you care after all. Don't you know I like to living on the edge? And isn't saving people your whole thing?"

Kazuha ignores her.

"You talk to Kirigiri yet?"

"You know I haven't had time. Some of us care about finals."

She leans back, almost swinging on her arms. "God, it's so hard to get you."

"It's not like caring about your grades is a rare and unusual character flaw."

"No need to get uppity, robogirl, I only meant that you're never the same two days in a row. One day you're pushing a girl off a staircase, the next you're as cold as ice. You've done some crazy things these past few days, Kajiura. Gun to my head, I couldn't tell you were thinking during any of it."

Kazuha falls quiet. She listens instead: the school is so quiet during exams, just the breathing of a thousand students. She won't get this, next year. Won't have all her friends in one building like this.

"I'm sorry for making things weird for you with Kirigiri."

"Hm," says Kazuha.

"I'm serious. I wasn't trying to start shit when we went out, it was just."

Kazuha looks at her. "Just what?"

"You really wanna know?"

Yoshioka barks out a dry laugh and ruffles her hair when Kazuha nods. Strands come loose from her ponytail. "Okay. Huh. How do I put this."

The silence stretches. Kazuha watches the slow, unhurried movement of the single cloud in the sky.

“I've dated a lot of boys, you know.”

Kazuha contemplates leaving.

“Wait, I have a point, I'm not bragging. God. What I mean to say is, I've gone on dates with boys who said they liked my eyes, or my body, or my personality or whaetever, it doesn't matter.” Yoshioka stretches her legs forward, and they stick out like spokes in front of her skirt. “It was nice. We fooled around, and they weren't too bad at it."

Kazuha lets ice seep into her gaze. Yoshioka doesn't seem to notice.

"But then–I think it must have been earlier this year– one day I came to Sugino's place to borrow something, and I saw the basketball team's Kirigiri across the street, with the most incredible look on his face. Like–like he'd seen a miracle. Like he'd seen something that shook him down to his bones."

"Then I looked past him, and he was looking at you."

Kazuha's goes still.

“And I don't know. I used to think that maybe you had something figured out that none of us could even understand. You were boring and weird and nobody talked to you, but you walked around school like you were better than everyone and there and a boy was looking at you like you hung the stars and the moon.”

She holds her hand out to the sun. Her nails are painted a perfect pink like the inside of a seashell.

“So yeah. For a while I couldn’t stop wondering what it was like to be you. And when Kirigiri asked me out–god knows why– I said yes. It would have been stupid not to.”

Kazuha looks down at her hands, and finds them shaking. "Why–"

“Why'd I do it? Why wouldn't I?" Yoshioka sounds a little off-pitch, like she's maybe shaking too.

She pulls herself to her feet with a kind of frenetic energy that sends her stumbling forward a few steps.

"Maybe it was because I wanted to know what it was like to be loved like that? Or maybe because it was our last year of high school, and all the things I'd put so much effort into were worth absolutely nothing, and I wanted to say, at least I was loved.

Kazuha experiences a sense of vertigo. Yoshioka’s looking down at her, the sun framing her whole body. She looks intensely alive.

“Yeah,” she says, quiet, even though Yoshioka’s not talking to her, not really. “Yeah, I know.”

“Every day I go home and I wish—I wish our uniform wasn’t so stuffy, or the skirts weren’t so short. I wish the lessons weren't so hard or that I wasn't so–so stupid, I wish I could take off my brain and just rinse them out. I wish I could just—shave off my hair. All of it. And see if anyone loves me then. You know, Kajiura, if someone loves you when you’re ugly, that means that it’s the real deal.” She quirks a little grin. “Kirigiri would have still loved you, if you were ugly. He wouldn't even notice.”

Kazuha can’t talk. Her mind latches on to inconsequential details, circling around the truth she doesn't want to say out loud. She looks at Yoshioka framed by sunlight, the way the trees bend their heads low and sigh vividly green leaves. All of it feels like a dream.

She squeezes out the last few drops of courage she has.

"Kirigiri doesn't love me," she says, and it's the first time she said it out loud, and oh, it hurts, it hurts, Kazuha can't stand it.

Yoshioka looks as devastated as she feels. "Then you've gotta find out what happened. You don't let love like that go, Kajiura."

Kazuha doesn't know anything. These past few days, it's felt like she was carrying the ocean around in her heart; it ebbs and flows, crashing on deserted beaches and jagged rocks. She wants to see Kirigiri, wants to see him and talk to him and hear him call her android and robogirl and she wants to put her fingers on his neck and press down till he tells her what's wrong.

“You're smart," Yoshioka says, leaning back against the railing. "You'll figure it out."

"Yoshioka." Kazuha pauses. "Mr. Narumaki–"

"Shut up, that's not what this is about. It's about the difference between you and me. Love isn't like this impossible, unimaginable thing for you. You don't have to go looking for scraps for it wherever you can."

“But me," she says. "If I jumped from here, who would even really care?”

“I would care,” Kazuha says.

Yoshioka scoffs. “Try again.”

“I would,” Kazuha says. She stumbles up to a standing position. Something sparks through her like a revelation.

“You want love? That’s all I have. I’m drowning in it. Nobody wants it, nobody’s ever going to want it. All I can do is sit in my corner and love and love.”

She pants, breath coming short through her lungs. “You want love? Come and get it.”

Yoshioka is staring at her. There’s something like wonder in her expression: something so close to the boiling yearning that Kazuha herself feels that it feels like she’s looking through a mirror.

“Damn, Kajiura,” she says, with a low laugh. “You really are crazy.”

Kazuha doesn’t say anything. Her hands are clenched into fists at her sides. For all her smarts, for all her gifts, all she has is herself to give.

“You mean it,” Yoshioka says, soft-eyed and soft-voiced.

Kazuha nods. She holds out her hand.

“Crazy,” Yoshioka repeats, shaking her head. The wonder doesn’t leave her eyes. Her hand stretches out, and for a split second the fantasy persists, and Kazuha's heart aches, but then:

As Yoshioka climbs to her feet, pushing back on the railing, it lets out a loud, screeching creak.

Kazuha meets Yoshioka's eyes as they go wide. Scared.

Time stretches slow, like taffy. 

For the briefest flicker of a second Kazuha finally sees the outline of a timer that was blocked out by the sun.


One side of the railing snaps off. It throws Yoshioka off balance, and–

The rest of the railing gives way.

Yoshioka falls.


Kazuha’s throat is hoarse and she doesn’t know why.

She’s sitting down with her legs bent at odd angles, and someone is screaming. It’s long and anguished, guttural like it was ripped out of their throat. Her ankles hurt.

This is bad; she knows it's bad. Something in her has snapped.

A voice: “Kajiura!”

She focuses (she’s very smart, she reminds herself) and it’s Mr. Narumaki. “Kajiura? What’s going on?”

He looks so young. Was he always so young?

Kazuha shakes her head. Heat spreads in her head, breathless fire, if she wills it hard enough she can turn back time--

“Nothing,” she says, in a voice like sandpaper, but Mr. Narumaki is already rushing to the railing, his face a perfect mask of horror.

“Did someone just—”

Kazuha doesn't move. It feels like she may never move again. People in years to come will stare at her statue.


She waits.

“Ai, what are you doing down there? Don’t you have an exam?”

Kazuha launches to her feet. She takes two precise steps to the edge of the roof and looks down.

What she sees is a sanitized parody of the picture in her head. Yoshioka is lying down, but she is whole, safe, her eyes open and full of confusion. As Kazuha watches, she climbs to her feet and looks around her before she looks up, her eyes scrunched against the sun.

Kazuha’s running before she even knows it.

Mr. Narumaki is right behind her, his tread heavier but just as hurried, just as urgent. They bump and trip into each other as they run down the stairway.

When they come outside, Yoshioka is grinning at them. Brighter than the sun that frames her. Her ponytail has shaken loose in her fall, and a man of brown hair falls across her shoulders.

“In the end, it’s you two,” she says. “Makes sense that it’s you.”

Kazuha’s shaking, her teeth chattering in her head. Maybe it's all a fluke after all. Maybe the timers meant nothing, maybe they were all coincidences, maybe Kazuha really was going insane. Maybe none of this was real. Maybe she never really woke up after she drowned.

The timer over Yoshioka's head reads -00:00:03.

"What happened,” Mr. Narumaki says, stunned. “Your—what’s that over your head?”


Kazuha watches as Mr. Narumaki goes forward and swats the air above Yoshioka’s messy hair.

It feels like there's a vice around Kazuha's throat. Squeezing, squeezing.

"Yoshioka," she chokes. Her eyes, ears and throat are burning. Something in her is roaring, and maybe this is her going crazy, finally, like everyone said she would, like everyone was waiting for her to. "Yoshioka."

“What just happened,” Mr. Narumaki says, insistently. Threads of panic writhe in his voice, make it crack. “Are you—”

Kazuha's legs give out.

In front of them both, real but somehow also not, Yoshioka stretches. She's got long arms; Kazuha thinks about that time when she'd told them about wanting to get a tattoo. Of anything, she'd said, laughing, careless. Just across my wrist, like this. It'd look so cool.

"I fell," she says. "You were right. That roof is dangerous."

There's a swell of white noise filling Kazuha's ears. She stares at the ground and listens to the sound of her guttural breaths. She's choking on the taste of the sea.

"Yo," Yoshioka kneels. She waves her hand over Kazuha's head. "So this was what you saw. And I thought you were doing it for the attention."

Mr. Narumaki says, in his teacher voice, "Yoshioka, tell me what's going on. Right now."


Warm hands on her face. Yoshioka holds her steady. When she strokes Kazuha's cheeks it feels like she's waking from a long and delirious nightmare.

She looks inexpressibly sad. She’s beautiful for it.

"Come on, Kajiura," she says. "You gotta get your shit together. I really fell for you up on that roof, you know? Don't be uncool now."

She makes a face as Mr. Narumaki says her name again, sounding shattered.

"Thank you for everything," she tells him. "Especially for putting up with my shit."

"You're my student. Of course I look out for you."

Yoshioka's bright expression as she looks at Mr. Narumaki is the picture of love. She's shaking so hard, trying her hardest not to show it, flinching away when Narumaki tries to reach out for her.

Kazuha reaches instead. Grinds down her hollow ribcage to find the courage to say, evenly, “We would have made a perfect couple."

"And, what? Told Kirigiri to eat dirt? Like you'd do that.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

Yoshioka laughs. “Point." Then, "Stop crying, oh my god. C'mere."

Her arms are warm as they wrap around her. Her damp cheek presses against Kazuha's, and Kazuha's heart thrashes like a bird trapped in a cage.

"Don't let those bastards get you down," she says fiercely, into Kazuha's hair. She's crying. Yoshioka, smiling, reckless and beautiful, daring and darling. Yoshioka in her room, eating popcorn by the handful. Yoshioka standing on the roof, saying, I just want to be loved.

“Yoshioka, please—”

"Don't you dare tell Sugino what happened."


“Remember me,” Yoshioka says.

Kazuha gasps in a breath. She nods.


Yoshioka’s still smiling when she goes limp in Kazuha's arms.

“She’s not breathing,” Mr. Narumaki says, his voice shattered into a million pieces. “She’s not—why isn’t she breathing? Check her pulse, quick! Let me call an ambulance, Kajiura, make sure you–”

Kazuha breathes in and tunes it all out. It's a beautiful day. Yoshioka’s hair smells of coconut, her favorite shampoo and chocolate.

In the distance, the bell goes off.

She sits with Yoshioka in silence as summer break begins.

Steward McOy
Deck of Cards