Chapter 24:

Second Wind

The Last of Our Summers

The train station has a TV. Kazuha sits on a bench and watches.

"And in other news, the funeral for Ai Yoshioka, the star athlete of the track team of a local high school, will be held today. Yoshioka was seventeen years old. Her death occurred on campus, due to what authorities have now recognized as heart failure. Her friends describe Yoshioka as--"

A figure, blocking her view of the screen.

Natsuki smiles down at her. "Ready?"

It's seven AM. Her brother is with her. They're going to Kyoto today.

Kazuha gathers her coat and stands up. She follows Natsuki into the train.

They find seats close together, Natsuki's shoulder pressing into hers as the train picks up speed. Three of Natsuki's alarms go off on the way. Kazuha's phone is off.

Kazuha keeps her eyes fixed on the ocean as it erases itself into the skyline.

We're only a few miles out but it already isn't home anymore, says a voice in her head. Kinda makes you feel lonely, huh?

In the reflection across the the seats, Kazuha spots herself. She looks pallid and pale, a ghost girl with a light flickering above her head that twists restlessly, refusing to take shape. In contrast, the girl reflected next to her is vibrant: her eyes are bright and her ponytail bounces as she talks.

Yo, Kajiura, Yoshioka says. Everyone in here is staring at you. Stop being weird.

"Anything wrong, Kazuha?"

Natsuki sits at her right. The seat at her left is empty.

She shakes her head at Natsuki. He gives her a wan smile, and offers her some candy. Strawberry-flavored: Yoshioka's favorite.

Kazuha pops it in her mouth, and doesn't think of anything at all.

More people get on the train. More odd looks. Is it because of how pale she is? Is it because of the way Natsuki keeps looking at her? Is it because she only had the energy to put on her summer uniform?

Bold choice, Yoshioka says. Our uniform looks ridiculous at the best of times.

Kazuha hums.

She watches other trains pass theirs. If they're traveling at 120 miles per hour, and the perceived speed of an oncoming train is 40 miles per hour, then–

Yoshioka is laughing at her.

When it's time to change trains, Natsuki shoulders his bag. Kazuha opens her mouth, and hesitates.

Go on, says Yoshioka. Ask him.

“What university did Mr. Narumaki go to?”

Natsuki’s movements slow. He looks at her, lift. “Nagoya.”

Kazuha nods. She's never told anyone, but she suspects that the world isn't as wide as she thought it was. Everyone has rubber bands pulling them together.

“He said you want to go there too,” Natsuki says.

Kazuha nods.

Natsuki smiles a little. Unlike Kazuha, his face is naturally suited to smiles. He isn’t built for melancholy, her brother.

“That’s great news.”

Kazuha nods again.

The next time they speak is when they get off at Kyoto station. Yoshioka's humming a little song as she passes from one window to the next, a tune that Kazuha almost recognizes. She used to hum it before races, too.

In the giant, cavernous train station in Kyoto, Natsuki takes her hand.

Suddenly she's five years old again, looking out at the world fearfully from behind his legs. His hand is still bigger than hers, warm and dry.

"Don't get lost," he says, gentle.

She wants to hold his hand with both of hers. Clutch it tight. Ask him to fix her.

She stays quiet. He moves across the station with practiced ease, barely stopping to buy them both drinks from a vending machine. Strawberry milk for her, coffee for himself. He puts the straw in before he hands it to her, and smiles.

No wonder you know how to love better than me, Yoshioka whispers in her ear. You were always loved.

It actually feels like she knows much less than she ever did, but Kazuha lets it slide.

They come to a bus station just as a bus slides to a halt. Natsuki doesn't let go of her hand after they get in.

As the bus trundles along increasingly empty roads, the loudness of the train station fades and fades. The roads get smaller, greener. It's midday in summer but everything is calm, cool, intimate. The grass lining the sidewalks gives Kazuha the momentary, crazy impulse to take her shoes off and run in it.

What the, Yoshioka says. It's not that different from home after all.

She's reflected in the windows of the mirror, looking out.

"It's really not," Kazuha murmurs under her breath.

"What was that?"

"Nothing," she tells Natsuki. That makes his worried frown deepen, so she says, "I was thinking about how familiar this looks."

His expression eases. "Right? I was surprised too, first time I came. It's like the older I get, the smaller the world seems." He laughs, a gentle chuckle. "It makes it so much easier to keep track of the things I love."

Her brother, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, is kind of a grandpa. Kazuha had forgotten.

Yoshioka's laughter rings in her ears as she dances from reflection to reflection, shop window to glass paneling to surface of fountain. Your brother's a dork.

The sound of it carries till they arrive at the gates of the university.

It’s as nonsensically beautiful as she’s always dreamed about. Near the entrance, they move out of the way of a girl on a bicycle wearing headphones, humming to herself. She's wearing her isolation like a cloak, a comfortable jacket she's slipped into. No one’s looking at her. Kazuha can't stop staring.

“Come on,” says Natsuki. “The view along this side is nice.”

He seems relaxed now. A wistful smile is curling his lips as he quietly, almost bashfully, shows Kazuha his old haunts. Kazuha's uniform draws a few stares, but no more than her tendency to look too long at reflective surfaces. Yoshioka looks as interested as she is.

Natsuki raises his hand in greeting to a few people as they pass. They wave back. He seems well-liked. Kazuha is glad. The scenery is beautiful and peaceful, and everyone who rounds the corner seem to disappear. She hates to think of him in a space so big. Natsuki would be happiest in a little room with a nice bath and full of books to read.

It’s not what she wants, either. She’s glad she picked Nagoya.

After almost two hours of strolling, Natsuki leads them outside to a homey café. They sit on the veranda and a waitress brings them cake: chocolate for her, red velvet for him. She asks for a frappe.

It’s nice. The breeze lifts her uneven bangs. It’s almost time for her to cut them again.

Yoshioka's on the glass tabletop, making a point about how old buildings were kind of sad, when Natsuki interrupts her.

“Koutarou told me you and the girl who passed were close.”

For a second, she can’t place the name. Then a dead girl leans down and whispers in her ear: Koutarou's a fine man.

Kazuha keeps a straight face. She nods.

“We started talking again because of you, actually.” Natsuki doodles on the condensation on the table with a finger, smudging Yoshioka's face as he goes. “He was freaking out about you choosing Kyoto as well, and he wanted to talk to me. I guess he thought I was a cautionary tale, or something, and didn't want you to follow my footsteps.”

Some part of Kazuha is touched. She’s trying to rattle up something grateful to say from the emptiness inside when Natsuki adds:

"He told me she was your friend."

Birdsong, loud and bright. She listens with half a ear.

“He said you were with her. When it happened.” He taps the rim of his mug. “That you saw the whole thing.”

“I went through this with all the teachers already, Natsuki.”

“Koutarou said he heard you screaming from the roof.”

Kazuha can't stop her flinch.

“He said that when he got there, your friend was lying on the ground, and you were on the roof crying. And the railing was broken.”

“She died of a heart attack,” Kazuha says. She can't look away from the reflection of Yoshioka, who's smiling at her. “The hospital said it. I saw it. She d-died of a heart attack.”

Her vision tunnels. She’s sure her face is straight, but Natsuki’s looking at her with a heartbroken expression. Why is he looking at her like that? She's holding it together, isn't she?

“I don’t know,” the words escape her lips in whispers. “I don’t—”

Natsuki’s hand over hers. She can feel how ice-cold and clammy her own skin is, how disgusting. There's a sheen of sweat all over her and she doesn't know how Natsuki can stand touching her like that, when she's so gross, when she's so ugly and she hates it she hates it she hates it–

“It’s alright,” he says.

All at once he is twelve, fifteen, twenty all at once, and she is looking up from the safety of his shadow, looking up at the man who used to be the boy who raised her, all on his own. Her big brother.

Something tattered thing inside her is shaking. It's going to snap.

“You don’t have to tell me, Kazuha,” he says. “You never need to tell me. I’m always here.”

He waits her out as she struggles to bring her shivering back in control. She tries to take her hand back but he holds on: Natsuki's warm hands, holding her in shape, smoothing over the cracks where she's dissembling.

She feels delirious. She feels like her lungs are full of seawater.

She's been dreaming of drowning and waking up to see Yoshioka watching her with sad eyes. There's some lunatic part of her that thinks that if she lets go now, she'll just untangle into a heap, maybe her guts will fly out like party ribbons and she'll never be heard of again, or maybe she will split open from all the knives she has under her skin and they will tear everything apart.

And maybe Yoshioka would be alive again.

“I’m just,” she says, in huge, gasping breaths, “I’m just tired of being young. I’m tired of being exceptional and I’m tired of being nothing much and I’m tired of being useless, so fucking useless. She wasn't supposed to-- I just stood there, Natsuki, do you understand? She was so much better at being alive than I was but I just stood there, and I can't– how am I supposed to–"

She's crying so hard she can barely breathe. People are staring.

Natsuki’s grip on her hand is vice-tight. He pulls her close, and the despite the awkward angle he manages to put his chin on her head.

“I wish I could help.”

He sits with her, holding her tight when Kazuha tries to thrash out of his grip in the middle of her shaking. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Yoshioka on the reflection of the table: she looks as incandescently sad as Kazuha feels.

Kazuha's heart is a bleeding, disembowelled thing on the floor. Natsuki doesn't look away.

They’ve never been like other siblings: thanks to their age gap, Natsuki has been more like a parent to her than a brother.

"I'm here," Natsuki says, soft. "It's not your fault. I'm sorry for your loss, Kazuha."

He tells her, "It hurts because it's real."

He tells her, "I'm glad you're going to Nagoya."

They will leave in a few hours, board two trains one after another and leave Kyoto behind. Part of her dream will stay here, the solitary girl who rides a bike to university and walks to her classes in silence.

But that's not who she is anymore. She has been washed with color.

Give them hell, Yoshioka had said.

Kazuha lets herself hold Natsuki’s hand, and dreams.

Steward McOy