The Last of Our Summers
Hikari throws her silky jacket off as she goes. Her hat flies off and her braids stream behind her as she runs into the sea–the waves, the quick-sinking sand, even the riot of the wind blowing in, none of it seems to drag her back at all.
Kazuha's a bare hairsbreadth behind. In the back of her mind she can feel Kirigiri's hand land on her wrist, but she yanks it away with a quick, brutal yank and follows Hikari into the ocean.
Her mind is blank. All she can see are those numbers, the expression on Yoshioka's face, the long arc of her fall.
"Where is he?" Hikari gasps. Either she's too short to see that far, or more likely she can't see a luminous string of numbers on her brother's head like a crown of fireflies.
The sheer surprise of it makes her hesitate. Chizuru?
Those lights are still far. Too far.
She's never learned the trick of opening her eyes underwater but she does it now, wincing against the feeling of water sluicing over her eyes. Straining, she's almost able to see the lights.
She swims. Small limbs catch at her, and she grabs them. The panicking child, underwater, transforms into a writhing, kicking, drowning small animal, the whites of his eyes stark in the darkness of the water. She struggles too: tries to push him up, at least long enough to breathe, but he's too scared, pulling at her limbs.
Don't be scared, she tries to tell him. Only a quarter of drowning accidents are fatal.
She wants to tell him, I'm never letting anyone die again.
Tell him, Your sister's the worst person I know, but she loves you more than anything in the world.
She can't tell him any of it. She sees his wide eyes as his panic at them both, and starts pulling them towards the bottom of the sea.
It's like coming home. Froth in her ears, her mouth, the pressure that feels like an embrace. She remembers this.
Dark, hungry claws rise from the depths for her, stroking her face. It would be so easy to let go. Stop fighting the sweet pull of it, just relax.
The water shifts, takes shape: a wraith made of bleached skulls and seafoam, wearing a well-loved face.
You've landed in the worst shit, Kajiura.
Her words are like fire on oil.
The sea starts smelling of Yoshioka's perfume. The shape of Yoshioka leans forward and then her wrist is in her hand, five-finger death grip, the strength and weight of the sea.
The kid weighs her down like a sack of rocks but she has to bring him back to shore. Has to.
You can still save him. It's going to be different, this time.
But what if it isn't?
Oh my god stop panicking. You're smart. You'll figure this out.
She is, isn't she? Top of her grade. Maybe that means something after all.
She slows her breathing. Underwater, she gestures for the child to do it too.
When the kid turns wide, terrified eyes to her, she just smiles. She points at where sunlight pierces the darkness.
The boy's grip on her waist tightens.
They begin to float. When she looks down, Yoshioka's smiling at her again.
Good job, she says. That android brain of yours came in handy after all.
Can't you come up with us?
Summer's almost ended, Kajiura. Her smile is sad.
Your time's almost up, Kajiura. See you soon.
A hand shoots out of the light.
Kirigiri's face fills her vision, brighter than the gold of the sunlight dappled over the waves.
"Please," he says. "Come back. Come on. Kajiura, please."
She wants to go to him.
He dips under the water, reaching out. He mouths her name, and the fear in his eyes is a palpable thing, a thousand times more real than the timer over his head that reads 00:01:10.
She pushes the child to him.
His mouth makes the familiar shape of her name again, bubbles escaping in a steady stream, but he grabs the child.
Go, she gestures. Then, more violently: get out of here. Please.
She has never been more resigned in her life. Kirigiri was going to choose her: choose her, and take on the incredible burden of not having saved this child.
Because that was how Kirigiri was. Because that's what his love was like.
Because he would always put her first.
Not this time, she begs, with her eyes. Let me go.
Her heart catches.
Looking incandescently sad, Kirigiri nods at her. His broken heart echoing through the depths.
Kirigiri rises to the surface, and leaves Kazuha.
Oh. Is that Chizuru? She wants to look but her body's so heavy. She's so tired.
On the back of her eyelids, when the red-black fades, here's Yoshioka. She's sitting at a well-lit park bench. She's sipping a frappe, chewing on the straw.
"Yo," she says, when she spots Kazuha. "You look chipper."
"He did what I wanted. What I really wanted."
"Of course he did. He's in love with you."
"You don't understand. He picked saving that kid over me, because I asked him to."
"Alright, alright, stop gushing, oh my god." She takes a sip of her frappe. Her eyes are sparkling. "Congrats. I can't believe you're gushing over how in love you are down here. Idiot couple."
"I missed you," Kazuha says, and relishes the way Yoshioka's eyes widen, going stark and surprised.
"So stay here," she says. "You don't have long anyway. From one dead girl to the other, I recommend not drawing it out. Imagine if Sugino had seen me die."
Kazuha thinks. In this liminal space she can feel the tug of Yoshioka's words. It would be neat. It would make sense.
Yoshioka watches her, laughs. "Yeah. It was worth a try."
"What would you have done?"
"If you knew. If you had time. What would you have done?"
Yoshioka glances at the top of her head. "It's not like you have the time to go bungee jumping, robogirl."
Yoshioka blinks, takes a sip of her drink. The way she holds it with both hands is oddly childlike. It makes sense, for someone who'll be a child forever.
"I guess," she says, slow, "I guess I'd just hang out. Go to school, maybe. Run a few laps. Make everyone remember I wasn't too awful. Then I'd, I don't know. Just talk to Sugino till I couldn't anymore."
"But won't that hurt her more?"
Yoshioka looks at the dome of the ocean above her. Their surroundings are beginning to lose definition, wash away into ripples and currents. The crisp, clean-cut edges of Yoshioka are blurred.
"I guess I'd be selfish. Selfish enough to be happy, before I go."
Wake up, darling, sweetheart, love of my life. Wake up for me, one last time.
Kazuha wakes up.
Her mind has been washed clean. The blistering sunlight in her eyes feels like startling clarity.
She's on the beach. She has sand in her mouth. Gross. She spits it out.
"Kazuha," someone says, a broken, shaking voice. "Kazuha, your–there's a timer over your head."
Her eyes grow used to the sunlight. She meets Sugino's eyes.
Impossible not to see Yoshioka's bravado draped across her shoulders, like this. When the others hang back like they're at a funeral, Sugino's the only one who's still within reaching distance.
"She's right. Kajiura, what is that?"
Well. There's someone else.
Kazuha shades her eyes to look at Natori. "When did you get here?"
"A while ago. I helped to get the kid out of the sea."
Natori nods. Kazuha turns her head and spots Hikari in the distance: her eyes are wide and frantic as she drapes towel after towel over her brother, who's groggy-faced and pale, wriggling in place as his sister bundles him up.
"Shinonome was the one who gave you CPR, though. She was incredible, too."
"I'm sorry I missed that. Sounds hilarious."
A small, stifled gasp.
Chizuru is half-hidden behind Natori, her hair falling over her face. She's shrinking in on herself like someone who's never been held as she cried. Kazuha wants to hold her so badly that her hands shake.
“Chizuru,” she says, a waver in her own voice. “Come on. Nothing bad’s happened yet.”
Chizuru shakes her head, sharp, distressed.
"What are you guys talking about," Sugino says, riled now. She stands up and her hair gets tossed in the wind, her indignation surrounding her like a cloak. "What–what's that timer anyway, doesn't it mean– Why's there a minus sign, what the fuck–"
"Overtime," Kirigiri says softly.
He's hunched into himself a little ways away, not meeting anyone's eyes, his whole body dripping water. He'll catch a cold if he stays like that.
Sugino studies him for a long moment, her eyebrows pinched. "What."
"That's what my uncle used to call it. If you fail to save someone with a timer, they get some extra time. He said–it was to make peace. It shows up as negative numbers over their head."
"You uncle– what the fuck are you talking about, Kirigiri? What does any of that have to do with Kazuha?"
"He said that the negative numbers were usually for a few minutes. The longest he'd seen was one hour."
He meets Kazuha's eyes, and Kazuha smiles at him. She waits for him to say it: what she knows. What she thinks she might have always known.
A deep shudder seems to go through him, just for a moment. Then he holds himself iron straight.
He looks at Kazuha.
"The longest I've seen," says Kirigiri, soft as a song, "is when you drowned, and I couldn't save you, and you woke up with a timer for negative three months."
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