Chapter 31:

Epilogue: The Sun Rises Anyway

The Last of Our Summers

In Nagoya, autumn comes early.

He can feel the change in the air as he walks: the sharp kick of cold in the wind and the heavy heads of the trees as they shed their first browned leaves. He walks through a city he never thought he'd visit at an age he didn't think he'd live to see, and draws every breath like it's precious into his lungs.

It's their first year of college. Kazuha's been on a week-long winning streak, random bits of dumb luck piling at his feet; a whole week of red lights turning green, five hundred yen coins turning up at the seams of his pockets. He records them dutifully in his mind one by one, and then forgets, like caught fish slipping back into a dark pond. His life isn't the zero sum game he once thought it was.

At their favorite izekaya his best friend is sitting at their usual table, joined by a much-missed figure. Sugino is filing her nails with a manicure set she pulled out of her bag, her eyes sharp with concentration, but when she sees him she stands up to pull him into a hug.

"Kirigiri," she says, fierce and intense. Her hug is rib-cracklingly strong.

When she lets him go, a tug on his shirt as his best friend tries to get his attention.

"More beer," she says.

It's surreal to see them next to each other again: Aonuma and Sugino, the two girls who once squeezed his hands as his heart cracked in two on a beach.

He gets them their beer, and sits in the space they make for him. He checks his phone.

Aonuma leans into his space. "What are you looking at?"

Kazuha shows her the screen. "It's an orchid. I was just looking it up."

She pushes her hair behind her ears. She wears it short now: she turns even more heads than she used to, both for the haircut and for the way she carries herself, both haughtier and more approachable than she was in high school.

"Looks like a bee," she says.

Kazuha nods. "It's supposed to. So it can be pollinated by male bees. But the bees that pollinate this particular orchid are extinct, so the orchid just carries its memory."

She blinks. Her eyes are a little hazy. "So that means…it's dying, too?"

"That's the thing. The orchid learned to self-pollinate. That's the thing about evolution. It takes a lot to kill a thing that's trying its best to live."

A small smile, and Aonuma resting her head on the shiny surface of the table. "You sound like her."

It's always like this with Aonuma. A secret thrum of do you remember? and yeah, I do too. It's a language of its own.

"She told me about it. She thought it was romantic that the bees were remembered. She was weird about things like that."

Aonuma's mouth and shoulders are relaxed. "Yeah. She was."

"What are you two whispering about?"

Sugino returns to their table, the dim lights catching on the dyed streak in her hair. In her own way, she turns heads too. Kirigiri feels the envy directed at him ratchet up as Sugino takes her seat on his other side.

"You two are as close as ever," she says, licking the rim of her pint glass before she takes a few gulps. "Did those rumors about you living in sin die down, or what?"

As if on cue, a boy from the next table leans over. "Hey, you're Kazuha Kirigiri, right?"

Kazuha nods.

The boy's eyes are hazy, but he cheers, nudging at everyone at his table. "You're a hero, man. The way you saved that kid from that piece of falling concrete was incredible."

"Incredible," Sugino drawls. She sways over Kazuha and sticks out her hand for the boy to shake, spooking him, briefly, into sobriety. "I'm Sugino. Has my friend over here been saving lives?"

The boy starts to sweat. Sugino's top is a little low-cut. Aonuma has raised her glass to her lips to hide a smile.

"Yeah, he–um, Kazuha Kirigiri's a bit of a campus legend. Whenever something bad's about to happen, he just saves someone."

"Incredible, indeed," Sugino says. She taps her chin in thought. "Have you considered that maybe he's manufacturing these accidents to make himself seem cool?"

"Sugino," Kazuha says, amused.

"What," she leans back into her seat and curls one last smirk at the boy. She taps her forehead. "Think about it."

Aonuma smacks the back of her head. "Is this what you learned in Paris?"

"I'm in Nice, you know this," Sugino says, making a face. "All you do is bully me."

Aonuma makes a face back.

"Where's Natori, anyway?"

Kazuha checks his watch. "Should be here any minute now."

"He said he had to drop his sister home first."

"Oh snap, really? What grade's she in now?"

"She starts high school next year, I think."

"Oh god. Poor soul."

Kazuha throws his arm around Aonuma. It feels easy to lean against her, feel her hair, soft, on the inside of his elbow. "High school wasn't that bad."

Aonuma smiles, her face downturned, as she slides picks out edamame beans and makes a little pile on her side plate.

"None of us hated high school as much as Kazuha did," Aonuma says.

Sugino laughs. "Except maybe Yoshioka. God, those two really were the same person. It's uncanny."

Before the ensuing silence has time to breathe, a tall figure ducks their head into the crowded izekaya.

Natori's eyes go warm when he spots them. He picks his way carefully towards their table, conscientious as always about everyone he bumps into, who, in turn, train their smitten glances on to him. Even in an ordinary suit, his top button hanging loose, he's almost unbearably handsome.

He reaches for Kazuha first, and Kazuha finds himself in an embrace with the faded scent of cologne. "Good to see you, man."

Kazuha hugs him back. Wordless in his contentment.

Natori turns to the girls next. Sugino, he hugs with shameless enthusiasm: the girls in the bar go green with envy. To Aonuma, he's still a little formal. They step close together nonetheless, and squeeze each other, Natori's hands on her shoulders and Aonuma's on his waist.

"How has everyone been? Am I late?"

"No, man, you're good," Kazuha tells him as Sugino pours him a glass. "I'm good. Things have been quiet. Aonuma's the one to ask, really. She's dated more than half the girls on campus, including the straight ones."

Natori laughs as Aonuma rolls her eyes. "The last girl you sent pictures of was really pretty," he tells her. There is nothing but warm fondness in his tone.

Aonuma hesitates, and says, almost shyly, "Yeah. We're, um. We're trying to make things work out, maybe. It's been six months."

Natori's eyes crinkle into a smile. "Congratulations!"

Sugino finishes pouring. She sets two full glasses next to the two empty seats at their table, and clears her throat.

The rest of them fall silent.

"To Yoshioka," Sugino says. Her voice is soft and quiet. "She would have fucking loved beer."

They look at Kirigiri. He has to say something.

When he thinks of Kajiura –and he thinks of her often– he thinks of her in pieces, like a treasure stored away that would get worn from overuse. Today, he thinks of how she hated performative team spirit with a passion– the sneer of her lips as she said, we can do it if we all work together, my ass.

She was so mean.

His breath feels like it's been crushed out of his lungs. His ribs are splintering.

Kajiura, feeding him toast and watching him with badly-disguised love. Kajiura, making study schedules for them both, side-by-side, and looking up to smile. Kajiura, framed by the sea, about to die. The love of his life.

His pulse thunders in his veins. A dam has broken.

But then:

An arm around his shoulders. A small hand slipping into his. Two fingers, poking his forehead.

"Hey," says Sugino, pretend-frowning down at him. Her mouth is curved down, too. "Today isn't about that."

It's not. He closes his eyes, and thinks of the graceful, certain shapes of Kajiura's hands.

"To Kajiura," he says.

In a ten minutes, they will leave and, since there was no ocean to go to, wander around the park to talk. He will match his steps with Natori, Aonuma and Sugino, and they will spend hours under the starlight, drunk on their reunion alone.

And then they will part ways. Natori to his hectic life supporting his mother and his sisters, Sugino to the freewheeling life of studying abroad. Aonuma and Kazuha will return to the flat that they share, and they will pick up their old arguments again, about Aonuma picking up cigarettes, about where to go for dinner, the best trains to go back home. He will save more lives. Aonuma will date more girls.

A quiet sense of loneliness will engulf their apartment from time to time, a low, mournful note of a violin that makes Aonuma's shoulders hunch and Kirigiri turn his head low.

And then, even later, he'll meet someone. Someone who sees the melancholy relentless march of his heart and know that he belonged to someone else, once. He will entrust the memory of Kajiura to them: draw out, like strings of pearls, the stories of the last summer he spent with his first, lost love.

One day, he will let Kajiura go.

But not today: today, he holds her close. He sits in the circle of his friends, his unspoken grief scaffolded by their own. They are four where they once were six, hurtling to adulthood, shedding the last vestiges of of the children that they were.

He steps outside. They watch him with concern as he goes, but he just wants to feel the crisp wind on his skin, feel the air turn cool around him.

Outside, he stands under the streetlight that spills into the alley, and looks at the stars.

"I miss you," he tells them, quiet. 

The air feels clean and bright in his lungs. The whole world has been washed with color. The very cells that make up who he is have changed.

Autumn had begun.

Steward McOy
Deck of Cards
yuta yagari