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Mitsuba has a love-hate relationship with summer. On the one hand, he likes the colours, the late sunsets and the sight of a world that’s full to the brim with life. On the other hand, over eighty percent of his clothes become useless, and he’s forced to parade around town with his finger splints exposed to the world. As he wakes up to the hottest day of the year with hair that sticks to his forehead from the warmth, Mitsuba wonders if Sakura would let him borrow a pair of the lace gloves he knows they own.

 

Kou is his one saving grace- with hands that are always scarily cold, he’s like a not-quite-living ice pack that sits in the corner of Mitsuba’s room, still accommodating the beanbag despite the more relaxed guidelines. 

 

“It’s too warm.” Mitsuba groans, once he’s dressed and the curtains are thrown open to reveal the rooftops below, shimmering in the early-summer heat. Kou takes the hint, unfuses himself from the beanbag, and places a cold hand on both of Mitsuba’s cheeks. He holds his head in his palms, and Mitsuba sticks his tongue out in a way Kou knows by now to mean thank you. 

 

The traitorous thought creeps into the back of Mitsuba’s mind that it would be so easy to kiss Kou then and there. They’re barely an arms-length apart, Kou’s softer smiles aren’t wide enough for their teeth to hit together painfully, and for some reason Mitsuba likes him so much that it makes his head dizzy. He’s never kissed anyone before aside from an incident back in preschool after he was tricked into believing kisses would give him magic powers- but that doesn’t count. All that matters is that Kou is sitting so close that Mitsuba can see the tiny scar above his left eyebrow, and that crossing the distance would take no effort at all. Easy as breathing.

 

He grabs Kou’s hands by the wrist, and shoves them away. “Time’s up!” He calls, to quieten the triple-time beat of his heart. “You’ve gotta pay if you want to touch for any longer.” 

 

Kissing Kou would be the worst thing ever, he tells himself firmly. He’d be too enthusiastic, probably mess it up, and then Mitsuba would have to live with the knowledge that his first proper kiss was as terrible as they came until September sweeps around once more. Besides, his own bedroom- Mitsuba dressed for a day inside and Kou with his hair sticking up even worse than usual- is not the romantic setting he’s always imagined.

 

(Not that he’s ever imagined kissing Minamoto Kou before. Not that he thinks about it when he’s on the verge of falling asleep, and Kou is still talking softly about anything and everything from the other side of the room.) 

 

“How much do I have to pay to kick you in the knee?” Kou quips, but his ears have turned almost as red as his earring. It’s not flattering- Mitsuba tells himself. It’s not cute at all. 

 

“A lifetime in jail,” He responds, folding his arms against his chest to keep his traitorous heart in check. “For being evil and cruel and a terrible boyfriend.” 

 

“Let’s get ice cream.” Kou then attones, although let’s get ice cream usually involves Mitsuba buying himself a cone of raspberry sorbet and eating it while Kou watches and warns him when it’s about to melt down the side of his wrist. June has started warm this year, and so walking down the road to buy ice cream has become something of a ritual just for the two of them. Mitsuba denies that they’re dates. Kou calls them as such whenever he gets the chance, like the word tastes sweet on his tongue.

 

“You’re trying to waste all of my money, I knew it.” Mitsuba stands up to collect his shoes anyway. 

 

Though June has only just begun, the sky is blue and cloudless, and the air smells of summer when Mitsuba steps out of the front door, tossing Kou his keys so that he can lock up behind them. He can do it himself now with significantly greater ease, but that’s another ritual they’ve developed over time. Kou catches the keys, laughs at the excessive number of keyrings Mitsuba has collected, and the sound of key-in-lock joins the gulls in the sky.

 

Mitsuba has a love-hate relationship with summer. But as he takes the stairs two at a time and bursts out into the shimmering June air, Kou looks like he was made for it. 

 

-

 

The end of year exams are approaching, Satou brings more cakes and cookies to class by the day, and Yokoo stages an intervention in the form of a group trip to the park. Mitsuba grabs his camera as an afterthought. He has a plan to bulk-buy some photo frames so he can hang up pictures of the year all over his walls- an archive of memories from what has undoubtedly become the best year of his life.

 

As summer moves onward, the days get warmer and warmer until it’s impossible for Mitsuba to get away with even a loose cardigan. Instead, he settles for a t-shirt with a strawberry decal on the front alongside strict instructions for Kou to hold his right hand when they walk to the park. Though he’s just about grown used to the limited movement in his fingers, the splints and the angry scar across the back are still things he’s self-conscious about. (If he doesn’t want to look at them, then he can’t imagine what other people must think.) 

 

Stubborn as ever, Kou grabs his left hand instead. “It’s really not that bad, you know,” he reassures, and though Mitsuba can’t quite believe him, the certainty in Kou’s voice is almost enough to have him convinced. “People probably won’t even notice it.” 

 

Ever the optimist. Mitsuba shoves him lightly, but makes no attempt to pull his left hand free. “You’re right, people will be too busy staring at your awful earring.” 

 

“Why do you have such a problem with my earring?” Kou protests, earning an unimpressed frown in response. “It’s not that bad!”

 

“It’s tacky- just like you.” Mitsuba grins. He means it as an insult, but it comes out fonder than expected. Only now, he doesn’t have to reel it back in- he can let feelings spill over into his words unrestrained, now that summer is here and Kou is in love with him too.

 

A bubble of fond and happy thoughts rises in his chest like a tin-foil weather balloon, predicting sunny days and cloudless skies. So Mitsuba tests the waters, and steps out of his room still holding Kou’s hand tight. 

 

“Morning, Sousuke. Morning, Kou.” His mom doesn’t bat an eyelash- Kou has already established himself as a near-permanent fixture of their apartment, after all, and Yukie has always been able to read Mitsuba like an open book. He doesn’t know why he was even worried in the first place.

 

( Cute- she texts Mitsuba later, and he thoroughly curses the day Mitsuba Yukie woke up and decided she was going to be a cool mom who uses emojis and makes fun of her son’s love-life.)

 

“We’re going to the park to hang out with Yokoo and Satou,” He announces, pulling Kou over towards the door before he can strike up a good-natured conversation. They’re already running late as it is. “Don’t bother making lunch.” 

 

“I’ll put leftovers in the fridge for when you come looking for a snack later.” His mom laughs from where she’s reading something on the screen of her phone. Mitsuba wonders if he’s actually that much of an open book, or if his mom just errs on the wrong side of superhuman . He grabs his leather jacket and helmet, curses the heat, and shuts the door behind him.

 

Though the wind which flows past the motorcycle as Mitsuba drives them to the park is a welcome change from the stifling June weather, Kou’s arms wrapped comfortably around his waist are another problem entirely. His head rests against Mitsuba’s shoulder, hands clinging on tightly, and Mitsuba thinks he might just forget how to breathe somewhere between the traffic lights on the highstreet and the doors of the swimming pool down the road. 

 

Parking his bike is a nightmare as usual, so he kicks Kou off by the park gates- more for his own peace of mind than anything else- and finally discovers a place to nestle it between two cars on the far side of the road. If he looks closely, he can see a piece of garden wall that’s newer than its surroundings, patched up after a car and a boy broke it down one warm September night. 

 

The sight of it aches, but it’s no longer too painful to bear. 

 

Yokoo and Satou are already sat by the lake, always the first to arrive because Mitsuba and Kou have the combined time-keeping abilities of a broken pocket-watch, and for them to show up on time would probably tip the world off its axis. 

 

“Finally, they arrive!” Yokoo announces when they approach. Mitsuba doesn’t miss the way his arm is thrown casually over a stressed-looking Satou’s shoulders. He’d tease him for it mercilessly, if he wasn’t still holding Kou’s hand at his side. He knows what asking for trouble looks like, and currently it shares Yokoo’s wide, toothy grin. 

 

“The traffic was bad.” Mitsuba lies- it’s easier than admitting out loud that he was too scared to show the world the wreck of a hand attached to his right arm. 

 

“Yokoo wanted to buy ice cream for you when you arrived, but I told him that it would have totally melted before you got here.” Satou pipes up, and though he still looks a little stressed- always under heavy academic pressure from his family- an easy smile still slips onto his face. Mitsuba is glad to see that he hasn’t yet snapped under the tension. 

 

Mitsuba flops down heavily on the bench beside Yokoo, leaving barely enough room for Kou to perch beside him. “You have such little faith in us- where’s your sense of trust? Of respect? Of-”

 

“You lost all of my trust when you showed up half-way through Yokoo’s baseball game because you stopped to pet a cat and got lost.” The tone of Satou’s voice makes his words sound all too much like fighting talk.

 

“Hey,” Yokoo pipes up, turning to frown at Mitsuba. “You told me you were late because you needed to help your mom with the groceries!” 

 

Guilty as charged, Mitsuba raises his camera and takes a photo of Yokoo’s pouting face, just to give him something else to yell about. 

 

They get ice cream soon after, trailing through the park and stopping every few metres for Mitsuba to snap pictures of the flower beds and the trees full of leaves, so different to the reds, whites and pinks of the previous seasons. Summer is truly here, so Mitsuba buys the biggest cone of strawberry ice cream he can afford, and spends the whole walk back to the lake dodging Yokoo’s attempts to taste it as they go. 

 

Mitsuba gets photographic evidence of Satou biting into his ice cream without flinching, of the pigeons that crowd around Kou’s feet when a huge chunk of his lemon sorbet melts off the side and falls right onto the pavement, of the way Yokoo keeps linking fingers with Satou when he thinks nobody is looking. He wishes he could capture the way the summer sun turns Kou’s hair gold instead of blonde, or the way he’s yet to notice that he has ice-cream on his nose, or the way the violets they planted with their bare hands still sway, just visible over his shoulder.

 

“Once school is done, my dad said he’d be cool with driving the four of us down to the beach for a day or two, if you wanted,” Yokoo proposes, once his ice cream is eaten and Satou has berated him for getting chocolate all around his mouth. “It’s usually just Satou and me that go, but we should all be able to fit in the car.”

 

“We can put Satou in the boot if we don’t all fit- he’s small enough.” Mitsuba teases, and accepts that he probably deserves it when Satou stamps on his foot hard. 

 

Satou looks calmer as they make their summer plans, exams pushed to the back of his mind. Kou enthuses about how he hasn’t seen the sea in years- something which falls a lot heavier to Mitsuba’s ears than it does for the others. Mitsuba shrugs, and admits that it might be fun. (He knows his smile must betray his own excitement.)

 

Summer may be the last season that he’s going to have, but Mitsuba isn’t ready to loosen his grip just yet. He has the park, his friends, his boyfriend, and a few months left to go. There’s still memories he has yet to form- and he knows that this is one of them he wants to hold onto.

 

So Mitsuba jumps to his feet and props his camera on the bench across the other side of the path, angling it so that the lens is pointing in the right direction to catch where the four of them were sitting previously. 

 

“Getting a photo of all of us,” Mitsuba calls, when Satou asks what he’s doing. “Start looking pretty- and Kou, you’re still in the shot, you might want to move.”

 

They’ve already established a lie that Kou is incredibly camera-shy, so Mitsuba asking him to get out of the way isn’t an unexpected request. Only this time, Kou just grins wider. “I think I’m fine here.” He says.

 

“But you-” Mitsuba begins to speak, but the timer on the camera starts counting down from ten. He doesn’t have time to question it further, running to the bench and scrambling back into his seat. Kou throws a cold arm around his shoulder, grins supernovas into the summer-heavy air, and Mitsuba is still staring shamelessly at him when the camera shutter snaps.

 

Technically, the photo is one of the worst he’s ever taken. It’s slightly lopsided, not exactly in focus, and the magnification he had to put on will probably do a number on the image quality. But for once, he doesn’t think about the fine details. Satou is throwing a peace sign into the air and casting a sideways glance towards Yokoo, their fingers linked together. Yokoo is smiling with his entire body, eyes closed and his other hand resting on Mitsuba’s knee. Mitsuba isn’t even looking at the camera, head turned off to the side like he’s hopelessly distracted. And there, barely hanging onto the edge of the bench, is Kou. Kilowatt grin, arm thrown around Mitsuba’s shoulder, legs kicked off the ground like he’s about to fall.

 

A memory, made and captured and entirely impossible.

 

What the hell, Kou- He turns to say. 

 

“Wait, where’s Kou gone?” Yokoo beats him to it. 

 

-

 

Kou doesn’t show up the following day, completely absent from his usual position in his beanbag or hovering over Mitsuba’s desk. He’s not there on Monday either, waiting outside of the school gates. He’s not there on Tuesday, when Mitsuba stays behind in the school darkroom and develops three copies of the photo from the park- two for Yokoo and Satou, one for himself. 

 

The frames Mitsuba ordered online show up at the apartment, and he slips the photo inside; a single moment of Yokoo-Satou-Kou-and-Mitsuba on a park bench in summertime. A picture that Mitsuba wants to keep close to his heart forever. So he places it on his shelves, next to the photos of him and his mom and Kou and his family- a small collection of the things that are most important to him. 

 

He’d never admit such things out loud, though. (Not that he’d need to, when Kou can look into his eyes and see every traitorous thought he’s ever tried to hide.)

 

Kou isn’t there on Wednesday or Thursday either. Mitsuba crosses off another item on his list- learning to skim stones by the river- without Kou there to witness it. He doesn’t need Kou to help him live his life the best he can. He isn’t an essential piece of Mitsuba, like a heart or a lung or a piece of his spinal cord. 

 

But, while a person might not need both of their hands, that doesn’t mean it hurts any less when one is lost. (Mitsuba might not need Kou, but his room feels empty in all four corners without him.) 

 

-

 

On Friday afternoon, Kou is waiting by the school gates again.

 

He has the nerve to smile when Mitsuba runs over, although it’s a little more dull than usual- a sunset on a cloudy day, rather than the full heat of summer. 

 

Mitsuba is mad at him (and worried, and upset ), so he storms past and doesn’t say a word. They walk back to Mitsuba’s apartment in complete silence for what feels like the first time, and it makes the journey feel excruciatingly long. They forego the convenience store and the scenic route by the river and down the sidestreets, instead cutting directly across town. Every time Kou opens his mouth to say something, Mitsuba walks a little bit faster.

 

He doesn’t want to hear a word of what Kou has to say while they’re in public. Whatever explanation he has to give, Mitsuba knows for certain that it’s going to make him cry, or something equally as embarrassing.

 

He’s gone without an explanation until now. He can last a little while longer. 

 

Kou gives up trying once they pass the swimming pool, and that’s Mitsuba’s first indication that something is very wrong indeed. Kou is stubborn, bull-headed, and whatever the situation, he doesn’t give up. He doesn’t hang his head in shame, and he doesn’t fall behind while Mitsuba strides ahead. 

 

They pass into the apartment stairwell, before Mitsuba finally decides he has waited long enough.

 

“Where did you go?” he demands, walking straight past his own floor and continuing upwards. “How the hell did you show up in that photo? And why are you so quiet- it’s creepy!” 

 

He forces open the double doors at the very top of the stairs, leading out onto a poor excuse for a rooftop garden. Mitsuba rarely visits it- the garden aspect consists of a few withered plants lined up in pots down the middle of the roof, and the rest is an expanse of concrete that looks out over the town. The four short walls boxing it in are hardly high enough to stop someone from toppling over the edge. It’s a bit of an eyesore to say the least, but it’s quiet. Quiet is what Mitsuba needs. 

 

“I’m sorry for vanishing,” Kou says, hesitantly. You’d better be sorry, Mitsuba would tell him, if he wasn’t confused out of his mind. “I underestimated just how much energy it would take.”

 

There’s something warm and uncomfortable that begins to settle in Mitsuba’s lungs, like a threat that he will soon forget to breathe. Pieces slotting into place that he desperately wants to ignore. “As numerous as my talents are, Kou, I’m not a mind-reader.” He quips.

 

“The photo,” Kou laughs, sheepish, half-ashamed. Mitsuba knew it. “You kept talking about wanting to document your memories, so I-”

 

“So you decided to temporarily wipe yourself out of existence, just so I could take a nice picture?” Mitsuba finishes for him, and curls his hands into two uneven fists by his sides. They’re standing close to the wall, and over Kou’s shoulder, he can see the cars flying past, unaware. “You didn’t think it would be a good idea to mention it first?”

 

Mitsuba is glad that he brought them up to the roof, because at least then he can blame the tears that cling to his eyelashes on summertime pollen and the breeze which herds the clouds across the skyline.

 

“Do you not like the photo?” Kou asks- failing monumentally to read the atmosphere.

 

“Of course I like it, you idiot!” Mitsuba gives him a firm shove, one hand on each shoulder. Kou stumbles backwards, a little closer to the edge of the roof. “But I’d be fine without it too! What if you never came back? What if it took till September for you to show up again, and by that time it was all over?”

 

Only on rooftops at the cusp of summer does Mitsuba gain the ability to render Kou speechless.

 

“You can’t do everything yourself! You might not be alive- but you’re still only human!” Mitsuba continues. Another shove, another step backwards. Stupid, selfless Minamoto Kou doesn’t say a word. 

 

“Do you just do everything that people say?” Mitsuba grabs Kou’s jacket by the lapels. (He’s finally dressed for the right weather now that summer is here. That’s the least of Mitsuba’s worries.) “If I told you to jump off this building right now for me, would you do it?” Kou doesn’t reply, but the expression on his face is telling enough. “Don’t you dare even think about answering that, I swear-”

 

Mitsuba can’t remember the last time he felt this sad and this angry at the same time. It’s not just the photo- it’s every ridiculous, self-sacrificing thing that Kou has ever done- all building up to this . Mitsuba almost wants him to fight back, to give a proper explanation, but Kou offers him nothing but silence that anesthetizes limbs and makes his head spin.

 

“You’re always so stupid,” Mitsuba yells at Kou, the skyline and the buildings below. “Self-sacrificing,” He takes a step forward, then another. “Irresponsible, and-”

 

“Sousuke,” Kou says, breathless with terror. “I’m going to fall.”

 

Mitsuba comes crashing violently back down to earth. 

 

His hands grip Kou’s jacket white-knuckled, forcing him so far backwards that he’s leaning out over the top of the wall, clinging with shaking fingertips onto the edge like he’s got a life that depends on it. His entire body is tilted out into open space, and it takes Mitsuba a few terrifying moments to recover enough clarity to haul him backwards, pulling him away from the edge with shaking hands. He feels sick to his stomach.

 

“I,” Mitsuba breathes out, covering his mouth and feeling the way his breath catches in his throat. “I didn’t mean-”

 

Kou clears the space between them in what would be a sprint if he had the space to get going, and pulls Mitsuba into a hug.

 

Mitsuba is glad that the rooftop garden is rarely visited, because he loses track of how long he and Kou stand there, clinging hard to each other as if they’re still balanced on the precipice and seconds away from falling. He’s not sure which of them is shaking the hardest- it’s as if they’ve become one entity, losing all the places where Mitsuba Sousuke ends and Minamoto Kou begins. Mitsuba doesn’t want to let go. He doesn’t ever want to let go.

 

“Are you still mad at me?” A part that is probably Kou asks, muffled against a shoulder that is probably Mitsuba’s. Failing to read the room in a way that should be expected by now. Mitsuba sighs.

 

“Absolutely,” He says, each syllable losing more of it’s bite than the one before it. “I’m so angry I don’t even want to look at you.” Mitsuba couldn’t look at Kou even if he wanted to, eyesight rendered useless by the shoulder of his jacket. 

 

“Do you really think it’s that bad for me to want to help people?” Kou untangles himself and stares at Mitsuba across the small section of rooftop garden that now separates them. The question is completely earnest, and Mitsuba hates it. How can he stop Kou from giving every piece of himself away, when selflessness is as much a part of him as his eyes or his lungs? 

 

“If I got hurt trying to help you, would it be painful to you?” It’s a cheap tactic, to spin the situation on its head, but it’s all Mitsuba can think to try.

 

Kou blinks, confused. “Of course it would be.” 

 

“Then why shouldn’t it be the same the other way around?” Mitsuba says. Kou stares right into him like the world around them no longer exists, and looks as if he’s half-way to achieving a world-altering revelation. Wide eyes, mouth slightly open. Mitsuba wants to tell him he’ll catch a fly in it, if he stands like that for much longer. (Or maybe he wants to kiss him instead. Either is equally as plausible.)

 

He doesn’t do either- one thing he has over Kou is that he does know how to read the mood. 

 

“It’s not just me, either,” Mitsuba continues. “When you help people by putting yourself at risk, you just hurt them in another way entirely. Me, your brother, Amane- we’ve all felt it. Ask either of them if you want a second opinion.”

 

A car alarm sounds from the road below- a loud, jarring sound that would have made Mitsuba jump a foot in the air if he wasn’t entirely focused on something else. Something else being Kou, staring like he’s realised his own importance for the first time in his not-quite-life. 

 

“Ah.” He says, almost drowned out by the alarm.

 

“You can’t change the world on your own,” Mitsuba tells him, then shoves him in the arm weakly. Kou falling silent always feels like a premonition that bad things are about to happen. “‘Cause you’re just a human with a dumb earring and a death wish.” 

 

“I mean, I’m already dead, so-” Kou starts. 

 

Mitsuba had wanted his first proper kiss to be a romantic affair. Standing at the edge of the worst excuse of a rooftop garden for miles, eyes red from crying and his throat raw from yelling is not what he had in mind. Still, Kou is close, he’s exactly the right height to lean into, and Mitsuba can’t think of a better way to shut him up. So he stands up as tall as he can make himself, and-

 

“If I kiss you, will you be quiet?” He asks, and feels his entire face turn unflatteringly red at the statement. Kou doesn’t look much better off- eyes wide and owlish and his mouth still hanging open. At least he’s not talking any more. Mitsuba worries for a second that Kou is going to say no- that he’s moved too fast and made a mess of everything. Then, as if he’s only just remembered how to move, Kou nods. 

 

“Go on then, we can’t stand up here all day.” Mitsuba prompts.

 

“Oh, you wanted me to-” Kou looks startled, recollects himself, and takes a gentle step closer within the space of what can’t be more than a heartbeat.

 

Up at the top of their world, surrounded by concrete, blue skies and summer, Kou presses a short, hesitant kiss against Mitsuba’s lips. It’s over in seconds, but once they separate Kou is grinning like an idiot, and Mitsuba finds that he can almost forgive him for taking so long. (So long to come back, so long to accept that he can’t change the world, so long to finally let Mitsuba know that first kisses don’t need to be spectacular.)

 

“Can I do that again?” Kou asks. There’s the enthusiasm, Mitsuba thinks.

 

“You’re shameless .” Mitsuba tells him, and decides that, if the rest of summer feels like this, he’ll go down smiling.

 

-

 

The end of year exams creep up on Mitsuba in the same way that a summer storm catches people off-guard, left outside without an umbrella. He hasn’t revised as hard as he could have done- just enough to keep himself out of remedial classes over summer- and he can feel Satou’s disapproval like it’s something alive and mildly irritating. Yokoo has a similar laid-back approach- he’s aiming to go pro in one of his many sports, and he’s claimed more than once that he doesn’t need ionic bonds to kick a football or sail a boat. Satou’s exam stress manifests in the form of freshly baked goods on a daily basis, and Yokoo makes a wordless promise to check on him each night after school. 

 

Kou sits in his beanbag, mercifully excused from exams. Instead, he makes Mitsuba coffee, acts as a human ice-pack on the days when the temperature grows too warm, and sometimes perches on the edge of the bed when Mitsuba lets him.

 

Exams come and go, Satou heaves a sigh of relief over no longer having to spend all of his savings on eggs and flour, and Mitsuba comes to the harsh realisation that he’s never going to come to school again.

 

He lingers behind on their last day, despite Yokoo and Satou’s invitation to the cafe down the road to celebrate the real start of summer. A lie that he needs to use the darkroom to develop some photos, despite the fact that he did all the work he needed to at the photography club the previous evening. 

 

Instead, he stands in the middle of the empty classroom, and takes it all in. There’s his desk, one row from the window, still decorated with the flower sticker he put there at the beginning of the year. There’s Yokoo and Satou’s desks in the front row, where they always eat lunch, pushed a little closer together than two desks should be. There’s the class plants lined up by the back window, which Yokoo almost killed when he was put in charge of them back in March. 

 

He was correct when he thought to himself, a lifetime ago, that elementary school was rough, middle school was rough for entirely different reasons, and this year would be the hardest of them all. But it was also one of the best. He tackled Yokoo’s odd lunch preferences, did homework the period before it was due, and spent a whole week trying to bring the class plants back from the dead. He found best friends in the front row of desks, a boyfriend on the roof, and left memories in every corridor.

 

He pulls on his shoes, shuts his locker for the final time, and walks out of the front doors smiling.

 

-

 

“I’m offended that you haven’t taken me on a proper date yet.” Mitsuba announces, once school is over and he no longer has to think about exams or getting up early to make it to class on time. Kou frowns.

 

“I’ve been getting ice-cream with you since June though?” He questions. “I thought those were dates.”

 

“You really think that sitting on a bench outside the convenience store and watching while I eat raspberry sorbet counts as a date?” Mitsuba groans, rolling over on his bed to stare at Kou in what he hopes is disappointment. “You’re the worst at this. I bet you wouldn’t know a good date idea if it kicked you in the face.” 

 

Kou picks up a pink fluffy dog plush from the floor and throws it at Mitsuba. It misses, hitting the wall behind his head, but Mitsuba still falls back dramatically as if he’s been shot. The stack of plushies in the corner of his bed collapses, nearly burying him entirely. 

 

“Fine then!” Mitsuba can’t see from where he’s stuck under a mountain of perhaps too many plushies, but he can hear Kou’s bright grin in every corner of his words. Mitsuba groans. “I’m gonna take you on the best date ever! You won’t even know what hit you!” 

 

“Oh yeah?” Mitsuba uncovers himself, and stares at Kou in a way that he hopes looks like a challenge. “I’ll be waiting to see what the lame-earring boy with terrible taste thinks is a good date.”

 

Kou flashes his sharp canines, and clearly knows fighting talk when he hears it.

 

-

 

“Kou told me he’s gonna take me on the best date ever, then stole my laptop and locked me out of my own bedroom.” Mitsuba complains on the phone to Satou later, a tub of ice cream in his lap and a game show on the TV that he’s only half paying attention to.

 

“So, you finally took your own advice and admitted that you like him?” Satou deadpans from the other end of the line.

 

Mitsuba realises his error a second too late, and hangs up before Satou can say another word.

 

-

 

In the middle of July, Kou tells Mitsuba to pack his camera, wear comfortable shoes, and find his headphones, because he has no intention of getting a train ticket of his own. 

 

From the way Kou is talking, Mitsuba assumes that his aforementioned date idea is going to be an all-day affair, and finds that he’s feeling significantly more afraid than he did beforehand. It’s not really a date- he’s the one paying for it after all- but Kou won’t let him look at his bank transactions until the day is over, not wanting to ruin the surprise. Mitsuba just hopes he had the common sense to not go wild with the spending.

 

Most of his photography award money went into his jacket and his motorcycle, and he’d quite like to enjoy the rest of the summer without having to scrounge money off Yokoo and Satou. 

 

“You look nice today.” Kou offers as they walk to the train station, his jacket tied around his waist and one of Mitsuba’s pink hairclips he didn’t ask to borrow sitting in his hair. Left entirely in the dark about their destination, Mitsuba had decided to dress for every possible occasion- boots which he knows he can walk for hours in, dungarees that he knows look cute and stylish, and a light t-shirt to keep himself cool under the summer sun. He wonders if Kou will notice the clip-on earrings he found in his desk drawer and threw on for the occasion.

 

“I bet you’re only telling me that because you’re trying to win me over.” Mitsuba huffs under his breath, trying to keep his voice down low so that nobody thinks he’s talking to himself. He doesn’t tell Kou he looks nice in return, because he looks the same as usual- unruly hair, tacky accessories, plain trousers and t-shirt combo. Mitsuba thinks Kou is lucky that his personality is large enough to make up for it.

 

They catch the train line to Asakusa, Kou hopping over the turnstile unseen in a way that makes Mitsuba almost choke on a laugh. They manage to get a seat on the train, and Mitsuba spends the whole journey with his phone glued to his ear, pretending to take a call so he can talk to Kou without receiving too many odd looks. (An hour-long phone call may not be the best look either, but he’d much prefer looking clingy to looking like the sort of person who talks to himself.)

 

Kou, upon assuring Mitsuba that he’s visible once they’ve left the station, drags him across the river, pulls him down a street which he swears is the right one, and gets them lost within minutes. For once, Mitsuba doesn’t make fun of him for it- he rarely visits central Tokyo, but every time he and his mom have made the trip, they’ve gotten lost at least twice. It’s a rite of passage, of sorts. 

 

They wander past shops, commuters and ice-cream stands, until Kou finally turns, grins fireworks into the summer air, and points upwards at the Skytree which looms dizzyingly high into the air before them. 

 

“Surprise!” He announces, so bright and hopeful that it’s almost painful to look at. Like staring directly into the sun- brilliant, dazzling and completely hazardous to Mitsuba’s health. “One of the points in your book was to visit the Skytree, so I spent ages trying to book tickets and finding a day when it wouldn’t be that busy and-”

 

They’re in public, stood in the middle of a busy street at the base of one of Asakusa’s tourist hotspots, but Mitsuba pulls Kou into a hug anyway. “Maybe you don’t totally suck at planning dates.” He admits, reluctantly. Kou beams, and Mitsuba finds himself wishing he had brought sunglasses.

 

They catch the elevator up to the first observation deck, Mitsuba closes his eyes so he doesn’t spoil the surprise for himself, and Kou leads him up to the second, one cold hand upon his arm at all times. He opens his eyes only to step into the second elevator, after he almost trips over his own feet and Kou laughs mercilessly at him. (Mitsuba hits him, and Kou admits that he probably deserved it.)

 

“Lead me over to the window, I want to open my eyes and see it all right away.” Mitsuba instructs, and finds that he can barely keep the excitement out of his voice. Kou links their arms together and walks him over to what Mitsuba hopes is the window, stumbling over his shoelaces and laughing as they go.

 

“Okay, you can look now!” Kou announces, words filled to the brim with wonder.

 

Mitsuba opens his eyes, and the whole world extends out below his feet.

 

Normally he’d be terrified of standing at such a height, but the view knocks any semblance of fear clean out of his lungs. Instead he stares awestruck at the expanse of the city, lying like a sprawling monster as far as the eye can see- angular and catching the sunlight, living, breathing, moving. He presses his face to the window and wonders if this is what birds see, and what people mean when they say that, if they could have any superpower, it would be flight. 

 

He’s never felt so small, yet more like a giant in one single breath.

 

Kou stands next to him with his nose squashed up against the glass, trying to get a look at the cars that crawl by their feet, small as ants from their perch in the sky. He’s grinning from ear to ear, so Mitsuba can see the chip in his tooth and his sharper-than-normal canines clearly.

 

“Are you trying to fall out?” Mitsuba asks, unimpressed, and Kou finally peels his face away from the glass with a sheepish grin. 

 

Mitsuba raises his camera and begins moving around the observation deck, taking photos of the rising spines of the city below, snapshots of the jagged shapes that cut geometry into the landscape. It’s not ideal, taking photos through the glass, but he knows he’s good enough at editing to make it work. He takes a picture on his phone too- one of the view for his mom, and one of his own face against the view for Yokoo and Satou. 

 

He takes snapshots out over the river, and though the entire world lies below them, Kou is not looking out of the window at all. He’s wearing one of his softer smiles, his whole face melting into it, and he’s watching every movement that Mitsuba makes, slight adjustments of his focus, the settings, his position. He’s staring as if he’s in love in every sense of the word, and it kind of makes Mitsuba want to hold his hand or kiss him- neither of which would be any good.  

 

“I know I’m pretty, but the view is out there, idiot.” He says as compensation, and hopes his ears haven’t turned as red as they feel. He reaches out a hand to shove Kou’s face so that he’s turned towards the window again, earning a displeased shout and some odd looks from the tourists around them. 

 

On the way back down the elevator, Mitsuba decides that there’s few enough people looking to get away with kissing Kou on the cheek- a quick, wordless thank you for showing me the world which he hopes Kou can interpret. 

 

(Mitsuba may not wear his heart on his sleeve, but Kou can read him like he does.)

 

Back on the first observation deck, Mitsuba points out pieces of Tokyo that he recognises- a bridge across the river where his mom once tripped and dropped a whole crepe over the side, a green area he’s convinced is the park where a massive golden retriever knocked him clean off his feet, the tall building he’s sure he and his mom used as a landmark for when they got lost. 

 

Kou tells memories of his own, no longer having to pretend that they’re something he’s missing. he mentions the time Teru got lost in the Seibu Shibuya department store, the weekend his mom got time out of hospital and bought them on the train to buy all the street-food they wanted, the time he tried to take a train to Shinagawa but ended up in Shinjuku instead.

 

Little pieces of Minamoto Kou that Mitsuba will hold onto in place of the photos he cannot take.

 

They eat in the Skytree cafe, the views making Mitsuba’s slice of cheesecake one of the best he’s ever eaten- as he takes a photo of it sitting against the backdrop of half of Tokyo. Kou takes seven consecutive unflattering photos of Mitsuba against the window on the first observation deck, before Mitsuba bans him from photography for the remainder of their trip.

 

Because apparently, the Skytree is only the first thing on Kou’s itinerary. He borrows Mitsuba’s phone to use the map feature and takes them to an onigiri place for lunch, nestled down a sidestreet and so well hidden that Mitsuba would have walked past were it not for Kou pulling him in through the doorway. It’s quiet and the onigiri is delicious, and the traditional decorations are a nice change of pace to the business of the city beyond.

 

A quick glance at the time, and Kou announces that they have to keep moving, or they’ll be late for their next spot. Mitsuba wonders just how many things Kou has managed to prepare, especially for a person who acts like he’s never made a plan in his life.

 

Kou leads him on a veritable tour of Asakusa, pulling him back across the river to snap photos of the Kaminarimon gate with its giant lantern and crowd of tourists, stopping for ice-cream from one of the road-side vendors, then window shopping for cute clothes and stationary in the mall. They get lost more times than Mitsuba can count on both hands, and by mid-afternoon the temperature is a little too hot to bear, but for the way Kou grins expectantly every time they reach a new location, he’s willing to power through the summer heat. 

 

Lost amongst the bustling streets, Mitsuba finds that he can forget about everything aside from Kou and his ridiculous, hopeful grin. He doesn’t need to worry about the fact that his time is running out, or think about how he’s going to say goodbye to everyone, or worry about Tsukasa’s flame-lit eyes balanced on a lantern in the dark. All he needs to think about is the location of the park Kou swears is nearby, the not-yet-unpleasant ache in his ankles from walking all day, and the way Kou’s eyes flash neon beneath the billboards, trained on the screen of Mitsuba’s phone.

 

Here, nobody knows either of them. Mitsuba and Kou are just faces that will pass by on the street and be forgotten in moments, yet, surprisingly, Mitsuba is okay with it. He’s learned by now that he can’t leave pieces of himself in everyone’s memories- so instead he will just have to make sure that, to those who do remember him, he is nothing short of unforgettable. 

 

Kou points out the entrance of Sumida park, where the spire of the Skytree looms up past the tree branches and the expanse of the river, and he stares at Mitsuba as if getting lost was something he had planned from the beginning. Their fingers still link together even though there’s no longer a risk of getting separated in the crowds, and Mitsuba wonders if summer has always looked this bright. (Maybe it’s just Kou, turning the whole world around him electric.)

 

They settle by the banks of the river while the sun begins to dip in the sky, and Mitsuba snaps photos of the way it stains the water surface golden. Kou taps his fingers against the edge of the bench and waits impatiently for Mitsuba to finish- which only encourages Mitsuba to take even more time adjusting the settings of his camera to see the way his frown deepens by the second. 

 

“So,” He starts, when Mitsuba is finally satisfied enough to lower his lens. “How was that for a date?” 

 

The enthusiasm of Minamoto Kou knows no limits, and Mitsuba almost laughs at how eager he sounds. Like the golden retriever that had almost squashed him flat last time he visited Asakusa over a year ago. “It was alright, I guess.” He teases, just to watch how quickly Kou’s mood can change. 

 

“Come on, it was way more than alright, I spent hours planning this!” Kou tries to defend himself and his elaborate date ideas, and Mitsuba can’t help but be impressed. Kou put a hundred and ten percent into every single corner of Asakusa that he dragged Mitsuba to, each moment planned to the tiniest detail by a person who is usually as spontaneous as they come. He’s ticked at least three things from Mitsuba’s list in the course of one day, shown him what it would feel like to fly, and smiled alongside him even when they got lost and the weather felt too warm to breathe past. Alright is far too small of a word to describe it.

 

Though they’re in public, Mitsuba leans his head against Kou’s shoulder, curling up close and watching pedestrians, the river and time drifting on by.

 

“It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had.” He admits, in a small, barely-there voice. A piece of honesty that makes his entire chest feel warm.

 

“That’s more like it.” Kou laughs. Even as they walk to the station and catch the train back home, he’s still beaming from ear to ear.

 

-

 

“Someone looks like they had fun.” Yukie teases when Kou performs a charade of dropping Mitsuba off at the apartment door, and Mitsuba can’t quite manage to school the smile off his face in time. 

 

“It wasn’t fun at all. We got lost and Kou made me pay for everything.” He grumbles in response, and hates the way his voice betrays how his heart is doing backflips behind his ribcage. 

 

“Sounds terrible.” His mom grins, like she doesn’t believe him in the slightest.

 

-

 

Mitsuba regrets spending so much money on the trip to Asakusa when Yokoo and Satou invite him and Kou to the arcade in the center of town. Neither of them mention it out loud, but it’s clearly a double date- right down to the way they pack into a cafe booth to get milkshakes beforehand. Mitsuba and Kou on one side, Yokoo and Satou on the other, nudging each other’s ankles under the table. 

 

Saving his money for the actual arcade, Mitsuba just steals sips of Yokoo and Satou’s drinks, pockets heavy with the knowledge that he’s going to have to pay for Kou as well- grim reaper boys don’t get allowances or have savings to tap into, after all. While Kou may be able to slip unseen onto public transport, and he has no need to buy food to eat- he still hasn’t found a way of ghosting himself onto the claw machines at the arcade. 

 

Mitsuba considers emailing Sakura again, to ask how they go about budgeting the not-quite-human that lives in their bedroom. He shoots Kou a withering glance, for good measure.

 

“You know, Satou is actually really good at DDR,” Yokoo pipes up, whipped cream from the top of his milkshake stuck to the corners of his mouth. Mitsuba hopes, for the sake of his sanity, that Satou doesn’t do something gross like wiping it off for him. “He hasn’t done it in a while, but I bet he could beat any of you.” 

 

Mitsuba goes to say that he’s already had enough of broken bones, and would quite like his ankles to stay intact too. Kou beats him to it, slapping his hands down on the tabletop with a wicked grin.

 

“You’re talking to the reigning DDR champion of my former Middle School- wanna bet?” He challenges. Mitsuba waves goodbye to all his hopes of saving enough money to buy himself a four-pack of puddings from the store later.

 

“I bet you’re just making that up,” Mitsuba prods Kou in the arm, voicing his displeasure in the way he does best. “You’re too clumsy and uncoordinated.”

 

Satou laughs sharply, endlessly amused by the betrayed expression on Kou’s face. “You’re supposed to be rooting for him, Sousuke!”

 

Mitsuba folds his arms with a sense of finality. “I’m not going to root for someone who’s probably going to lose because he’s terrible at DDR.” 

 

Unfortunately, Kou is- as he said- really, really good at DDR.

 

It’s like he reserves every bit of his coordination solely for the act of stamping on flashy light-up arrows, hitting each one perfectly on-beat in a way that’s as mystifying as it is impressive. Mitsuba accuses him of cheating. Kou throws his jacket at him and calls him a sore loser. Satou is good too, but Kou completely wipes the floor with him three songs in a row before he admits defeat, and announces Kou the reigning DDR champion of his former Middle School and the cool people (including Yokoo and Kou) group too.

 

“Why are you even so good at this?” Mitsuba asks later, once Kou finishes up a solo song and Mitsuba can stop watching him in mystified silence. 

 

Kou turns to him, expression completely deadpan. “Teru-nii and I used to use it to settle arguments.”

 

The image of Minamoto Teru on a DDR machine is not one that Mitsuba wants to entertain, so he nips the conversation in the bud then and there.    

 

Yokoo is the next of the group to come close to running out of money, feeding most of his spare change into the claw machine in an attempt to win a penguin plushie which he’s convinced looks like Satou. He keeps trying despite Satou’s constant reminders that the machines are rigged and that he’s never going to manage it, scooping up the penguin on his second-last try and depositing it right into Satou’s arms. Mitsuba reluctantly admits that he’s impressed, and immediately turns to Kou to ask why he’s not putting in a similar level of effort to win him prizes.

 

“You already have enough plushies to populate a small country, Sousuke.” Satou jokes, the penguin tucked under his arm while they wander around to find the racing games that Yokoo swears are more fun than they sound. 

 

“You’re all so mean, ” Mitsuba huffs to himself. “Next you’ll all be ganging up on me to do who knows what, and-”

 

Kou grabs Mitsuba from behind, effectively transforming his words into a shriek and hoisting him kicking and squirming off the ground. Mitsuba struggles and yells that there’s a pervert trying to get me send help and Kou deposits him ungracefully onto the floor of the arcade with a heavy thud. Mitsuba has always been proud of his ability to fake-cry, so he blinks heavily until crocodile tears cling to his eyelashes and Kou hauls him back to his feet with a groan.

 

“Your personality is so, so terrible.” Kou laughs, half fond and half disbelieving. Both a ‘ why do I stand you’ and an ‘ I like you anyway’ rolled into one.

 

“But you’re still hanging out with me.” Mitsuba wipes away his fake tears with a grin, and the words taste like strawberry milkshakes and late September.

 

“Where’s Yokoo and Satou?” Kou glances from one end of the row to the other, and finds that they’ve long since been left behind.

 

Mitsuba beats all three of them at Yokoo’s racing games, experience with riding an actual motorcycle giving him a tactical advantage- or so Satou claims, hopping down from the plastic-clad silhouette of a fake bike. “Maybe I’m just naturally brilliant.” Mitsuba quips in response, a self-satisfied smile putting all of his teeth on display. 

 

“We should do this again.” Yokoo announces, once they’ve pooled all their remaining money into a four-pack of puddings from the supermarket and settled down on a bench by the side of the road. They share a single plastic spoon between the four of them- because Satou was the only person sensible enough to grab one.

 

They hang out as a group all the time- almost every other day now that summer is upon them- so Mitsuba can only assume that this refers to the whole double-date thing. To the fact that nobody cared when Yokoo kissed Satou on the forehead after he finally won against Kou at DDR, or that Mitsuba and Kou have been holding hands for the past fifteen minutes despite the summer heat. Letting bits of their affection bleed out unrestrained for the others to see. A secret, seen but not spoken.

 

Mitsuba considers telling them no, because it’s already late July, and he doesn’t want the Yokoo and Satou of September and beyond to keep habitually planning dates that work best with four. Over one short year, they’ve built so many habits together- he doesn’t want going to arcades and cafes to become painful for them too. (As much as he complains, as much as he doesn’t know how to tell them as such, he still wants Yokoo and Satou to be happy- both as Yokoo-and-Satou and as individuals too.)

 

Kou nudges him in the arm, and doesn’t need to say a word to tell him why start holding back now?

 

Mitsuba nudges back, and doesn’t need to say a word to tell him thank you.

 

“Only if we go somewhere that isn’t going to enable Kou to spend all my money on dance games.” he reasons, wearing an imitation of Kou’s kilowatt grin for good measure.

 

-

 

“I don’t know how to make it hurt less.” Mitsuba tells Sakura in the cafe again, watching as they pour out one cup of tea, then another.

 

“You can’t,” They say, and through the shifting lights of the stained glass windows, Sakura is smiling. “It’s going to be painful no matter how you cushion the fall- so why not have fun while you’re at it?”

 

-

 

Mitsuba doesn’t like packing.

 

For one, he’s come to realise that his wardrobe is far from beach-suitable, mainly consisting of jeans and sweaters which would lead to a case of heatstroke if he wore them to the coast in the midst of summer. It’s only a three day trip- Yokoo’s dad will drive them down on Monday morning, they’ll stay two nights with Yokoo’s grandparents, and then be collected again on Wednesday afternoon. Mitsuba doesn’t have enough clothes for one day on the beach, nevermind three. 

 

I’m taking you sailing, so bring something you don’t mind getting damp in! Yokoo’s statement in the cool people (including Yokoo) chat earlier had only complicated things further. Mitsuba considers faking a sudden, tragic illness and staying in his room all week instead. He sits in a pile on the floor consisting of half his wardrobe, and Kou perches on the edge of the bed, dead-set not helping at all.

 

“You know,” Kou muses. “I think some of my old clothes would fit you.”

 

Mitsuba shoots him a withering look, but still finds himself standing on the doorstep of the Minamoto household an hour later, with the terrible burned-out husk of the neighboring home standing like a memorial across the street. He tries not to look at it, tries not to taste the phantom tang of smoke upon his tongue. 

 

To a normal person, it would appear beyond odd to stand upon someone’s doorstep and ask to borrow a box of summer clothes from their late younger brother. Thankfully, Minamoto Teru is not a normal person- when he answers the door he’s wearing a ceremonial robe and is followed by a cloud of incense that’s almost strong enough to make Mitsuba cough up a lung, and he simply nods reluctantly towards his request.

 

If there’s one thing that Mitsuba has learned, it’s that Teru would likely do anything for his brother. Not just out of guilt, but because Kou is clearly one of the few people that Teru has ever cared about. He wonders, briefly, if that’s just part of having a sibling. (Then he thinks of the grim-reaper boys Tsukasa and Amane, and realises that can’t be true in all cases.)

 

Teru forces the box into Mitsuba’s hands, parcel-taped shut and marked with the kanji for Kou’s name. Mitsuba just hopes it’ll fit on the back of his bike. He turns to leave, not wanting to stand under Teru’s cold stare for a moment longer than necessary.

 

“Do you care about him?” Teru calls down the street, stood in the doorway in his ceremonial robes, the visage of a spirit himself. He looks not-quite-human in a different way to Kou- like he has eyes which have seen far too many things, and all of them have turned his soul to ice fractals. Mitsuba almost feels bad for him. (Almost- because Teru is scary and has threatened him more than once.)

 

“Of course I do.” Mitsuba replies. More than I care about most things.  

 

Satisfied, Teru retreats through the front door, and slides it closed behind him. 

 

Back in his bedroom, Mitsuba and Kou divide up the clothes between themselves. Mitsuba blatantly refuses all of the animal print T-shirts, and instead steals each pair of shorts for himself, leaving Kou with only the trousers. He’s just going to have to make do with rolling the cuffs up and hoping for the best. He packs some of his usual outfits too; for wearing around the Yokoo family home and making a good impression on his grandparents. (He’s heard rumours from Satou that Yokoo’s grandmother makes some killer dorayaki, and he’s hoping to score himself an extra helping or two.)

 

It takes him, Kou and his mom’s combined effort to get his bag shut, but he announces that it’ll be worth it in the end. His mom just rolls her eyes, and asks them if she should make some iced coffee for all their hard work and effort.

 

Yokoo’s dad picks them up early the next morning, Mitsuba and Kou piling into the back with Satou, while Yokoo has the time of his life and all the legroom in the world in the front seat.

 

“Kou, you’re always so cold, ” Satou complains from where he’s crammed between Kou and Mitsuba in the middle seat, knees bunched up to make room for his overnight bag on the floor. “You’ve got to have some sort of circulatory issue going on.”

 

Kou laughs and tells him a sheepish ‘ something like that’, which makes Mitsuba feel both sad and amused in the same instance. If no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Satou knew the truth, then he’d probably lose his mind. (If no-nonsense, matter-of-fact Satou knew the truth, then at least Mitsuba would get to say a proper goodbye.)

 

The hour-long drive to Kamakura is filled with Yokoo shouting over the back seat about all the places he wants to take them, and 80s pop music drifting from the car’s speaker system and out of the open windows. They pull up outside of Yokoo’s grandparent’s house, facing towards the docks so the yachts and sailing boats can be seen bobbing upon the water from most of the windows. As soon as they’ve been introduced to his grandparents- two former competitive sailors who could never quite give up the ocean- Yokoo leads them down to the sailing club to show them his boat. 

 

Mitsuba doesn’t know a single thing about sailing, but as long as Yokoo is excited about it, then he supposes he’s fine with hearing about rope types and wind conditions. Satou smiles like he’s heard the same spiel enough times to recite it off by heart, but is still no less entertained by it. Perhaps Yokoo feels the same when Satou rambles about the changes he’s made to his favourite cake recipes. Perhaps Kou feels the same when Mitsuba talks about shutter speed and aperture values while taking snapshots of the park. 

 

“He sails like a madman then tries to peer-pressure you into jumping in the water with him afterwards,” Satou warns when they trail back to the house to get lunch and prepare to spend the rest of the afternoon on the beach. “I’d put something waterproof over your hand splints if I was you.”

 

Lunch ends with Yokoo’s grandfather telling all the embarrassing stories about Yokoo that he can think of. Mitsuba revels in it, until Yokoo decides to bring up his five minutes of infamy from the third year of middle school, when Mitsuba smashed a classroom window with a bottle rocket during a science lesson. (He had clearly been mistaken in assuming that everyone had forgotten about that by now.)

 

Kou chooses to confess his own embarrassing middle school story to even the playing field, admitting that he once dodged class using labour pains of all things as an excuse, a fact which almost makes Mitsuba and Yokoo’s grandmother choke on their drinks. 

 

After eating, they get changed into clothes that are more beach-appropriate, and take a short walk along the coastline. The waterfront is already packed due to the hot weather, luring locals and holiday-goers alike from their bedrooms, but Yokoo knows the area well. He leads them to a part of the beach off to the side which is usually quiet, throwing out a towel over the sand for them all to sit on. 

 

The four of them pass an inflatable beach ball back and forth in a circle, then gang up on Satou to bury his legs in the sand after he almost sends the ball flying into the waters of Sagami bay, never to be seen again. Kou sprawls out backwards in the sand after claiming that he’s immune to sunburn, and Mitsuba sighs because he doesn’t doubt that for a second. 

 

It’s strange seeing Kou, dressed in beach clothes and lying flat on his back under the sun, looking like any normal boy taking a holiday with his friends. Since that cold night in September, he’s only seemed to grow more and more human- alive in every sense aside from the heart that doesn’t beat in his chest. He’s made a place for himself amongst the living, and despite his claims that being visible all the time is exhausting, it doesn’t seem to bother him at all. Mitsuba flops down next to him, melting into the warmth of the sand against his back and trying desperately to avoid the thought of having to brush it out of his hair later.

 

“Hey,” Mitsuba whispers, just over the crash of the waves and the chatter of beachgoers all around them. “Is this not really tiring for you?” 

 

Kou hums, nestling into the sand like a sleepy cat. “It is a bit, but I don’t mind it. I’m having fun here.”

 

Mitsuba feels uncharacteristically glad that Kou is doing something for his own sake for once. It makes an entire wasps nest buzz in his ribcage, so he swings his hand out to the side and hits Kou hard in the chest, anything to avoid the way his satisfied grin is dangerously contagious.

 

“Gross,” He tells Kou in mock disgust, and the corners of his mouth hurt from trying to suppress a smile. “For someone who’s so rough, you’re way too sappy.” 

 

Kou’s grin turns altogether more dangerous. “You think I’m rough?” he asks, and Mitsuba yells as Kou grabs his ankles before he can even think to roll out of the way. “I’ll show you rough if you want!”

 

Mitsuba isn’t sure if he’s shrieking or laughing as Kou drags him by his legs over the sand- either way, his hair is a mess, his face is as red as summertime strawberries and his ribs ache in the best possible way. 

 

“Unhand him, you fiend!” Yokoo intervenes, catching onto Mitsuba’s yelling and staging a mock rescue attempt, complete with cheesy one-liners, finger guns and Satou trailing behind him with an amused grin on his face. Mitsuba laughs so hard there’s tears in his eyes as Yokoo grabs Kou around the waist and the three of them toss him kicking and screaming into the waves.

 

He resurfaces with his hair dripping saltwater down his forehead, clothes soaked through, and grinning so brightly that it eclipses the sun out of the sky and leaves Mitsuba dazzled yet unable to look away all the same. While looking at Minamoto Kou, the sun has never felt more close to earth.

 

“Did you take your hand supports off?” Kou asks, sat up to his shoulders in the seawater. 

 

“Yeah, why?” Mitsuba responds, and supposes he had it coming for him when Kou pulls him into the waves to join him.  

 

-

 

“All those in favour of blaming Kou if we get colds and ruin the trip?” Mitsuba announces, a towel draped over his head to dry off his soaked hair.

 

Three hands go up, and three pairs of eyes turn to glare at one very sheepish Minamoto Kou.

 

-

 

Yokoo takes them sailing early the next morning, pulling the covers off their futons and throwing open the curtains at a time that’s definitely not acceptable for the middle of summer vacation. “We’ve gotta get onto the water before it gets busy!” Yokoo reasons, already dressed in water-shoes and one of his many boat-decal t-shirts, ready to go. 

 

As they eat breakfast, Yokoo talks animatedly about the weather conditions, how it’ll be perfect to steer his racing yacht out into the bay and stop for snacks with a full view of Kamakura, Enoshima and the mountains beyond it. They pack dorayaki covered in five layers of plastic wrap to keep it dry, a bottle of fruit juice to share and some leftovers from dinner the night before- none of which Satou claims will survive the journey un-squashed.

 

Yokoo’s boat isn’t actually his boat at all- it’s his dad’s old racing yacht, put out of action after a career-ending injury until Yokoo was old enough to learn how to sail it himself. “He only ever uses it for day-trips and practice, but he was taught to sail by racers so,” Satou laughs, conspiratory. “I hope you don’t get seasick.”

 

“I only sail dinghies back at home,” Yokoo explains, reminding them of yet another of his many sports. (Mitsuba thinks it’s no wonder he’s always doing his homework over lunch break.) “So it’s always fun to come here and get to go out in a proper boat.” 

 

They get kitted up with buoyancy aids, hop into the hull of the yacht as if bobs steadily in the water, and Satou warns them to hold on right as Yokoo angles them into the wind. The sail catches, and they go flying out into the bay. 

 

It’s about as thrilling as it is terrifying. Mitsuba can feel his heart doing doubletime as they skip over the waves, and beside him Kou grips the bag of dorayaki tightly to his chest like it’ll do anything to protect him should he topple off the side. Managing the tiller at the back of the boat, Yokoo looks delighted, steering them into the wind with careful actions that keep them moving. He’s got sea-spray in his hair, he’s grinning like he’s only just come alive while out on the water, and Mitsuba feels warmth spread through every bone in his body.

 

It’s not the same sort of warmth from September, back when he had a stupid crush on a boy that looked like a golden retriever puppy. Instead, it’s just happiness, that he got to spend a year sharing pieces of the things his friends love most. If he had never sat down and stolen a bite of fried potatoes, he’d never have learned that, instead of just being a boy with soft hair and a nice smile, Yokoo comes alive on the waters of Sagami bay, or that Satou may be good at maths, but he also secretly likes baking shows and cries whenever the dog dies in movies.

 

“Is it safe to lean out of this thing?” Mitsuba calls, struck by a sudden sense of bravery and freedom.

 

“As long as you don’t fall!” Yokoo shouts back over the wind, and adjusts the tiller to turn them into it. 

 

And so Mitsuba grips the railing and tips his head back, until he feels the seaspray on his face, the sun in his hair and the water below moves past like he’s soaring. Mitsuba never wrote learn to fly in his book because it always seemed like an improbable wish. Here, on the water, and there, at the top of the Tokyo Skytree, he thinks he might have just about managed it.

 

“Why can’t you do something cool like this?” He asks Kou once he’s pulled himself back over the edge, hair flecked with saltwater and his heart singing in his throat. Kou, still clutching the dorayaki to his chest, threatens to push him overboard.

 

Yokoo angles the boat to a halt in the middle of the bay, lined up with the seafront. From out there on the water, Mitsuba can see the slope of the trees, the sprawl of the town buildings, people laying out their blankets for a day on the beach and the electric railway passing along the coastline. Yokoo drops the sails so they can remain stationary, and Kou uncovers the dorayaki from its five layers of plastic wrap, finding it significantly more squashed than it was before they left. Kicking off his shoes and dangling his feet into the water, Yokoo lets out a content sigh, clearly as much at home out on the water as he is on dry land.

 

“I thought you’d be the sort to get scared out on the water, Sousuke,” Satou muses around a mouthful of red bean paste. “I definitely was when Yokoo first dragged me on one of these things.”

 

Mitsuba shrugs. “I haven’t been scared of much lately.” He admits. Too many other things to think about. “I guess getting into that accident back in September made everything else seem pretty safe in comparison.”

 

“Can I tell you all something important?” Yokoo then pipes up from the back of the yacht, before Satou has the time to say anything more. He pulls his legs back over the side, sitting cross-legged at the rear with the tiller beside him and his hair windswept.

 

Satou looks just as confused as Mitsuba feels, and if it’s something Yokoo has yet to tell even Satou, then Mitsuba knows it must be something serious.

 

Yokoo takes a deep breath, in and out to the swell of the waves. “I think I’m going to move in with my grandparents after graduation next year,” He says. “I want to start sailing properly, and I got scouted to start training on Enoshima full time, once I’m out of highschool.”

 

There’s silence, split only by the lap of the water against the hull, then Satou reaches across the boat and hits Yokoo lightly in the arm. “How is that a secret?” He laughs. Yokoo stares at him, both bewildered and starstruck. “That’s brilliant!”

 

“I,” A nervous laugh bubbles up in Yokoo’s throat. “I thought you’d all be mad at me for wanting to move away.”

 

I’m not going to be around to see it, anyway. Mitsuba thinks.

 

“Did you forget that cars and trains exist, idiot?” Mitsuba says instead, because summer isn’t over yet. “It’s not like you’re moving to the other side of the world or anything.”

 

“Yeah, I’m just mad that you thought we’d be angry at you for relocating an hour down the road,” Satou pushes Yokoo in the arm a second time, a fond smile worn clearly on his face. “Anyway, if that’s the case, then I have a secret to tell you all too.”

 

“Oh?” Kou asks, although his grin is a little less bright than usual, sat amongst talk of a future he had stolen from him. 

 

“I know my mom wants me to be a lawyer like my sister, and my dad wants me to study medicine and become a doctor- but I think I might sign up for a culinary course, once I’ve graduated,” Satou admits, smiling across the bay. “I might not end up going anywhere with it, but baking is, like, one of the only things that keeps me sane. Might as well try to make something out of it, right?”

 

Mitsuba tries to blame the ache in his gut on the rock of the waves or an undercooked bit of dorayaki. Anything but envy. “Don’t forget us when the two of you are world-class pastry chefs and olympic sailors.” He says, and wishes it could be little more than a joke.

 

“What about you two then?” Yokoo asks, playing with the mainsail ropes as he speaks. “What big dreams do you have for after graduation?” 

 

There is no graduation, says the notebook on Mitsuba’s desk and the constant ache in his right hand and Kou sitting cold and dead beside him. Perhaps this time last year, he would have said something about photography- travelling the world with only his camera for company, making a name for himself that nobody will ever forget. 

 

“I’m just taking things as they come,” Mitsuba says now, grabbing Kou’s hand to hold him steady. “Both of us are.”

 

“Ahh I wish I could have that sort of self-confidence,” Satou sighs, and though Mitsuba wasn’t exactly lying as such, he still plays right into it. “I’ve been stressed over this for months.

 

“We should head back before the wind drops- I want to take you to Enoshima on the electric railway before lunch.” Yokoo announces then, shattering the stillness with a tug of the mainsail rope. They go flying back across the bay, and Mitsuba remembers how to breathe once more.

 

-

 

Yokoo digs out a disused firepit from a store cupboard in his grandparents’ house, and three of them huddle around it in the yard, listening to the snap of the firewood and the crash of the incoming tide against the shoreline beyond the front door. Satou prods at the fire with a stick to keep it burning, and Mitsuba is glad of the way that the flickering warmth staves off any thoughts about time running out. It’s as if the spit of the embers drives it to the outskirts of their makeshift circle, warned off like a hungry beast that lies in wait. Just for now, Mitsuba can afford to pay it no mind.

 

Instead, he steals everyone’s marshmallows because he keeps burning his own ones, boos at all of Yokoo’s bad campfire stories, and lies that Kou is still tired from their walk up to Hasedera temple earlier that afternoon. (He can’t tell them that Kou cannot look at fires larger than a camping stove without freezing up, because he knows what it’s like to burn alive.) 

 

They sit and talk until they’re all out of marshmallows and the fire is barely a low belly of embers in the pit, so Kou deems it safe to join them outside, just about able to ignore the glow in front of him. He doesn’t stay out for long, none of them do, as Yokoo’s grandmother calls out of the upstairs window for them to go back inside before they disturb the neighbors with their chattering. 

 

Yokoo and Satou head up to their futons in the guest room, Mitsuba and Kou settle in for another night on the living room floor, exchanging goodnights and a promise to get up early to spend as much time as possible on the beach the following morning before they have to leave.

 

Mitsuba soon finds that he can’t sleep.

 

Now that the fire has died down, the conversation on the boat and the knowledge that summer isn’t going to last much longer hangs heavily over his head, enough to have him tossing and turning under the covers. He gives up after an hour, pulls on his shoes and heads out of the front door, slipping one of the spare keys Yokoo told them to use under a flower pot by the door. 

 

He walks barefoot across the road and down to the beach, entirely empty in the late-night darkness. The landscape is lit only by the moon hanging overhead and the bob of the boats in the marina, where Yokoo plans to move during a next year which Mitsuba will never experience. 

 

He hasn’t thought about dying for a long while. It had to catch up to him eventually.

 

As if he can get away from it, he tears off running across the sand, kicking up the beach behind him and letting out a yell that turns into a sob halfway up. He presses the heels of his palms against his eyes and runs blindly- not caring where he’s going, or if he runs into anyone, or if he ends up knee-deep in the water, still dressed in his pyjamas.  

 

Though he may have lived life the best he could, ticked off almost every item on his list and left memories which will remain for years after he’s gone, that doesn’t mean it’s something he’s ready for. He’s seventeen, he shouldn’t be even a quarter of the way into his life, and here he is, living with the knowledge that September is as far as he gets to go.

 

Half-way across the beach, he trips over his own feet, tumbles face first into the sand and rolls till he’s lying flat on his back under the stars, so out of breath that his lungs hurt and his throat burns and there’s sand sticking to the tear-trails on his cheeks. 

 

“You know,” And then Kou is lying beside him on the ground, like he’s got a sixth sense for all the times that Mitsuba needs him most. “When I first realised my brother and sister couldn’t see me, I jumped in the river and tried to swim from one end of town to the other. Sometimes you’ve gotta do weird stuff as an outlet.” 

 

Still too out of breath to speak, Mitsuba just shoves him weakly in the shoulder.

 

Kou’s voice takes on a softer note, and his eyes have the same comforting warmth as a childhood bedroom covered in glow-in-the-dark stars. “It’s a terrible thing to have to deal with. You don’t have to be okay with it all the time.”

 

Finally, Mitsuba manages to get enough air into his lungs to form words again. “I don’t think I could have spent this year doing anything better,” He says, and tastes salt in the back of his throat. “But I wish it never had to end. I don’t want summer to be over.”

 

Kou’s hand finds its way into his. “I don’t want it to end either. I’m going to miss feeling so alive. I’m going to miss everything. ” 

 

“It’s unfair and awful and I hate it and-” Mitsuba presses his palms against his eyes as if it’ll do anything to stop his tears. “And fuck I just got sand in my eye-” 

 

He peels himself up from the beach, though only to rub at his eye with the hem of his shirt in an attempt to get the sand out. He blinks furiously and his sobs turn into laughter that verges on the side of hysterical. “Come on,” He chokes out, feeling entirely ridiculous. “I can’t even cry in peace without something happening.”

 

Kou then offers him his jacket, something he must have pulled on before he left the living room not long after him. “Maybe we should go back inside.” He offers, in a small, quiet voice that doesn’t suit him at all.

 

He says it in the same voice he used to ask Mitsuba if he was ready to go , back in September.

 

He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be ready, not fully. (There’s no avoiding it, though.)

 

“Just, let me do one more thing,” Opening his eyes tentatively, Mitsuba scrambles to his feet and runs off down the beach, until he’s submerged up to his ankles in the waves and the edges of his pyjama trousers are soaked through. He cups his hands around his mouth, blinks tears out of his eyes, and yells into the bay as loud as he can.

 

“Don’t you dare forget me!” He shouts, and it echoes across the beach, ringing into the night sky and joining the steady crash of the waves around his legs. Mitsuba doesn’t know who he’s talking to- the sky, the town of Kamakura, Yokoo and Satou, or Minamoto Kou standing on the shoreline. Maybe it’s all of them. Maybe it’s the whole world.

 

Even if summer ends, its memories will cling for years to come. 

 

It hurts- it hurts so much that it crushes his chest and makes him feel as though he can’t breathe- but at least he’s not alone. 

 

At the very least, future world-class pastry chef Satou, future olympic sailor Yokoo, and Minamoto Kou with fireworks for eyes will remember him.

 

“I think I’m ready now.” He says. Kou smiles slow and sad, like he knows Mitsuba isn’t just talking about going back to bed. 

 

-

 

Mitsuba packages Kou’s old clothes back into the box they came in, folding each ridiculous patterned T-shirt as carefully as he can with only one working hand. There’s a sense of finality to it which he isn’t fond of- feeling significantly like he’s packing away a piece of summer for good. 

 

Though, it had to come eventually. It’s August, he’s crossed over into his final month, and everything feels like it’s rushing by at a pace that’s too fast for him to match, even when he’s sat upon his motorcycle and driving back to the Minamoto household. Kou accompanies him this time, perched on the back of the bike with the box of clothes in his lap, bringing a part of himself home for what might be the last time.

 

“I know he won’t be able to see me, but it just feels like something I have to do.” Kou speaks over Mitsuba’s shoulder, and his words are heavy with acceptance. Mitsuba knows the sound all too well- taking things as they are is something he’s had to grow accustomed to.

 

He parks up his bike, and doesn’t turn to look at the burned out husk of the house across the road. Mitsuba Sousuke doesn’t want to die- but at least he got a chance that many others did not. At least he gets a choice of the sort of grief he wants to leave behind. He won’t be ripped from the world; he will leave it living his life to the fullest. 

 

Kou stays sitting on the rear of the bike, and Mitsuba takes the box of clothes from him without another word.

 

Teru opens the door, looking down in barely-veiled surprise as he catches the sight of Mitsuba standing on the doorstep, re-sealed cardboard box in his arms and Kou standing sentry by the motorcycle, unseen. 

 

“I was under the impression that you were planning to keep them.” Teru admits, bemused. He’s not wearing ceremonial robes this time, instead dressed like any normal college student- aside from the traditional bracelet around his wrist and the weight of the world on his shoulders. (Nothing Mitsuba could tell him- about Kou, about how alive he still is despite everything- would ease Teru’s guilt. This much is certain.)

 

“I’m offended that you think any of those clothes are to my taste,” Mitsuba jokes, then lets out a heavy sigh he thinks he must have been holding since he placed the final line of tape along the lid of the box. “I think this’ll be the last time I see you, so I wanted to tie off any loose ends.”

 

Teru has told many times of how the Minamoto family dabbles in the supernatural, and so Teru just nods in acceptance. “I figured as much.” He says, understanding in a way that only a person who has felt grief’s knife-blade sharpness ever could.

 

“Well,” Mitsuba says, ducking his head into a stiff, shallow bow. “Thank you for everything.” He retreats down the pavement, back towards where Kou waits and the burned-out building looms over the street as a permanent reminder of just how cruel the world can be.

 

“Mitsuba,” Teru calls down the path after him, a sudden afterthought. “Good luck.”

 

When Mitsuba turns, Teru is smiling- quiet and sad in the same way that Kou’s smiles sometimes are. He slides the door to the Minamoto family home shut behind him for the last time, and Mitsuba knows for certain that he meant it. 

 

“I told you Teru-nii is nice.” Kou grins into the back of Mitsuba’s neck as they drive through town, heading home while the sun begins to dip towards the horizon and turns the road ahead golden. 

 

“You’re biased- it doesn’t count.” Mitsuba scoffs in return, and denies that he’s smiling into his helmet.

 

It’s his first proper goodbye- number one of many. It’s painful, an ache in his chest like a torn-open wound. But it’s also a weight off his shoulders, and driving back home has never felt lighter.

 

-

 

“It felt good to say goodbye to him.” Kou admits later, Mitsuba’s room filled by the glow of his laptop screen and the fireworks behind Kou’s eyes.

 

Mitsuba’s hands fall still over the keys.

 

But you’re not going anywhere; is what he doesn’t say.

 

-

 

Mitsuba brings Kou to the photography club with him again, because Tsukasa has been sending him strange looks from the corner every week since the spring festival, and with September approaching faster by the day, Mitsuba doesn’t want to find out what he’s planning behind those flashing lantern-lit eyes. He stands in the low light of the darkroom, red lamps humming overhead as he talks Kou through the process of developing camera film, shifting the photos between the developer and the stop bath and the fixing fluid, then handing them to Kou to string up around the room. 

 

He can hear Tsukasa outside, loud voice audible through the walls, and he keeps his conversation down to a whisper, motioning for Kou to do the same.

 

Mitsuba isn’t sure if Tsukasa has any sort of superhuman hearing, but he doesn’t want to take his chances.

 

“You’re going to damage them if you handle them so roughly.” Mitsuba snaps at Kou as he wobbles on his tiptoes to reach the top line of string that criss-crosses the darkroom walls, slapping gently at his wrist.

 

“I’m doing it exactly as you showed me!” Kou argues back with a laugh caught in his throat and his eyes glowing soft and blue amongst the red lights. It’s a nice contrast; a traitorous part of Mitsuba’s brain with too strong of a connection to his heart thinks. Mitsuba hits Kou a little harder before he can do anything stupid, like wanting to kiss him.

 

Photography is serious business, and Mitsuba does not live in a romantic comedy. He’s not going to kiss anyone in the photography club darkroom- regardless of whether or not they smile like they’ve eaten the sun and make his heart turn loops behind his ribs.

 

( Just once couldn’t hurt, says that traitorous part of Mitsuba’s brain again. You only get one life. )

 

To his horror, Mitsuba finds that he’s almost considering it, staring shellshocked at where Kou stands on his tiptoes and takes extra care with each photo he touches.

 

The lock on the darkroom door slides shut.

 

Mitsuba stares at the door-handle in horror. Kou stares at Mitsuba in confusion. Tsukasa stares at both of them from where he’s now perched at the back of the darkroom, eyes burning like fire in the lowlight.

 

Mitsuba grabs Kou’s arm for support, perhaps a little too willing to sacrifice him to Tsukasa if that’s what it comes to. The traitorous part of his brain that thought about kissing him in the dark falls entirely silent.

 

“You’re running out of time,” Tsukasa sing-songs, as though it’s all just a game to him. He balances impossibly on the edge of the countertop, with bottles of acetic acid around his feet and gravity once again making allowances in all the wrong places. “I told you that one year is no time at all, didn’t I?”

 

When Kou slides their fingers together, holding tight, Mitsuba isn’t sure which of them is shaking the worst.

 

“What do you want?” Mitsuba asks, quiet and trembling, because he’s nothing if not a coward, and defiant statements are not something he can give to a grim reaper boy that grins down at him like a Cheshire cat with a mouse in its claws. 

 

“Lots of things! Didn’t I tell you already?” Tsukasa wobbles on one foot, still perched unfeasibly close to the edge. Not once does he look like he’s about to fall. “There’s a lot of things you want too- I can tell! You want to keep living, right?” He stares into Mitsuba with all the intensity of a forest fire, and Mitsuba shuffles a little closer to Kou, gripping his hand hard enough to hurt.

 

“I do, but-” Mitsuba starts, but Tsukasa cuts him off with a clap of his hands.

 

“But what? You made some friends, had fun for a year, and decided you’re not even going to keep fighting?” Tsukasa frowns, and at the very least, it hides his teeth from view. “That’s sad- I always thought you’d put up more of a struggle.”

 

Mitsuba lets out a shaky breath, in and out in some futile attempt to make his voice lie steady. “I don’t want to die,” He tells Tsukasa, human eyes meeting a monster’s across the humming red lights and fluttering pictures. The temperature drops, far too cold for summer. “I really, really don’t want to. But, if I have to, then this is how I want to go. Not with you creeping over me every second of the day.”

 

Tsukasa stares and stares and stares, hanging in the corner of the room like a bad omen. Then-

 

“Okay.” He says. Mitsuba doesn’t think he’s ever been more confused in his life.

 

“Wait, that’s it? You’re just-” 

 

“Boy,” Tsukasa says, in some dangerous imitation of Amane’s voice- laughing at the back of his throat like a creature who has forgotten what being alive means, and has instead discovered something altogether more dangerous. “Boy, what about you? You want him to live, right? Why not give him your soul?”

 

Steadfast Minamoto Kou visibly flinches. The air feels heavy with something terrifying.

 

“I’d disappear if I did that. He’d never be able to see me again.” Kou speaks. Mitsuba feels as though he’s no longer present in the room- a ghost despite being the only one of them that’s still alive.

 

Hopping down from the countertop with footfalls that don’t make a single sound, Tsukasa grins. The expression is cold and terrible and lined with sharp teeth, ready to take a bite. “He’d be alive, though.” 

 

In a cafe towards the rear end of winter, Minamoto Teru had said he’d sooner hurt himself ten times over than see someone else struggle. Kou is selfless to a fault, ridiculous enough to run into a burning building to save a child whose name he didn’t even know, and his hand goes slack around Mitsuba’s like Tsukasa’s offer is something he’d be willing to go through with.

 

Just another self-sacrifice, performed by a boy who has no idea of the wreckage he leaves in his wake.

 

It felt good to say goodbye; Kou had told him from the corner of the bedroom, curled up in his beanbag next to three matching photo frames on the bookshelf. Mitsuba realises with a sense of horror that, just maybe, Kou has been planning this all along. 

 

Mitsuba turns to face Kou with eyes he knows must be wide with fear.

 

“Kou, whatever you-” He says quietly, an echo from the end of winter splitting through the summer weather outside. “Just, do what you want.”

 

(All he can do is hope that, somewhere along the way, Kou has learned how to look behind him.)

 

Kou’s grip tightens around Mitsuba’s hand, holding on so strongly that he almost feels warm and whole and alive. He stares deep into the embers of Tsukasa’s fire-lit eyes, steadfast even though he knows what it feels like to burn alive. “I don’t want to disappear yet.” Kou tells the boy-monster at the other end of the darkroom.

 

Tsukasa blinks, like it’s the last thing he expected Kou to say. For a few, fearful moments, Mitsuba is scared that Tsukasa is going to do something dangerous, that the fire in his eyes is going to spill out and consume both of them whole. Instead, he just shrugs.

 

“Suit yourself.” Tsukasa says, as if Kou had done little more than decline his invitation to go out for dinner. And then he’s gone, a bottle of acetic acid toppling over on the countertop as he goes, and the lock on the darkroom door slides open once more. Mitsuba lets out a shaky breath that feels more like a death-rattle in his lungs, and slumps against Kou’s side. 

 

He doesn’t brace against the impact like usual, and the two of them almost go toppling onto the floor in a scared, shaking heap. Kou’s expression is unreadable, and Mitsuba doesn’t like it one bit- an unfamiliar face that only appears at the worst of times.

 

“Is that selfish of me?” Kou asks, in a voice that’s too small even for the cramped floorplan of the photography club darkroom. “That I want to stay by your side? That I like the world too much to leave it behind?”

 

Mitsuba isn’t aware of the implications of the solution Tsukasa had suggested, and he doesn’t want to know. He feels both on the verge of laughing and crying all at once, and anything more would tip him over a precipice. Because, for who knows how long, Kou had existed in the knowledge that, come September, he would throw himself away for the sake of somebody else once again. 

 

Because, somewhere along the journey, Kou had decided to stay. 

 

There’s a small, selfish, terrible piece of Mitsuba that doesn’t want to die- that would rather Kou did whatever it took to keep him living and breathing and surviving. Even if it cost the world. But that part is drowned out by the rest, which holds steadily onto Kou’s hand, and knows that one year was more than enough. (There are others who weren’t nearly so lucky, after all.)

 

“You have a really weird definition of what selfish means,” Mitsuba jokes weakly, nudging Kou’s arm to try and drag his smile back out by force. “It’s about time you did something for your own gain. You were bound to run out of pieces of yourself to give to others, eventually.”

 

At that, Kou finally laughs. It’s tired and it’s weak and it errs a little too close to sadness- but it’s genuine. And so it’s enough.

 

The darkroom lights hum and there’s still a few photos to develop, film waiting to be submerged in the repetitive sequence of developer-wash-fixer. Mitsuba takes photography very seriously, and he does not live in a romantic comedy.

 

(He kisses Kou in the darkroom anyway.)

 

-

 

“It’s not just me who’d never forgive you, if you threw everything away.” Mitsuba says as they walk under the streetlamps leading back from the park, moonlight cutting past the tree branches.

 

Kou is silent for a long while, his hair burned silver.

 

“I know that, now.” He then says, like he finally understands that the weight of the world is not his alone.

 

-

 

Mitsuba sprawls backwards on the sofa, leaving his mom squashed up against the arm while they watch through another of her terrible english rom-coms. He hasn’t been paying attention to the subtitles for the past fifteen minutes and he has no clue what’s going on, content with throwing pieces of popcorn into his mouth and ignoring Yukie’s threats to push him on the floor if he stretches out any further. 

 

There’s a sad scene playing on the TV screen- based on the overdramatic rainfall and gloomy piano music- and Mitsuba cranes his neck to look his mom in the eye.

 

“Hypothetically,” He says, and tries to force as much nonchalance into his voice as possible. He’s starting to think the movie scene might be a funeral. “If someone told you a huge lie, could you ever forgive them?”

 

Yukie doesn’t pause the movie, suggesting that she’s been paying just as little attention. “Depends on what the lie was for.” She replies, bemused.

 

Mitsuba mulls the words over in his head, as figures in black file into a church onscreen. “To stop someone from feeling sad.” Piano music, rainfall, a teary-eyed person speaking english words Mitsuba barely understands. (he’s sure the movie was meant to be a comedy.)

 

“Well, if someone is going to tell a lie, then that’s probably the best reason they could give,” His mom turns to look at him, no longer making jabs at his posture or the way his feet keep straying into her personal space. “I’d be angry for a while, but I’d forgive them eventually.”

 

For almost a whole year, Mitsuba has told his mom one giant, terrible lie. To know that one day she will forgive him, it feels like seeing the sun for the first time in weeks. “That’s good.” He replies, and the piano music swells.

 

“Sousuke, what are you hiding from me that could possibly make me sad?” He can feel his mom staring, reading him like an open book in a way that only Mitsuba Yukie could ever manage. Mitsuba isn’t sure why he thought he could learn to evade seventeen years of being known inside and out.

 

“I said it was hypothetical.” He frowns, because he knows that the truth is something which will stay locked inside the atria of his heart until September and beyond.

 

“You don’t say ‘ that’s good’ about hypotheticals, Sousuke,” She prods him in the leg. “Come on, spill.”

 

The movie on the TV screen turns back into a comedy, as the piano music cuts short and something happens at the funeral wake which has the whole onscreen cast laughing. Mitsuba doesn’t laugh along with them, because he hasn’t been paying attention to the subtitles, and the plot of the movie is the least of his worries right now. He lets out a sigh that’s filled to the brim with overdramatics. “Fine- I’ve been eating your ice-cream out of the freezer for weeks.

 

It’s not the secret that has sat upon his shoulders since early September, but it’s not a lie either.

 

His mom stares at him from across the sofa as if he’s committed a travesty.

 

“I changed my mind,” She grins. “I don’t forgive you at all.”

 

-

 

Mitsuba spends the final few weeks of Summer doing as much as he can. He goes to cafes with his mom, makes fun of her co-workers even more than usual, and finally agrees to take her on a ride around town on the back of his motorcycle. He goes on picnics in the park with Yokoo, Satou and Kou, haphazardly bakes cookies in Satou’s kitchen, and cheers Yokoo on as he sails into first place during his last competition of the season. 

 

He goes on dates with Kou- nothing quite as elaborate as their trip to Asakusa, but amusement parks and restaurants and window shopping is much more fun with a hand to hold. 

 

He visits the gallery in the next city along, and sees his photo hanging on the wall amongst the work of other local photographers. A piece of Freedom which will remain for long after he’s gone. Beside him, his mom squeezes his hand tight, and tells him that she’s never been more proud.

 

-

 

“Your time is almost up.” Amane is sitting in the kitchen again, thankfully not yelling and thankfully not eating Mitsuba’s strawberries. He doesn’t look malicious- just annoying- as he perches by the table and spins his knife between his fingers like it’s a nervous habit.

 

“Thanks, I noticed.” Mitsuba drops his bags of groceries onto the table. Amane is still more than a little bit terrifying, but Mitsuba knows that, if he’d wanted to stab him, he would have done it by now. He just about feels safe enough to skirt around him to put some vegetables into the fridge.

 

“The boy was going to give up his soul for you.” Amane then says, bringing back memories of the darkroom from what can’t have been more than a few weeks ago. Of Tsukasa’s fire-bright eyes staring dangerously from one end of the room to the other. Amane may look like Tsukasa, but at least he doesn’t have eyes like that.

 

“Yeah, because he’s a selfless idiot who doesn’t understand that people care about him.” Mitsuba still hasn’t quite forgiven Kou for his previous plans, but more than anything, he’s just glad that he made the decision to stay after all.

 

“It’s a tempting option, when you care about someone that much,” Amane’s voice is uncharacteristically quiet, and Mitsuba thinks he might be speaking from experience. “But once you do it, that’s it. You disappear for good.”

 

“Are you just trying to scare me, or something?” The room feels still, too cold for August. Mitsuba thinks, if he looks at the clock on the wall, he might just see that time has stopped. 

 

Amane shakes his head. “As much as you’re a brat who brings out the worst in Minamoto, you’ve helped him more than you realise. Thanks, Mitsuba. It puts my mind at rest a bit.”

 

He sits on the edge of the table like the weight of his words is almost too heavy to bear. Mitsuba doesn’t know exactly what Amane has seen over the many long years he’s wandered between life and death- he doesn’t know what happened between him and Tsukasa, or what his relationship was towards Yashiro Nene, or exactly how the friendship between a dead boy, a dying girl and a disaster waiting to happen fell apart. He doesn’t think he’ll ever know- some secrets are not made to be told, after all.

 

“You can leave the lame-earring pervert to me- I’ve gotten pretty good at handling him by now.” What Mitsuba does know: Amane is just an annoying, undead kid, and he shouldn’t have to carry everything on his own.

 

Amane then laughs, adjusting his hat and schooling his expression back into a grin. “That’s good- it’d look terrible on my resume if someone I recruited wiped himself out of existence.” 

 

Mitsuba doesn’t think grim reapers have resumes. Amane’s smile tells him thank you. 

 

(“Knowing you’re going to die is a terrible thing to bear,” Amane says later, after he’s eaten his way through the strawberries that Mitsuba offered him. “But you made the most of it.” For the few seconds before he disappears, he sounds almost proud.)

 

-

 

During his last photography club meeting, Mitsuba thanks the supervisor discretely for all their hard work in running the club, in helping him choose his entries for the competition, in teaching him all the tips and tricks they know. He doesn’t develop or take any photos of his own, just watches- observing the mini portrait shoot going on in the corner, the door to the darkroom opening and closing, the older club members helping out those younger than them. 

 

When the broadcasting club arrives, Mitsuba sticks around for once. Tsukasa is mercifully absent, so Mitsuba monopolises his usual spot in the broadcasting room while Sakura speaks local conspiracy theories into the microphone with their soothing voice, and Natsuhiko manages the sound and effects in the background- efficient for all that he likes to mess around.

 

This time, Mitsuba lets Natsuhiko mess up his hair and pull him into a one-armed hug, allowing him to indulge in his older-brother act one last time without struggling away. 

 

“See you, Mitsuba-chan! See you, my dear!” Natsuhiko calls, when Mitsuba and Sakura head out together with plans to eat at a restaurant in town that Sakura suggested. Mitsuba feels terrible- he’s never been especially close to Natsuhiko, but the thought of leaving without saying a proper goodbye is raw and painful. Sakura reads him like an open book, and tightens their grip on his hand. 

 

One last time, Mitsuba turns over his shoulder and waves. Natsuhiko grins, so normal that it hurts, and disappears back into the broadcasting room.

 

As soon as they’re out of earshot, Mitsuba lets out a heavy sigh, slumping against Sakura’s side as they walk towards where he parked his motorcycle. “If I’m crying over Natsuhiko-san, then it’s not going to be cute when I say goodbye to you later.” Mitsuba forewarns, wiping away his tears with the back of his arm before he tosses a helmet to Sakura. 

 

Perched on the motorcycle in the car park outside of the restaurant, Sakura does Mitsuba’s makeup one last time; sweeping eyeshadow across his eyelids, brushing on eyeliner, then dropping a tiny gold pot of glitter into his pocket so that he can put some on himself whenever he feels like it. They sit on an outdoor table at the back of the restaurant and watch the sun sinking below the skyline while they eat, staining the evening in shades of pink that feel a little too much like a goodbye for Mitsuba’s liking.

 

That’s what this is, after all. Mitsuba has one week left, and as far as Tsukasa is concerned, Sakura might not have that much longer either. Though one year can feel like a lifetime, it’s also barely any time at all. The golden clouds prepare to say goodbye to the sun, and Mitsuba prepares to say goodbye to Nanamine Sakura, who never falls for his dramatics and is one of the only people in the world who understands.

 

“You’ve done a lot this year,” Sakura starts, the candlelight on the table flickering across the rings on their fingers and making them look almost inhuman. “It took me a very long time to accept my own mortality, but you’ve made the most of every second.”

 

“You helped with that- it was too lonely beforehand,” Mitsuba swallows around the lump that begins to migrate into his throat, trying to hold back tears at least until they’ve eaten dessert. “I know I had Yokoo and Satou too, but none of them would have understood even if I told them.”

 

“I never could have told Natsuhiko either,” Sakura’s face shows a rare sort of vulnerability- something which Mitsuba doesn’t suppose they reveal often. “It’s going to be hard for him. When I die, Tsukasa will disappear with me too. Natsuhiko might be alive, but I don’t envy him at all.”

 

Mitsuba thinks of Yokoo and Satou and the group they’ve become, attached at the hip for the whole of summer. He thinks of how, come September, it’ll just be Yokoo-and-Satou against the world once more. “How do you deal with the thought of leaving people behind?” Mitsuba asks, and regrets asking Sakura to do his eyeliner as he feels the first tears of many gather upon his eyelashes. 

 

“It’ll hurt for a long while,” Sakura admits with a tired smile. “It’ll be painful and at first they might not forgive you for leaving them behind. But you leave parts of yourself with them that they can hold onto. You’ve got to remember that too.” 

 

Mitsuba stares through the candlelight, flickering in the low August breeze. Because Sakura is right. He won’t leave Yokoo and Satou with the memory of Mitsuba-kun from the third row, who they regret never talking to. Instead he’ll leave them with Sousuke, who kicks their ass at racing games, steals their food and takes high-definition photos of all their unflattering expressions. He won’t leave his mom with a son who only goes out for photography club and never brings friends home. He’ll leave her with Mitsuba Sousuke who rides around town in a hot pink motorcycle helmet, goes on impromptu ice-cream dates, and still eats her food out of the freezer every so often.

 

It’ll hurt for everyone involved, but at least he can say that he’s not wasted a single second.

 

“How about we order some dessert?” Sakura then asks, because they understand every one of Mitsuba’s thoughts entirely.

 

“Do you even need to ask?” Mitsuba tries to wipe away his tears without shifting his makeup, and grins over the candlelight.

 

Later, once night has fallen and the sky on the outskirts of town is brimming with stars, Mitsuba drives Sakura back home- slowing to a halt outside of a small block of student dorms by the riverside where they live alone. (Sakura has never mentioned parents or siblings. Mitsuba has never asked.)

 

Everything feels painfully final as Sakura dismounts the back of the motorcycle and waits for Mitsuba to do the same. The longsword made of grief is back, between the ribs and through the lungs, and this time, Mitsuba is sure it must have struck his heart on the way through. Under the streetlamps and the stars and the tears that now fall unrestrained down his face, Mitsuba feels as though he’s already become a ghost. 

 

There, by the roadside, Sakura pulls him into a hug, holding him steady as Mitsuba buries his face in their shoulder and grips the back of their shirt in two shaking fists. Fingers decorated by intricate rings stroke patterns into Mitsuba’s hair, and Sakura doesn’t complain in the slightest that he must be getting makeup all over their shirt.

 

“I might not have much time left either,” Sakura says gently, in the same soothing voice they would use to whisper rumours into the broadcasting room microphones. “But thanks to you, I’m going to make the most of it,” They pause, a quiet laugh catching in the back of their throat. “Even if I have to spend it with Tsukasa.”

 

At that, Mitsuba laughs too. “Good luck with that.” 

 

Sakura hums, and continues to run their fingers through Mitsuba’s hair, slow and soothing. “Lots of people are going to miss you.” They say, quietly.

 

A car drives by, sweeping over them with its headlights without a second glance behind. “I don’t mind that, as long as people don’t even think about forgetting me.” Mitsuba admits.

 

“I don’t think that’s likely- you’re the sort of person that’s hard to forget,” Sakura says, and their hands fall still. “I’m going to say goodbye now, Sousuke. Take care.”

 

Oh, Mitsuba thinks, as Sakura steps back and smiles gently at him from across the pavement. This is it, then. The sensible thing to do would be to say goodbye in return, dry his tears, and drive home. The Mitsuba thing to do, on the other hand-

 

“Nanamine-senpai, I-” He throws himself back across the pavement, clings to Sakura like a distraught kid and cries even more makeup onto their shirt. “I’m sorry about the time I ate your pudding and blamed it on Natsuhiko-san, and when I stole your red eyeliner and never gave it back, and the time I told my mom that your hair makes you look like a plant- I didn’t mean it and I-”

 

“Sousuke,” Sakura cuts him off gently. “I appreciate your honesty, but none of that really matters now, does it?”

 

“I-” Mitsuba peels himself away from Sakura’s front, just enough to look them in the eyes.

 

“That’s the funny thing about dying, Sousuke. It makes everything else seem insignificant.” The streetlamps flicker, and Mitsuba has never heard something more painful yet correct. 

 

(When he pulls on his helmet and drives away, Mitsuba holds his breath, and doesn’t look over his shoulder once. He doesn’t want to see the door close. He doesn’t want to say goodbye.)

 

-

 

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Mitsuba asks his mom as he counts down four days left on his fingertips. School starts in six, and summer ends in two. Yukie raises an eyebrow from where she’s typing something into her laptop, eating the cupcake that’s sitting on the table next to her.

 

“Not really,” She replies, and Mitsuba almost laughs at the irony. A ghost made the cake she’s eating, after all. “I think your grandfather would have exacted spiritual revenge on me for not becoming a doctor by now, if ghosts were real.”

 

He wonders if things would be easier, if Mitsuba Yukie dabbled in the supernatural and could recognise a goodbye when she saw it.

 

“If I was a ghost, I’d haunt you just so I could laugh at your misshapen onigiri every time you made it.” Mitsuba says instead, because his mom doesn’t believe in ghosts, and jokes are all he can tell her.

 

“What sort of TV shows have you been watching lately?” Yukie laughs, and takes a bite out of a cake made by the dead boy living in Mitsuba’s beanbag. 

 

Please start believing in ghosts- Mitsuba wills her, silently. That’s the only way it’ll hurt less.

 

-

 

The final item on Mitsuba’s list of things to do before he dies reads; sleep under the stars.

 

So, on the last day of August- which heralds clear skies, warm weather and one of the last few sunsets Mitsuba will ever see- Mitsuba meets Yokoo, Satou and Kou by the base of the hill near the shrine. Between them they have a camping stove, roll-out mattresses courtesy of Satou and enough food to last a week- well prepared for all eventualities. Mitsuba has also packed tissues, because he knows in the deep, ugly pit in his stomach that this is the last time he will see his best friends. 

 

They have too many bags to make it through the usual scramble up the hillside, so Mitsuba shuttles them up the side-road one by one on the back of his motorcycle. Yokoo goes first, unable to sit still in his excitement as he clambers onto the back and tells Mitsuba he’s always wanted to ride a motorcycle. In the short journey up the hillside, Mitsuba has to tell him to stay still and hold on tight unless he wants to fall off no less than five times. Satou is next, clinging to Mitsuba’s waist like he’s a lifeline, fingers buried hard enough into his sides that he’s sure it’s going to leave bruises.

 

Kou on the back of his motorcycle is a familiar presence- relaxed grip, shifting just enough to let Mitsuba know he’s still there, the sun on his face as he leans back and takes in the view. With his hair stained gold, Kou looks like a golden retriever puppy with its head out of the car window, and Mitsuba ruffles his hair with one gloved hand once they pull to a halt near the outcrop, where Yokoo and Satou are setting up the camping gear.

 

Even before sundown, the view out over the town is a brilliant one- the river catching the sunlight, cars snaking down the streets, the rise of the school building. Nearby, the apartment blocks Mitsuba has lived in his whole life, and on the outskirts, the larger houses where Minamoto Kou once spent his days. The sprawl of Tokyo to the east, the mountains to the west. Everything Mitsuba has ever known, spread out before his eyes.

 

He thinks, when the day comes, this is where he’d like to die.

 

“Satou, do you have a fake ID or something?” Yokoo breaks into Mitsuba’s thoughts, pulling a pack of sparklers out of Satou’s bag. “How did you get these?”

 

From where he’s smoothing out the corners of one of the camping mattresses, Satou laughs. “It turns out my older sister is cooler than she looks- she got them for me after I bribed her with cake.”

 

Mitsuba will have time for heavy thoughts later. For now, he lets out a comical gasp, gripping Kou’s arm hard. “Bribery and possession of illegal explosives? I’m friends with a criminal! Satou, I can’t believe-”

 

Satou rolls his eyes, and tosses a camping pillow at Mitsuba’s face.

 

They manage to get everything set up properly before the sun has set, giving Kou plenty of time to cook dinner while it’s still light enough for him to see his own hands. For something made of only dried and canned ingredients, it’s surprisingly tasty- Yokoo shows his appreciation by getting the sauce all over his face, and Mitsuba snaps a photo which he hopes someone will have the clarity of mind to develop for him after he’s gone. 

 

The sun begins to sink below the skyline, the end of summer making itself known in shades of gold and pink that paint the clouds and make the town below look almost dreamlike, blanketed in warmth. Satou brings out the pastries he baked for the occasion, squashed a little in transit, and they witness the sun’s Midas touch turning the rooftops to pure gold.

 

“I wish summer never had to end,” Yokoo says, sitting by the light of the camping stove. “I’m used to the nice weather and waking up late.”

 

“You just don’t want to go back to studying.” Satou jokes, prodding him in the arm with one of the unlit sparklers. Yokoo opens his mouth as if he’s about to disagree, then snaps it shut again.

 

“Everything has to end eventually,” Kou’s voice is uncharacteristically quiet, staring across the rooftops. Mitsuba turns to look at him- eyes pooled with electricity, voice soft and sad in a way that makes it feel private. Intimacy reserved only for sunset and the flickering light of the camping stove. “But there’s always next summer. But you can always remember this one, too.”

 

Unspoken beneath his words; don’t forget about us. Don’t forget about this summer.

 

“What is this, a bad movie ending?” Mitsuba jokes, because if he doesn’t say anything, he knows he’ll start to cry.

 

“Kou is right though- a lot happened this summer. A lot happened this year. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting it in a hurry.” Yokoo agrees. And, really, that’s all Mitsuba needs to hear.

 

“Yeah, you’d better tell your adoring fans when you’re a star athlete all about how Mitsuba Sousuke showed you the sunset, let you ride on his motorcycle and took you to the best cafes in town.” Mitsuba replies, and the sun dips closer to the horizon by the second.

 

Sunset becomes dusk, the four of them toss a ball back and forth and Yokoo almost knocks himself out trying to hit it back to Kou with his forehead. Satou laughs so hard he has to sit down to wipe the tears from his eyes, and Mitsuba immortalises the whole process on his camera screen.

 

Though no lanterns swing between the rooftops this time, the near-cloudless skies leave them with no need for artificial constellations. In the absence of streetlamps, the night is filled to the brim with stars, and the heavy band of the milky way slices the sky in two. Satou points out the plough and orion's belt, then traces his fingertips across the night to where the north star lies- memories of childhood camping trips resurfacing in the form of constellations.

 

Kou’s eyes are filled with fireworks as he lies flat on his back and stares into the sky. Mitsuba holds his hand quietly- broken fingers that don’t grip quite right meeting cold lifeless palms, glued together in a way that just fits. 

 

They light the sparklers on the camping stove and trace light-patterns through the night sky. Yokoo and Satou try to spell out each other’s names, while Mitsuba butchers the kanji for traffic and Kou stabs in his direction with the lit end of his sparkler, as if he knows a single thing about fencing.

 

Once the sparklers have all been burned through and the camping stove switched off, Yokoo huddles down on the camping mattresses and the rest follow, piling into the space where they’ve pushed three of them together on the ground. It’s cramped, Mitsuba ends up with Kou’s arm in his face and Satou taking up most of his leg-room, but he finds that he doesn’t mind it one bit. 

 

He can’t hate it, not when he can open his eyes and stare right up into a sky filled with stars that seem to multiply the longer he looks. The seconds tick by, August tips over into September, and the constellations feel close enough to touch. When Mitsuba turns his head to the side, Kou is looking at him like the night sky above means nothing, and as though Mitsuba is the one with supernovae living behind his irises. 

 

Last September, Mitsuba wasn’t even the protagonist of his own story. This September, Minamoto Kou stares at him as if he holds the whole world in his hands.

 

A year is a very long time, after all.

 

“Thank you so much,” He tells the stars, tells Satou who takes up his leg-room and Yokoo who curls up beside him, tells Kou with his eyes full of fireworks. “This has been the best year of my life, and I’m not just saying that so you’re more likely to let me steal your breakfast in the morning.” 

 

He can feel the tears coming, and this time he does nothing to try and stop them. Satou notices, rolling to face him with a frown on clear display even in the dark. “Sousuke? What-”

 

“Just, let me finish,” Mitsuba wipes at his eyes before he continues. “You’re the first proper friends I’ve ever had, and I’m so glad that I stole Yokoo’s fried potatoes that day last autumn, because otherwise I’d never have gotten to know you properly.” 

 

Grief is a longsword and a hungry beast that eats Mitsuba away from the inside. It leaves his breath shaking in his throat and the stars swimming through tears until it feels as if he’s been plunged underwater. But he pushes onward, because if he can’t say goodbye, then this is the least he can do.

 

“I was so lonely beforehand, you know? Yeah, imagine that- cute little me, feeling lonely. But thanks to you, I’m not alone anymore,” He turns to Yokoo and Satou on his left, then Kou on his right. “I’ll never be lonely again, because I know that somewhere in Kamakura, pro sailor Yokoo is thinking about me. Somewhere in Tokyo, pastry chef extraordinaire Satou is thinking about me. Somewhere in the world, lame earring boy Kou is thinking about me.”

 

Kou kicks him somewhere under the blanket, and it’s so familiar that it only makes Mitsuba cry harder.

 

“You’re kinda unforgettable, Sousuke,” Yokoo replies, and though Mitsuba can’t see him through the dark, he’s sure that he must be smiling. “Even if you didn’t steal my potatoes, I think the four of us would have found each other eventually.”

 

“I just,” Mitsuba lets out an unflattering sniff, and covers his face with his hands. “I know I make a fuss, and my personality is kind of terrible, and I’m way cuter than all of you so I probably overshadow you when we go out places- but you’re still here, and I’m so glad.”

 

“We’re not going anywhere, Sousuke.” Satou replies, and holds his left hand with a different kind of softness to the way Kou holds his right.

 

But I am, Mitsuba thinks, and the grief of it all tastes like burning timber. But I am.

 

“Even if we’re not together,” Kou then says, breaking his silence for what feels like the first time in an eternity. “We’re still not going anywhere.”

 

Mitsuba stares back at the stars once more, which will remain in the sky for many years after they have fused their last atoms and burned themselves to pieces. Billions upon billions of miles away, yet on an outcrop beneath the sky with his first-last best friends at his side, the stars feel close enough for Mitsuba to touch.

 

Even if summer ends, it doesn’t go anywhere. Long after the violets have wilted, long after the stars have died, they’re still here.

 

he doesn’t say goodbye - because Mitsuba Sousuke is not gone yet.

 

-

 

Come morning, once they’ve woken early to watch the sunrise and eaten breakfast under a sky stained golden, Mitsuba hugs each of them once. First Satou, who always has the right answers in maths and bites ice cream without flinching. Then Yokoo, who hates natto and has hair that’s exactly as soft as it looks. And finally Kou, who has fireworks for eyes, and will be at his side till the very end.

 

“You’re going to end up smothering me!” He complains, when Satou puts him in a headlock for getting too sentimental, struggling in a way that makes Yokoo collapse into a fit of laughter.

 

When he hops onto the back of his motorcycle and drives away for the final time, the smile Mitsuba wears is nothing but genuine.

 

-

 

Mitsuba Sousuke’s final message in the cool people (including Yokoo) groupchat goes like this:

 

I had fun

 

And-

 

I’ll see you soon

 

(Still, he doesn’t say goodbye.)

 

-

 

For as long as Mitsuba can remember, it’s just been him and his mom and their tiny apartment in the center of town. So as his number of days ticks down to one, Mitsuba spends his time inside, despite the fact that it’s warm for September all over again. He helps his mom bake misshapen rock buns that turn out more rock than bun, looks up instructions on how to bring the houseplant in the kitchen back from the dead, and curls up on the sofa with a bowl of popcorn and three terrible movies back-to-back. 

 

It’s as normal of a day as any, but to Mitsuba, it means the world.

 

“You’re pretty cool, you know?” He says, half-way into the third movie of the night. His mom blinks, and quietly pauses the TV. Reading him like an open book, as if she can tell that there are things on his mind that he can’t rest until he’s spoken.

 

“Sousuke complimenting me? What universe have I ended up in.” She laughs, but it’s a softer sound than usual. Keep going, it says, unspoken. I’m listening.

 

Mitsuba kicks her in the leg, gently. “The universe where you have the nicest son in the world,” He starts, and his usual grin holds out for no more than a few seconds. “I was thinking about my friends’ parents. Kou’s aren't around, and Satou’s want him to do jobs he’s not interested in. You’ve always been here, and you never told me I’ve got to go and become a smart fancy lawyer in Tokyo or anything.”

 

“I’d be a bit of a hypocrite if I tried to force you to become the top of your class, Sousuke,” Yukie smiles, sitting cross-legged on the sofa. “I don’t think my parents ever forgave me when I told them I didn’t want to go to medical school.” 

 

Mitsuba’s mom has chased her own fair share of dreams, and given up on even more in the process. She never told Mitsuba that he couldn’t grow his hair long, or stay out late to take photos, or borrow her makeup when he was twelve and discovering new things by the day. Because she remembers what it was like to be a kid with big ideas, and all the motivation in the world to pursue them. 

 

“Still- you only ever get mad at me when I do stupid things,” As he speaks, the tears he tried so desperately to hold back begin to fall. “And you never get fussy about my grades, or try to get me to change my personality, or to take up different hobbies.”

 

“Of course I’ve got to nag at you when you do dumb stuff, I’m your mom,” Yukie opens up her arms, and pulls Mitsuba into a hug that feels like coming home. “Who else would stop you from getting yourself into trouble because you don’t know when to close that big mouth of yours?” 

 

She strokes her hands through Mitsuba’s hair, and all it does is make him cry harder.

 

“I don’t have a big mouth,” He protests through his tears, but he doesn’t struggle away. “You always told me to speak my mind, so that’s exactly what I do.”

 

“Still, you have to read the room first,” Yukie prods him in the shoulder once, then once again. “Do you want to get back to watching this movie, or do you just want to sit here and cry for a little longer?”

 

“I think I’ll keep crying.” Mitsuba sniffs, and curls up close. His mom doesn’t ask why he’s crying, perhaps because she’s never needed to. Mitsuba may be keeping a lifetime’s worth of secrets in the four chambers of his fist-sized heart, but his mom has always heard him loud and clear.

 

Even if she doesn’t believe in ghosts, and even if most of her dreams didn’t work out, he knows that one day, Mitsuba Yukie will be okay again.

 

(The final scene of their third movie of the night makes Mitsuba laugh until he’s crying all over again. And, from where he stands unseen by the bedroom door, Kou is smiling too.)

 

-

 

Mitsuba says goodbye to his bedroom- to the pink walls and his mountain of plushies and the three matching photo frames on his bookshelf. He says goodbye to the cute clothes in his wardrobe, the summer homework on his desk that he hasn’t yet started, the new schoolbag his mom bought him that he’ll never get to use. 

 

He says goodbye to the notebook with the bunny sticker on the front, then drops it down the back of his wardrobe after one last glance through the crossed-out pages. All the things he wanted to do before he died (all the things he did. )

 

Kou rises from his beanbag in the corner of the room one final time, and asks: “Are you ready to go, Sousuke?”

 

-

 

“I’m going for a ride around town with Kou,” Mitsuba holds himself together as he steps out into the kitchen, and closes the door to the room he’s lived in for the past seventeen years behind him. “Just to get some fresh air.”

 

“Be back before eleven,” His mom says, and doesn’t look up from her laptop screen. Working hard, as always. “Have fun, and stay safe.”

 

“I will,” Mitsuba tells her- one final, terrible lie. “I will.”

 

He stares around at the kitchen, the living room, the half-dead houseplants by the sink and his mom, working away. She catches him looking, and laughs into her laptop. “Go on, don’t keep Kou waiting!” 

 

Kou is standing right beside him, unseen, holding the patched together remains of his right hand like he never intends to let go. 

 

“Bye, mom.” Mitsuba says, Kou squeezes his hand tight, and he closes the front door behind him. 

 

(Mitsuba holds himself together- right until he’s out of earshot. In the stairwell, high above the city lights, Mitsuba cries until he doesn’t think he can cry anymore. Kou holds him steady, and then, Kou cries with him. Mitsuba isn’t the only one leaving, after all.)

 

-

 

They drive up to the clifftop once more, cutting through the night past the entrance to the shrine and the scramble up the hillside, then pulling to a halt outside the rocky outcrop that overlooks the whole town. It’s a cloudless night once again, the sky is filled with enough galaxies to match the constellations behind Kou’s eyes, and the town shifts like a moving beast below their feet. Tokyo to the East, the mountains to the West.

 

Mitsuba ties his jacket around his shoulders like a cape, because it’s warm for September, and he’s always prepared for the wrong sort of weather. 

 

For what feels like an eternity, Mitsuba stares out at the town that has become his own. Somewhere amongst the lights, Yokoo and Satou will be sitting in their bedrooms, Sakura will be writing the script for their next broadcast, Minamoto Teru will be making sure the curtains are closed, and his mom will be finishing up her work for the night. Somewhere right beside him, Kou slips his cold fingers between Mitsuba’s own, where they fit as if they’ve always belonged there. 

 

“Sousuke,” Kou says, and his body looks like it’s made out of the same stuff as glow in the dark stars. “Do you want to stay here, in a way?”

 

Mitsuba stares.

 

“Don’t move on just yet. Collecting souls is a tough job, and we wouldn’t be able to see each other that much because we’d be busy, but we could watch the world go on together,” Kou grips Mitsuba’s other hand, the one that moves like it isn’t a hand at all, so they stand as polar opposites upon the clifftop. “I’m sure Amane wouldn’t mind there being one more of us.”

 

“You mean like he didn’t mind when you gave me this extra year?” At that, Mitsuba can’t help but let out a smile. Kou is still just as ridiculous as ever, right until the end.

 

“Even if he did mind, I wouldn’t let him near you! You could probably fight him off yourself though- he doesn’t like hurting people, really,” Kou laughs, sheepish and gentle in a way that still makes Mitsuba’s heart swoop in his chest. “So, what do you say? If you want to move on then that’s fine too, I just thought-”

 

It’s a big decision, too fast and too soon and Mitsuba doesn’t know what answer he’s supposed to give.

 

(One thing Mitsuba does know; he’s not ready to leave just yet.) 

 

“I’ll do it,” He says into the warm September night. “Let’s watch the world grow up together, lame earring boy.”

 

Mitsuba knows that seeing the last moments of people’s lives will be hard, that he’ll have to witness the aftermath of every bit of pain he puts his friends and family through, that he’ll come to adopt the same tired smile that Kou so often wears. He knows that Kou is learning to be selfish, by asking him to stay by his side for years to come.

 

But he also knows that he’s selfish himself- he wants to see Yokoo and Satou graduate, and he wants to know that people won’t forget him in a hurry. He knows, deep down, that playing a role in the last moments of a person’s life is a way to make an impact that he had never considered before Kou spoke it into existence.

 

They’re both selfish in the best possible way, holding hands at the top of the world.

 

Mitsuba thinks, if this were the ending to one of his mom’s cliche movies, then there’d be a shooting star overhead, or some miracle which would turn back time to last September, or a soundtrack that would swell to a crescendo over the rooftops.

 

Instead, Kou turns to face him with his supernova eyes, and asks; “How do you want to die, Sousuke?”

 

“Have a little more tact, why don’t you?” Mitsuba shoves him weakly. He thinks back to the festival, where Sakura had told him under the light of the lanterns that they wanted to go down living life the best they can.  

 

Kou asks him again. How do you want to die, Sousuke?

 

“While feeling alive.” Mitsuba replies.

 

So, he leaves his helmet on the outcrop, keeps his jacket tied around his shoulders like a cape, and hops onto the back of his motorcycle. Kou climbs on behind him- a familiar weight, arms wrapped around his waist.

 

Mitsuba pulls out his ponytail so the autumn breeze catches in his hair, and kicks off down the slope of the hill as the stars lean in close. He drives fast, faster than he’s ever gone before, faster than can possibly be safe, and he can’t stop the exhilarated laugh that swells in his chest like music, or the tears that catch on his eyelashes and are whisked away by the wind. 

 

He drives faster. The lights of the town below whirl past brighter. Mitsuba Sousuke has never felt more alive.

 

Kou presses a kiss against the back of his neck, so gentle that it hurts, always full of surprises.

 

The world spins past in shades of fireworks and summer days and sleeping under the stars until the sun comes up, and then- nothing more. 

 

When Mitsuba opens his eyes, he’s sprawled over backwards on the tarmac, and there’s a boy with a shock of blonde hair and the most ridiculous earring ever sitting on the road beside him.

 

“Are you ready to go?” Minamoto Kou asks. When Mitsuba grabs his hand, he finally feels warm.

 

-

 

One summer after

 

-

 

Even if summer ends, it’ll come around once more. Even if the violets wilt, they bloom again next year. Even if Kou shows up late every damn time, Mitsuba will still wait for him by the park bench for hours if he must.

 

“You couldn’t even make it to graduation day on time?” Mitsuba berates. Kou runs down the path with his jacket tied around his waist, and almost trips and falls face first into the violets blooming by the side of the pavement. 

 

“I was on a job- you won’t be laughing so much when you’re out of training.” Kou shoves Mitsuba hard, same as usual, then kisses him on the cheek in greeting. Same as usual. Deep down, though Mitsuba hates to acknowledge it, he’s glad to see Kou. It’s been almost a week since he was last affronted by the sight of his tacky fashion sense and firework eyes, and he was beginning to tip unacceptably on the verge of missing him.

 

“I see, work is more important than seeing your friends in their terrible graduation photo hairstyles.” Mitsuba huffs, but still holds onto Kou’s hand when he offers it. 

 

Truthfully, it hurts more than anything to witness the graduation he was never able to experience for himself. From the way Kou grips his hand tight, he knows he must feel the same. The guilt is there too- every time Mitsuba has seen Yokoo cry, watched Satou move from place to place as if he hasn’t slept in days, and plucked petals off the flowers his mom left for him. The guilt is there, but Kou is there too- and Kou knows enough about leaving people behind to help Mitsuba through to the other side.

 

“There they are!” Kou points across the park, towards where Yokoo and Satou stand amongst a group of Mitsuba’s old classmates, holding their graduation certificates to their chests with barely concealed pride. In a months’ time, Yokoo moves to Kamakura to start sailing full-time. A few weeks afterwards, Satou heads to Shinjuku to start a culinary course which he has yet to tell his parents about. 

 

“I can’t believe that they’re leaving us here.” Mitsuba sighs, and tries to force down the pride that rises in his chest like a tin-foil weather balloon.

 

“They’re not leaving all of us.” Kou nudges him, as Yokoo and Satou sit down side-by-side on the bench by the violet patch. They settle towards one end, leaving room for two by habit- a space which Mitsuba falls into as easy as breathing, and Kou follows right after.

 

There’s a memorial plaque on the bench that contains the kanji for Mitsuba and Sousuke . He wishes, distantly, that someone could add Minamoto and Kou alongside it- or maybe Traffic, for old-time’s sake. Yokoo taps the plaque with the back of his hand, fondly. 

 

“Sousuke would be crying right now if he was here, I bet.” He laughs, in that loud, golden-retriever way of his. A laugh that came back eventually, given time. 

 

(Mitsuba is crying, not that they’d know.)

 

“And Kou would be doing a terrible job at getting him to calm down,” Satou adds on. Then, quietly- “The four of us should have graduated together.”

 

Yokoo stares across at the two not-quite-empty seats beside him, and smiles.

 

“Do you believe in ghosts, Satou?” He asks, as the violets sway in the summertime breeze.