The Last of Our Summers
"What are you doing here," Aonuma asks. Her voice is thin, almost reedy.
The shorter girl approaches. There's something to her gait, the slow, knowing sway of it. She's got her back to the sun, her face in shadow.
A cloud moves over the sun and Kazuha makes out her features: heart-shaped face, small nose. Dyed yellow hair, with a pink streak that runs along the curve of her face. She's wearing a red bomber jacket over their summer uniform, but Kazuha's never seen her before.
Her eyes glitter with something that makes Kazuha take a step back.
"Who is she," comes a soft voice.
Aonuma's hand spasms once, and jerks out of Kazuha's grip. Kazuha's hand flexes in its absence.
"Nobody," Aonuma says. Her voice regains confidence, though it looks fake, even to Kazuha. "What are you doing here? Where did you get our uniform?"
"Our uniform," the girl says. She taps her chin. She has to look up to meet their eyes, and when she does, she draws a finger in the air. It leads from Aonuma's chest, and in swirls and curlicues, ends at Kazuha's. "Sounds like you made a friend already, Chizuru."
There is a long, jagged note of a violin resounding in Kazuha's ears. The unbearable taste of salt in her mouth.
Her breath comes in ragged puffs.
"You know what they say about lovers," the girl says. "Some of us are so, so quick to move on."
"Kajiura," Aonuma says. Her voice is trembling. "Kajiura, go get a teacher."
"I'm not leaving you up here alone."
The girl bends over in laughter. "How romantic. Did I pay for front seat tickets to the hit romance drama of the year?"
She finally brings forward the hand she was holding behind her back.
Kazuha's heart plummets. She hadn't seen wrong; the girl's holding a knife.
Her brain cant stop catching on how surreal this is. This morning she'd been feeding toast to Kirigiri. Talking about midterms.
Kirigiri is never going to let me live me it down if this girl kills me.
The girl advances a step.
"Kajiura, a teacher."
But Kazuha can't move. Every single one of her limbs is locked into place.
To the girl, Aonuma says, "Please, Hana. Let's talk about this somewhere else."
"Oh, I know. I know that bitch of a mother of yours wouldn't let you come to school alone, either. That's why I had to sneak in like this. Don't you see how hard I've tried? Don't you see my effort?"
"Come home with me, Chizuru," the girl says softly.
The longing in her voice is jarring. She's holding on to her knife with both hands, cradling it close like a beloved blanket.
"I can't," says Aonuma. Her voice trembles with tears. "You know I can't. Please go home, Hana."
"That's not what you told me!"
The knife flashes out.
Kazuha thinks of university, of Kirigiri. Of Natsuki sleepy-eyed in the kitchen, offering to make her breakfast. She lives a lifetime between the first swing of that knife, and the moment her limbs unlock and she leaps at the girl, knocking her prone under her.
The girl fights like a wildcat. Now that that dreamlike slowness has faded, Kazuha's hyper-aware of every blow that lands on her body; the brutal vicious way that the girl's knee comes up to nail her in the stomach, the hidden strength in the girl's arms as Kazuha fights for the knife. She knocks her head into Kazuha's chin, stunning her for a second of bright white pain, which she uses to flip them over.
A slice of pain, just under her eye. Kazuha grits her teeth and manages to pin one of her flailing hands down, and Aonuma kicks the knife out of her grip.
Now empty, the girl's hands come up to Kazuha's neck.
"Get away from her," she says. She's crying, her teeth bared. "This is all her fault, don't you see?"
The world blurs. Starts to go dark.
"She promised she'd stay with me forever. Isn't that what childhood friends do?"
Kazuha's eyes widen, even as her vision flickers. barely registers Aonuma kneeling beside them. An open hand strikes a spot in the girl's neck, and her tear-filled eyes begin to unfocus.
"Chizuru," she says, a puff of air, soft and sad. Her whole body collapses on Kazuha's. She doesn't move.
Aonuma's hand on hers. "Kajiura," she says. "Kajiura, are you okay?"
Outlined by the summer sky, she's beautiful. The expression on her face is pure heartbreak.
The timer on her head is gone.
Kazuha passes out.
She comes back to consciousness to the smell of antiseptic and the too-flowery scent of cleaner. She blink-blink-blinks, and the off-white walls and ceilings of the nurse’s office to come into focus.
She closes her eyes again. The sunlight is weak but it’s falling directly in her eyes, dyeing the backs of her eyelids a dull red. From far off, she can hear the sounds of the lessons continuing in the classes around her, filtered through the curtains and heavy door of the nurse’s office. Even further off, the sound of cheers from the grounds, the neat, clean sound of a ball connecting with a bat.
For a second she can’t remember why she’s here.
She flicks through her memories one by one. She remembers getting pushed to the ground. She remembers saltwater in her mouth. But that can’t be right: she’s in school.
Pretty Chizuru Aonuma, transfer student. The girl on the roof. A knife, held close to a chest.
Did that really happen?
She starts pulls herself up and sits. There's a ice-cold cage of fear around her heart that hasn't melted, and she can feel her pulse speeding up at the memory of it.
“You can tell them the truth,” says a quiet voice from beyond the curtains.
"I hid the knife and told them that you both passed out from heatstroke," she says. Her voice is brittle and robotic. "None of the teachers believed me, but there wasn't any proof telling them otherwise."
Kazuha pulls the curtains open.
Aonuma's sitting on the other bed, a cold compress pressed to her forehead. Her glasses are off. The whiteness of it contrasts sharply with how dark her hair is.
"What happened to your head?"
A lift of her shoulders. "Hit it against the door when I was running downstairs."
Kazuha's startled by a snort. "You survived a knife attack and bumped your head?"
"Shh, not so loud."
She's acting so normal. Was life just like this for pretty girls?
Kazuha physically can't keep her voice down. "Who was that?"
"I was hoping you wouldn't ask."
Kazuha makes incredulous faces at her as she sighs. "Childhood friend. We were close. She didn't like that I moved out, I guess."
On second glance, Kazuha realizes that no, Aonuma's not calm: fine tremors run up her hands. She's drawn in on herself like a clam, but her eyes, when they rise to meet Kazuha's, flash with an emotion Kazuha can't place.
She remembers the way their linked hands had trembled.
Kazuha sighs, and falls back on the bed. "Fine."
"Fine?" A gentle creak of the bed, and Aonuma's face appears in her view. She looks distressed. "You're not going to ask?"
Her braid falls over her shoulder and dangles near Kazuha's face. Recklessly, Kazuha touches its end. Aonuma's hair is soft and fine under her touch.
She feels unmoored. She doesn't know what time it is anymore.
"No," Kazuha says. Then, in a burst of honesty: "Don't really care."
This seems to frustrate Aonuma. “You saved my life. I don't know what would have happened if you weren't there. I owe you an explanation."
Color has blossomed on her cheeks. Her eyes are bright. She's far, far from the ice-cold figure who'd sat in front of Kazuha in class.
Is that it? Is this what it took for this glacier of a girl to thaw over?
The intensity of her gaze starts making Kazuha feel claustrophobic.
This is why she doesn't do people. It's so awkward. She said what she had to, didn't she? Why was Aonuma still looking at her like–like–
Aonuma breaks the silence.
“You didn't have to come with me."
Kazuha is frozen in place. She can't figure out why Aonuma's saying this.
"Anyone would have done it," she says.
"Not just anyone," refutes Aonuma. Her eyes are very warm. Earnest. "Most people wouldn't, actually."
What's her angle?
“You don't have to compliment me so much, Aonuma.”
“You don't get it. If you hadn't come, I could have died.”
"I don't think she was really trying to kill you," Kazuha says.
Even as she says it, a chill travels up her spine. That's not true, is it? That timer on Aonuma's head had been a string of zeroes just before the girl lunged for her.
"What happened to her?" Kazuha finds herself asking. "That girl. She wasn't from our school, right?"
Aonuma's face closes again, her eyes growing distant. "You said you wouldn't ask."
"Just wanted to know if I'll get stabbed in the hallways."
Against all odds, Aonuma snorts.
"Probably not," she says. "One of the teachers took her to a hospital since her head was bleeding. And they'll probably call her parents."
"Is she going to be okay?"
Aonuma hesitates. She shrugs, a helpless lift of her shoulders.
"You don't want to find out?"
Now Aonuma looks uncomfortable. Kazuha wonders at it, herself: she never usually asked questions like this, never pursued. But there's something about pretty Aonuma looking like she wants to spill her entire history to her. The end of her braid is still sliding, whisper-soft, between Kazuha's fingers.
"I guess– I'm not certain, but it feels as though the stunt she pulled today, the danger she put us in–she's forfeited her right for me to care about her. If that makes sense."
"A little too much. Is that how emotions are supposed to work?"
"I don't know. In a fair world, probably."
Kazuha hums. "Do you know what time it is?"
Aonuma stands up. The bed dips as her weight leaves it, and her braid slips from Kazuha's fingers. She picks up her phone from one of the small tables.
"Two hours till school ends," she says.
"Shouldn't we be going back to class?"
Aonuma shrugs. "Only if you want to. The teachers said we could go home if we wanted."
Kazuha thinks of going back into class, having letters and numbers swim in blurry laps around her vision. Having the crushing weight on her heart get worse with every lesson, the constant thought of not good enough, nowhere near good enough.
But: if she goes home now, she might run into Natsuki again.
“Can't we just stay here?”
Before she can rattle off an excuse, Aonuma hums and agrees. “I'd prefer that as well.” She leans back, putting her head on her pillow. “I’m feeling pretty excited, actually. This wasn’t how I was expecting my first day to go.”
Kazuha snorts. Again, it's involuntary. “You mean you weren’t planning to survive knife crime?”
“Shh! And you’d know better than me, you’re the action hero.”
“All credit to what a good damsel in distress you were, Aonuma.”
“Call me Chizuru,” Aonuma says, opening her dark, liquid eyes again. Her mascara must have rubbed off at some point, because her lashes are no longer spiky. She’s still enviably, scarily gorgeous. “You’ve saved me from at least a hospital trip. That puts us in first name basis, in my book.”
She’s a little different from what Kazuha had thought. A little more outspoken, rougher around the edges.
She thinks of how she hid in the bathroom this morning, imagining a friend. Then she looks back at Aonuma, whose mouth is quirked in a small, ironic grin. The pictures don't line up exactly, but.
It's close enough.
“You’re right, Chizuru,” she says, sighs. The name fits in her mouth like puzzle pieces slotting together. “You should call me Kazuha, too.”
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