The Last of Our Summers
Kirigiri’s at the door as soon as the last bell rings.
For a moment Kazuha almost doesn't recognize him. His face, so familiar and well-known, is transformed by panic. There's a deep, visceral sadness in his eyes that fits ill on his face, usually so quick to laughter.
Then she blinks, and it's Kirigiri again: his eyebrows are furrowed in annoyance but he doesn't look like the boy on the edge of a precipice anymore. Kazuha had never seen his face change so fast.
She finds her voice. “Why are you here?”
He crosses the room towards her in long strides, past Chizuru's bed. “The rumors made it sound like both of you were at death’s door."
To Chizuru, he gives a businesslike nod. "Good to meet you, by the way, Aonuma. I’m Kajiura’s friend from class B, Kirigiri. Sorry about this idiot here.”
Kazuha rolls her eyes violently. She could be actually be on death’s door and she still would find Kirigiri’s awkward, too-deep, I’m talking to a pretty girl voice hilarious.
“Don’t you start,” he says, even though Kazuha hadn’t even said anything.
He tips her chin with two fingers to examine her face. Kazuha sighs, and lets her face be tipped. The nurse had come back to give her more painkillers an hour ago, and even getting nudged around by Kirigiri doesn’t seem like the fatal indignity it usually is. Not that it ever stops him.
"Can you let me go, please?"
“Stay still for a sec, oh my god,” Kirigiri says, and raises his free hand to gently poke the bandage on Kazuha’s head.
Kazuha scowls. “Rude.”
“I know you are, but what am I?” he guides her to turn her face to the light with a gentle touch, and sighs at what he sees. “You break anything else?”
Kirigiri's mother is a paramedic. He thinks that it makes him one too.
“My ribs. The nurse says they’re just bruised, though.”
Kirigiri nods, and lets go.
“Aonuma, I hope you’re doing alright as well?”
Chizuru nods. She’s a little stiff, her hands folded demurely in her lap and her eyes fixed somewhere over Kirigiri’s shoulder. Is she bad with new people?
“Yes. Thanks to Kazuha.”
Kirigiri’s eyebrows go up at the Kazuha, but he doesn’t comment. “Do you have a way of getting home? Where do you live?”
“Ah, thank you for asking,” Chizuru says. “I’m supposed to be picked up after school.”
“Weren't we going to study together?"
Kazuha apparently does a bad job of hiding the faint longing in her tone, because Kirigiri and Chizuru both turn to her in varying degrees of fondness and surprise.
Chizuru smiles at her, warm and sweet. “Maybe tomorrow, Kazuha? We wouldn’t want to go against the doctor’s orders.”
He’s interrupted by a knock on the door. Natori enters, two bags hanging from his hand.
“Got your bags here,” he says, his smile hesitant. He passes one to Chizuru with careful hands. "It's nice to meet you, Aonuma. I'm Natori."
Chizuru inclines her head. Natori's ears redden, but he soldiers on like a champion: "I hope you're doing alright. The teacher said that you both collapsed on the roof."
"Indeed," says Chizuru. Her hands are folded demurely on her lap. "We're doing well now."
"Great! Um. Yeah. Good to hear."
As he fumbles over his words, he hands the other bag to Kirigiri.
"Your phone kept ringing, Kajiura," he says.
Kirigiri laughs and Kazuha scowls.
"That'd be the alarms," says Kirigiri.
Natori and Chizuru's faces turn puzzled.
"I keep alarms," Kazuha says. Her face is burning. "It, um. Helps me keep everything in track."
"She's an android in disguise."
Kazuha whacks the back of his head without looking. She looks at Natori and Chizuru instead, almost a little defiant.
"It's not that weird. Plenty of people like to just…do things on time."
"She forgets to go to the bathroom if she doesn't–"
Kazuha whacks him again. "Shut up, it's not that weird, you're the one who–"
"It's not weird at all."
Chizuru has stood up. Her skirt ruffles between her knees. She frowns at both of them and repeats, "It's not weird. I'd kill to know what my day holds to that extent."
Kazuha droops. "See, Chizuru, that's almost nice but what you're really saying is that my life is very boring."
"Which it is."
"Oh my god would it kill you to shut up."
"I think it's neat too," Natori says. His smile is easier now. "Whatever works, right?"
For a split second Kazuha is struck mute: no, she wants to say. It's not working at all. I'm barely keeping my grades up. I'm tired all the time. Nothing has worked for a long, long time.
But none of that belongs in this sun-lit room with three people who seem to care about her. And in any case the moment has passed, and Natori has turned, like a sunflower to the sun, to Chizuru.
“Shouldn’t you be going home? The nurse kept saying you both needed rest.”
“On our way,” says Kirigiri.
“Thank you for retrieving our bags, Natori,” Chizuru adds.
Oh. It's time for them to go. Kazuha sluggishly begins climbing to her feet, and yelps in pain as soon as her foot hits the ground.
Kirigiri’s at her side in an instant.
“Ah,” she’d forgotten. “I twisted my ankle earlier. Not in the accident,” she adds quickly, because Natori’s and Chizuru’s faces fall. “I thought I was late for PE and ran down the stairs a little too fast.”
“And you have the limb coordination of a four-year-old,” Kirigiri adds.
Chizuru raises her hand to her mouth; Natori coughs. They’re both bad at hiding laughs.
Kazuha flushes angrily and leans a little harder on Kirigiri, and tries to take a step. Her legs almost buckle.
“Whoa whoa,” Kirigiri’s grip on her tightens. It’s almost at her waist, not quite. “Kajiura, want me to carry you?”
And he means it, too. The nurse’s office is so stuffy, crowded with four people inside it, and it feels even smaller when Kirigiri says things like that. It feels like he just sucked all the air out of the room.
She pictures Hikari's round little face, the way she'd laughed at Kazuha in the morning.
“Of course not,” Kazuha snaps. “I can do it myself."
Her head's a mess, all her instincts telling her to get away–away from Kirigiri, away from the whole situation.
Her eyes end up landing on Natori. She knows she must seem ridiculous—making such a big deal over such a simple offer. But Natori is as gentle as ever.
“Of course, Kajiura,” he tells her, earnest. “Make sure to put some ice on it once you go home.”
Kazuha bites her lip savagely and looks down. “Yeah,” she says.
Next to her, Kirigiri is silent as Chizuru says her goodbyes. Natori leaves behind her, keeping his distance.
“What crawled up your ass and died,” Kirigiri whispers to her.
Kazuha’s so, so exhausted. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I’d love to see the day Kazuha Kajiura wants to talk about anything,” Kirigiri says, and it’s got a spark of frustration in it that Kazuha’s too much of a coward to face right now.
She begins to hobble to the exit and Kirigiri catches her shoulders. “Slow down, crazy.”
“I'm not crazy. And I told you I don't want to talk about it,” she snaps.
Her voice is full of teeth. She doesn't want to talk to Kirigiri like this. She doesn't want to be this–this unlovable, shrieking harpy.
“Sure,” he agrees calmly. “Now, are you going to stay here while I bring my bike over, or will you wander off to prove how fine you are?”
Kazuha looks at the ground and nods.
She’s a little more stable when he comes back, less like she wants to kick him till he hates her as well. She tries smiling at him. To her relief, he smiles back. “Can you climb on?”
It takes a little effort, but she manages. They hadn’t ridden double like this in maybe ten years.
She’s not used to how tall Kirigiri seems when she sits like this, kind of hates it.
“What are we going to say if we get caught?”
She feels him shrug as he begins to pedal. He goes slower than his usual breakneck speed. “They’d have to be heartless to stop us, with you looking like you got in a fistfight with a bear.”
“They’d realize you were simple in the head and let us go.”
The ease of their conversation is like being able to breathe again. It’s their old, unspoken call-and-reponse: sorry I was weird—it’s okay.
They ride in silence. There’s crowds on the streets, students traveling in groups, but they feel disconnected from that: as if they’re both stuck in a bubble that’s floating towards home. In the distance, the ocean winks at them, fading from blue to teal in between blinks.
00:00:00, had read the light above Aonuma's head. A timer that ran out.
What if I died, Chizuru had said.
What if she had? What if Kazuha hadn't gone to the roof with her, and the timer quietly ran out on its own, and whatever it was counting down to happened to Chizuru?
Chizuru, with her icy aura and hidden smiles. Beautiful and strangely dark in her little observations.
Kazuha shakes her head and tries to focus. The light from the ocean hurts her eyes.
Why had the timer only been above Aonuma's head? Why had only Kazuha seen it?
The ocean offers no answers.
“So, a study group with the new girl, huh?”
Kazuha inhales. The air doesn’t smell like much of anything. “Yeah,” she admits. “She seems competent.”
“It’s been a while. You talked Aonuma into it?”
“She suggested it. When I said it was too early to go home.”
Kazuha starts watching the clouds instead. It’s such a beautiful day.
“Sounds like you made a friend, then.”
Sometimes Kazuha hates how well Kirigiri knows her. They share years and years of history. Go into her earliest memories and she would find Kirigiri there, his stupid loud laugh and his too-perceptive eyes.
You’re so bad at making friends, he used to say, at six, at eight, at an insufferable ten. Guess I’ll have to stick around and show you how.
“You shouldn’t have missed basketball practice for this,” Kazuha says. Suddenly, absurdly, she feels her eyes sting. “You’re always—”
“You can’t tell me what to do,” Kirigiri says easily. “You’re not my mom. And I’m way too good at basketball anyway. If I practice more, they won’t be able to handle my mad skills.”
Kazuha gives into the temptation, and buries her face in his back. It’s solid and broad; nothing like the ten-year-old from her memories. She hates the sensation. “You’re the dumbest person I know.”
“Still only makes me the second dumbest person in the world.”
Silence stretches before them. It starts to drizzle– Kirigiri pedals faster. Kazuha leans against his shifting back and turns her face up to the sky.
The driveway is empty when they come to her house. Kirigiri stops his bike and steadies Kazuha as she gets off.
"You're going home now?"
Kirigiri shakes his head. "Back to practice, I think."
He's silent as she shoulders her bag. It's his thinking face, Kazuha thinks, smiling a little as she waits for him to finish his thought.
"You were acting weird today. Weirder than usual," he says, finally.
"You picked a strange time to insult me."
"No, I mean. Is this about whatever happened with Aonuma? Is that why you're so high-strung?"
Fifteen years of history, Kazuha thinks again.
He raises his eyebrows.
She keeps looking at him, and imagines telling him about the numbers again.
Again, she wimps out.
"Chizuru kept saying that she was sure she could have died."
Kirigiri's eyebrows rise even higher. "She's more metal than she looks."
He reaches out one huge hand and ruffles her hair. It lingers on her head for a moment; a warm weight, a gentle touch. Kazuha almost closes her eyes.
A second later he's snatching his hand back. Looking straight at the tree line across the road from them, he says, "Well, if you want to get a second opinion, Sugino's mom's a doctor and they live pretty close to here."
Kazuha clears her throat. She feels oddly tongue-tied. "Okay."
"Don't go there on that twisted ankle though."
"And ice it as soon as you go inside."
"Alright, bye," and he zooms off.
Kazuha stands in front of her driveway and watches him leave. Then she slowly turns back to her house, and the warmth in her stomach gets doused by the usual chill of going back inside, and locking herself in her room to study.
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