The Last of Our Summers
The ride Natsuki gives her to school the next morning is filled with a fraught silence.
Instead of talking, Kazuha watches the summer that’s quietly fading in through the windows. Final exams, summer break, more exams. She’ll have graduated before she knows it.
The traffic begins to move and Natsuki’s car sidles onto the pavement in front of the school gate, stopping behind a car that looks hideously expensive, sticking out like a sore thumb next to the other few sensible family cars parked neatly around it.
Her eyebrows go up; out of habit, she shares a glance with Natsuki, who’s making the same face.
Then the passenger door opens and a familiar face comes out, and Kazuha's whole world lights up.
She starts climbing out of the car before she can think about it. “Chizuru! Wait up!”
“Kazuha, that’s dangerous—” her brother calls, but Kazuha quickly hobbles towards Chizuru without acknowledging Natsuki.
Both the sleek black car and Natsuki’s hybrid peel off the lane.
“Kazuha,” Chizuru says when Kazuha catches up. “Good morning. I hope your leg isn’t causing you pain?”
“Nope!” she wiggles her ankle. It twinges sharply, then goes quiet. “I don’t know how, but it was just fine this morning when I woke up.”
“That’s great news.”
“How about, uh. Your everything?”
A sparkle of a smile. “I’m doing alright as well. We both appear to be lucky.”
Kazuha feels rusty cogs in her brain begin to whir as she tries to find something else to say.
“But as long as you have your bandages, you have a good excuse to skip whatever you want."
“I confess I’m not confident enough in my studies to take you up on your suggestion. I couldn’t even do the assigned homework. My old school was really behind.”
“You can just copy mine." She feels wild and reckless for even suggesting it. But that's what friends did, wasn't it?
"That does sound exciting. I've never copied homework before."
"That makes two of us. Um. I mean–"
Chizuru laughs softly. "I know what you mean. And maybe, Kazuha, if you tutor me, we can copy from each other."
Kazuha wilts. "But I'm no good at tutoring."
"That simply can't be true. You're the top of our year, I believe."
"It's just something I've always been bad at."
"Maybe practice is key."
But the bell is ringing, and Chizuru uses that as an excuse to nudge her inside. She pretends not to hear when Kazuha hisses, “I can’t tutor! I’m nowhere near good enough! And—”
Her urgent rant cuts off as she bumps straight into someone short and skinny, with boyish cropped hair.
"Ah, Kajiura," says Sugino. She blinks up at her owlishly. Her summer uniform doesn't suit her as much as her comfy T-shirt and shorts.
"My mother wanted to give you these. What's this about tutoring?"
"Move aside, we're blocking the way," the girl next to her hisses. All four of them shift to the side of the corridor to let other students pass through. Sugino digs through her bag as she goes.
She emerges with a sheaf of papers loosely stapled together. "Mom said you made her curious so she dug a little deeper. Check it out."
"Oh! Um. Thanks?"
She resists the urge to spread the papers out and start reading them right away.
"No probs. And did I hear you say you were going to tutor?"
Kazuha shakes her head, just as Chizuru says, "Yes. Regrettably, I'm quite behind on most subjects."
"Right. Yoshioka, this is Aonuma by the way. She's our new transfer."
The girl next to Sugino nods at Chizuru.
Yoshioka is built like an athlete, through and through. She wears her hair in a bouncy ponytail and manages to make their cutesy summer uniform look mature. She has that vigor that Kazuha associates with people whose whole thing is sports. As if all this weren’t enough, she’s just as tall as Kazuha is.
When she smiles, Kazuha catches a glimpse of canines.
She doesn't like this girl.
She catches Kazuha frowning at her and gives her a bigger, toothier grin. "If the best of the best is tutoring, I want in. I need all the help I can get."
"I don't want to?" Kazuha says, off-kilter.
Sugino beams, unaffected. "Too bad! You owe me."
"I'm not being modest or anything, but it's your funeral."
“So,” Kazuha says, hours later. She raps her knuckles on the table of the family restaurant they’re seated around, and watches as a waitress hands Kirigiri a violently frothy drink. “Tell me how this happened.”
They’re clustered around her like cockroaches: Natori, looking handsome and apologetic, says, “Well, Kajiura, the thing is—”
Kazuha’s about to cut him off—the reason he’s here is abundantly clear. He’s not subtle at all in the way he keeps glancing at Chizuru, then looking away quickly when her cool, neutral gaze meets his.
“You can’t nag at me about my grades every term and then expect me not to show up for a tutoring session,” says Kirigiri, because that is the kind of thing his smooth brain thinks is a reasonable argument. “Besides, you’ve turned me down every single time I begged you to teach me Math.”
“And I’m turning you down again!” Kazuha cries, in what is not a hysterical screech. "Who even told you about this?"
"Whoops," Yoshioka says, unrepentant. She examines her nails; they're colored a beautiful pearl pink with rhinestones that makes Kazuha dizzy with momentary envy.
Sugino isn't listening. She looks even more frazzled than Kazuha feels. "Try to keep your voices down, guys, we're in public."
“Don’t you have club?”
Four eerily simultaneous shrugs. “Eh, we’ll all be retiring soon anyway.”
And won’t that be a spectacle: Kirigiri, for one, was deeply loved by his club juniors, who would doubtless shed many gallons of manly tears at his retirement. Kazuha would have found it hilarious if it didn't make Kirigiri get weirdly emotional too, going all quiet and stoic as the kids leaked snot on his jacket.
“…Sure.” Kazuha gives up. “Okay, fine. But let me warn you that there’s a reason I kept refusing to tutor anyone.”
Natori laughs. His limbs are a little too long for the table but he looks perfectly content, his eyes crinkled in contentment. “I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“…How is it this bad,” he says, dead-eyed, two hours later. He’s looking at Kazuha differently now: less fondness, more betrayal, like he’d just watched Kazuha eat his report card whole. “Kajiura, you can speak Japanese, right?”
Kazuha makes a clawing gesture with her hands. This would be more entertaining if she wasn’t also frustrated by her own lacking explanations. “I’m really bad at explaining things! Also this is Maths! It’s not like I can tell you why we do any of these things! You just do it!”
Natori taps the table in front of her to get Chizuru’s attention. “How about you, Aonuma?”
“I appreciate Kajiura’s efforts,” Chizuru says, blank.
Kazuha’s actually starting to feel bad for Natori. He doesn’t seem to be making any headway into making Chizuru anything but cold towards him.
She suspects that Chizuru just doesn't realize he was flirting, and a sense of kinship bubbles in her.
Kirigiri also looks shocked. “How are you worse at this than you were in elementary school. Can’t you just….tell us what you’re thinking when you’re solving something?”
“I’m thinking that the right way to do it is to do whatever I’m going to do, and then I do it.”
The whole table growls at her.
“Geniuses are really different,” Yoshioka muses.
“Not a genius,” Kazuha snaps.
Genius for her will always mean Natsuki: his room lined with medals, the glow of their parents’ praise. It’s not even that she envied him for it. She saw the weight of it bending his head every day till he finally left their house.
Stiffly she explains, "I’m just really bad at putting things to words, you’ll have to take my word for it.”
“I think I’m starting to get it,” says Chizuru, startling everyone. “Kazuha, is this correct?”
Kazuha takes the exercise book from her gratefully and squints at the strings of numbers and letters. Chizuru has the world’s tiniest handwriting. It makes Kazuha feel eighty years old.
“…Yeah,” she says, after a minute. “Huh. Wait, how?!”
“Kazuha really is terrible at explaining things. I just copied all the steps you took for the other questions that were kind of like this one. You can help us that way, right? Just by giving us the correct answers?”
“...Yeah, I guess?”
“Then we just need to practice,” Chizuru says. She undoes the hair tie on her braid and ties it more securely, her eyes determined. “You can just tell us when we do something wrong.”
“That's amazing, Chizuru!" Kazuha can't quite keep the excitement out of her voice. "I don't think anyone's understood anything I've said before."
When Kazuha raises her eyes to exchange gobsmacked looks with Kirigiri, she finds that he’s smiling.
Kazuha –for no reason that she can understand—blushes.
Another hour of much more effective tutoring (from Chizuru) and helpless gestures (from Kazuha) later, Natori and Kirigiri are visibly restless, and two of Kazuha's alarms go off in quick succession.
Sugino and Yoshioka look at her in surprise.
"Time for little robot girl to enter her study pod," Kirigiri says.
"Shut up," says Kazuha.
"Yes, Kirigiri, that's unkind," Chizuru agrees. To the rest, she explains, "Kazuha likes to keep alarms. To remind herself to do things."
“Maybe that should be it for the day. Kirigiri, you have plans after this, right?”
He shrugs a little. “I won’t die if I don’t go to karaoke. I will die if my mom kills me if my grades are low. So. I know my priorities.”
“Ara ara, how mature, Kirigiri."
“Ohoho, thank you, esteemed colleague.”
“But I think it would still be best if we adjourn and go over what we already learned,” Chizuru says. “Thank you for joining us, Natori, Kirigiri.”
Natori hesitates. “Actually, I was thinking—”
Chizuru raises an eyebrow.
Natori wilts. “Yeah, no. Karaoke it is. Let’s go, Kirigiri.” He shoots one of his sunshiney smiles at them. “See you.”
“Is Natsuki going to pick you up again?” Kirigiri asks Kazuha as he packs up his books.
“I can drop you off,” Chizuru says, overhearing. “It’s no trouble. After all you taught us.”
“You mean after you taught yourself. And are you sure?”
“A car’s coming to pick me up anyway.”
Kazuha turns to Kirigiri, who nods. “Cool. See ya, girls.”
He and Natori duck out of the restaurant.
Kazuha is left in the restaurant with three girls she's known for less than two days. She's known Yoshioka for less than twelve hours.
She doesn't know what to say. The silence swells like a bruise.
Just as she's considering cutting her losses and hoofing it out of the restaurant, an arm slings heavily around her neck. Yoshioka draws her close and says in her ear, "Yo, Robo-Girl. Time for girl talk."
Kazuha grimaces, and fights out of her hold. Yoshioka's eyes flash with amusement.
Sugino says, "Don't make it sound like a threat, oi. And don't just make up weird nicknames for people."
"Aw, you're no fun. Don't you want to hang out with two pretty girls?"
"You sound like a pervy old man."
"You sound like a prude."
"We may have to postpone," Chizuru interrupts. She indicates the rest of the restaurant, filled to bursting with the evening crowd. "Or at least, relocate somewhere else."
Sugino and Yoshioka express their disappointment. Kazuha watches Sugino and Chizuru sort everyone's pens into cases and notebooks into little piles, accepts gum from Yoshioka and chews on it for a bit.
She wouldn't have thought she could have this, a week ago. Any of it. Wouldn't even have wanted it.
She realizes that she's been smiling for a while now.
"Kazuha?" Chizuru says. She's holding out her books, her expression curious.
Girl talk. It sounds kind of nice.
Kazuha looks at the girls in front of her. They all look back. Their smiles are warm, a little curious. Even Yoshioka's tolerable; her head cocked, expression relaxed.
Before she can talk herself out of it, she says, "We could go to my house."
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