The Last of Our Summers
Kazuha sits in the counselor's office, her hands lying primly on her knees. Mr. Narumaki sits across from her. He shuffles his papers a little. The scrawled marks on them aren't too surprising or too good.
"Kajiura, your grades–"
"They're still good. You're still the top of the class."
Kazuha doesn't blink. "But not Kyoto University material."
"We don't know that yet. But," he hesitates. "we don't want you pinning all your hope on this one thing."
Her fingers curl inward: a sharp pain on the middle of her palm, as her bitten nails carve crescent shapes into them. She keeps her face neutral.
"It's not the end of the world to go to a different university than Natsuki," he says.
"I'm serious, Kajiura. There's more to university than just getting in. And there's certain environments that are more conducive to certain types of growth than somewhere as mercilessly competitive as Kyoto Uni. University is about getting a good education, sure, but it's about figuring things out for yourself."
Kazuha stays silent.
He offers, "Kirigiri finally turned in his form last week."
She looks up, intent. "He did?"
Narumaki nods. There's a relieved smile playing on his lips. "Honestly, he's been spiraling for the past months. The whole staff was very concerned, as he's one of our brightest and best. I was going to ask if you knew why, but it seems that it's not needed anymore."
She frowns. Something catches on the very edges of her mind.
"The past months?"
"For this whole semester, I'd say."
Why hadn't she noticed? It wasn't as if anything had happened back then, at the very beginning of summer.
"His first choice was Nagoya, by the way."
"Are you supposed to tell me that?"
Mr. Narumaki shrugs.
Kazuha says, helplessly, "Did he say why?"
He shakes his head. "He must know someone who goes there. Either way, it's a fine school. Very good mathematics department, I hear."
This floors her. "You mean–"
The image is slow to bubble up, but hard to shake once it does: herself and Kirigiri in some unnamed hallway. Side-by-side as they always were.
But then, that's not realistic, is it? Even if they went to the same university, Kirigiri was popular, he'd always be surrounded, and Kazuha didn't like people anyway, and–
She catches herself. She thinks of Chizuru. Of Natori, Yoshioka and Sugino.
Kazuha Kajiura dislikes everyone around her is not a true statement anymore.
"…huh," she says, out loud.
Mr. Narumaki is smiling at her fondly. This man is barely older than her brother, and has no business beaming at her like a grandfather.
She scrounges up a smile in reply.
She lingers in the liminal space outside Kirigiri's class for as long as she'll let herself. 54 days, 2 hours and 30 minutes. She has time. She can figure this out.
Back at her own class, the class president is standing at the blackboard, writing.
“Excuse me,” Kazuha murmurs, padding past him.
“Ah, Kajiura," he says. "We were finalizing who will represent us for sports day."
She could try to sound like she cares, someone whispers. Someone else shushes them.
“Natori's leading the cheers,” a girl from Hikari’s group says, and the rest of them agree vehemently. Their enthusiastic support is for nothing: Natori's too busy looking longingly at Chizuru.
Kazuha takes her seat and tunes them out. Until-
“Any nominees except for Kajiura for the relay?”
The class president is tapping the blackboard, where Kazuha finally notices her name written.
“Excuse me,” she says, too quiet to hear at first. Only Chizuru quirks an eyebrow at her. “Excuse me, do you mean me?”
He looks at her. Nothing about his demeanor suggests he’s making fun of her; if anything, he looks a little irritated, but from what Kazuha’s seen he always makes that face when he’s speaking to the class. “Yes, Kajiura?”
Kazuha grits her teeth and stands up. If she’s going to be bullied, she isn’t going to take it sitting down. She repeats herself and he simply says, “Yes. The class unanimously voted for you.”
Something in Kazuha goes cold. She doesn’t look at Chizuru. Or Hikari. She doesn’t understand–after all that effort she’d put into keeping her head down—she hadn’t even bothered anybody—
“Half the school saw you run across the road to save those first-year twins,” says Sugino. Her tone is gentle, like she understands why Kazuha's shoulders are hunched. “I think you must have broken a few world records.”
“Kazuha was very fast,” Chizuru agrees, demurely, as Kazuha’s panic fades into confusion.
Are they…complimenting her?
She falters. Her eyes wander and end up meeting Natori’s, and he grins and gives her a thumbs up.
Kazuha sits back down. She can’t sort it out in her own head. It could be a trick, she reminds herself. Hikari was vicious, and this wouldn’t be the first time she canvassed others from the class for a plot to make Kazuha look bad.
But it was never this many.
And it felt nice to think that maybe she was good at something.
“Do you mind, Kajiura?” the president asks. There’s something honest about the tired way he asks. Like even entertaining an ulterior motive would wear him out. “It sounds like you’d help our chances of winning.”
Masao, Kazuha thinks out of nowhere. His name was Kuze Masao.
She hadn’t tried to memorize any of the names of the class. She’d actually taken pains to not remember them, since she won’t be seeing any of them after she graduates, and every name will be a reminder of the silence that followed her like a bubble in the class.
But even Kazuha’s plans have a way of derailing themselves.
“Sure,” she tells Kuze, mimicking Kirigiri’s most nonchalant shrug. “Sounds like fun.”
When she checks her phone at lunch she has a text from an unknown number. Kazuha squints at the emojis littering the message, bemused.
Senpai!! it reads. Hinata here! Momoko and I wanted to see if you wanted to go out after school. Our treat, for saving our lives!
“Whoa,” says Yoshioka, pausing near Kazuha’s desk on her way to Sugino's. “That looks like a ransom note. Who’s been kidnapped?”
Kazuha rereads it once more to make sure. “Me, I think?” she holds her phone out to Chizuru, who also squints at it. “They want to go out.”
“Oh, that’s cute then,” Yoshioka says, in a completely different tone. “They're good kids. A little loud. Fair warning though, they really want you to join track team."
“Did you give them my number?"
"Thought it'd be funny. Ugh, ow, don't look at me like that! Your android eye lasers are going to burn me to a crisp aaaaah--"
Chizuru's finishes typing on Kazuha's phone. “Here. I said yes, and invited myself.”
Kazuha makes a face. “I don’t actually want to go.”
“And why not?”
“It just seems unnecessary. They seemed…enthusiastic.”
“Not all of us can be cool kids like you, Robo-Girl. Ow owwww, the lasers, they're killing me--”
Chizuru adds, “It’ll be fun.” Her fingers dance across her knees gleefully. “I want to try a frappe. I’ve never had one before.”
Kazuha chokes on her next complaint, and glares at them both. Chizuru pretends not to notice. Her smile doesn’t leave her face all through lunch.
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