The Last of Our Summers
Chizuru is waiting for her when she finishes her lap around the ground. “Thanks,” Kazuha pants, when she passes her a bottle of water. Self-conscious, she checks herself for sweat, but she’s good for now; they’ve only started to warm up.
“Good work,” Chizuru says mildly. Then, a little intense: “You left that girl from Class B in the dust, did you notice?”
Kazuha hadn’t. Relays are wild: she hadn't thought she could be invested in someone else's performance in a race that she was also in, but here she is.
“Any particular reason you’re making a war face, Kazuha?”
"Yoshioka," Kazuha says.
As if on cue, a burst of noise erupts from Class C's corner of the field. Yoshioka is standing in the middle, her ponytail bouncing as she throws her head back and laughs.
Kazuha had been chagrined to find that she really was a good runner.
"Forget about her. You'll make me jealous."
Kazuha turns back to Chizuru, a helpless smile tugging on her lips. "Well then, darling, how's cheering going?"
Chizuru’s expression turns grim. “It’s going,” she says. “Everyone’s just talking about the cheering uniform, for some reason.”
She gets so prickly about the weirdest things, Kazuha thinks affectionately. “What about you? Don’t you have any opinions?”
“Everyone will be wearing the same thing anyway. It’s not like my preference matters.”
“Spoken like a true pretty girl.”
Chizuru grimaces, but her heart’s not in it: she’s distracted, turning around as the cheering team starts waving at her. Natori is surrounded by the rest of them as they stand in the shade, his smile wide and untroubled. “Kajiura!” he yells, cupping his mouth with his hands. “Break a leg!”
“So carefree,” Kazuha snorts, giving him a thumbs up. “I’m out here fighting for my life. Was sports day always so intense?”
Chizuru hmm’s. “I did overhear the cheering team talking about how everyone’s taking things seriously this year. Since it’s the last one.” Kazuha’s nodding along until she adds, “and, well. You’re here.”
“Come on, Kajiura Overachiever,” Chizuru says lightly. “Kajiura I Excel at Everything I Do. Are you not aware that the whole class is being motivated to work harder just because you’re here?”
“Chizuru, you’re new but even you must have noticed that half of these people dislike me a lot.”
Chizuru allows this. “It’s not about that, though. It’s about how you seem to be a symbol in this class, Kazuha. Almost like your joining is a show of strength.”
“Like a mascot,” Kazuha says skeptically, even as she mentally squares up against the uncomfortable truth that it certainly explained the untampered air of hostility as she was running. She’d just kept her head down, before.
Hadn’t she thought this through? Perhaps not. Perhaps there really was no merit to this whole thing—
Stop it, Kazuha tells herself sternly. You're having fun. Don't overthink and ruin this for yourself.
Against all odds, it’s true. It may have been a fluke that she got chosen to run the relay, but she enjoys the sensation. Maybe part of it is the knowledge that she is on some level good at it—Kazuha’s been confronting new ideas and concepts lately, but she doesn’t think, fundamentally, that she’s ever going to like doing something she’s not good at.
So: running. She doesn’t know how much of Chizuru’s theory is her being a supportive friend, but if the class is counting on her on any level then isn’t that just another reason to try?
Kazuha doesn’t pause to think of how uncharacteristic that thought is.
“Thanks, Chizuru,” she says, and takes off for another lap.
She's catching her breath, going over her timing with one of the other girls running the relay, when a voice calls out.
Kazuha twitches. Yoshioka's walking towards her, a spring in her step.
“So you decided to compete after all,” she says cheerfully, approaching Kazuha.
In Yoshioka's natural element, Kazuha feels outclassed: her white gym shorts make her legs look even longer, tanner.
"None of your business."
“Gotta love an overachiever,” she says. “Figured this would look good on the university applications, huh? No hate, I appreciate the grind."
“I wanted to try something new,” Kazuha says, frosty. "Not that that's any of your business."
“Don't be so cold, baby. What crawled up your ass and died? Aren't we friends? Or am I not pretty enough? Sorry I can't be Aonuma."
Kazuha's fists clench.
"More power to you then.” Yoshioka stretches her arms over her head, and smiles again at Kazuha. “One on one?”
Was she always this grating?
Kazuha can't fight down the urge to snap back, meet her cool insouciance with fire. “Sure.”
“If I win you gotta tell me how I hurt you,” she asks, and laughs when Kazuha cycles through confusion and guilt to defiance. “I'd hate to think the top scorer of our year was mad at me."
“Whatever,” Kazuha says, too irked to be polite. “Let’s just run.”
Yoshioka laughs again, and Kazuha’s growing really tired of it. “Whatever you say, Princess.”
Kazuha loses, of course. Yoshioka runs like a gazelle, like she was born for it: like she breathes easier when she’s running. Kazuha shouldn’t be so angry—she’s from the track club, of course she’s better.
It still stings like a bug bite on her skin.
“Still a million years too early,” Yoshioka singsongs. Ugh. “Actually, if you’d at least started training last year you might have beaten me. Or the drowning thing. Can't imagine that did wonders for your lung capacity."
The bug bite feeling flares bright-hot.
"I was wondering how you knew. Did Kirigiri tell you about that?"
Yoshioka blinks at her.
"Oooooh," she says. "Ooooh my god. Is that what this is about? Kirigiri?"
“Shut up,” Kazuha says curtly. She's dusty and sweaty and -thanks to Yoshioka and her pretty bouncy hair and long, long legs- extremely irritated.
“Oh my god, how embarrassing for you. Imagine getting jealous over Kirigiri."
"What does that mean."
Yoshioka stills. Her smile slides off her face.
"Oh." A beat. "You don't know. Oh. Huh."
"What are you talking about?"
She puts her hands on her hips and looks off into the distance. "I'm not the one who you should be talking to, Kajiura."
Chizuru had said, you and Kirigiri are very bad friends.
"Aw, don't look like that. He was never serious with me, I swear."
Kazuha weighs the pros and cons of just walking away from this conversation.
"And all he'd ever talk about was you," Yoshioka adds, almost conciliatory now. "How else do you think I found out about your little ocean whoopsie?"
"I went under for less than a handful of minutes."
“Still, it's weird to think about, though, huh? That you could have just,” she makes a shik! noise with her teeth and slashes her thumb against her neck.
“Only one fourth of drownings are fatal.”
“You looked it up?”
Yoshioka shakes her head and laughs. “Guess we’re just built different, Kajiura.”
Kazuha scowls, annoyed. “Are we going to race again or not? Hello, Mr. Narumaki.”
Both Yoshioka and Mr. Narumaki start when she acknowledges him, even though she’d noticed him a while ago, making a beeline towards them across the ground. “Ah, Kajiura,” he says, flustered. “I didn’t notice you there.”
“Ah, Mr. Narumaki, you've come to woo me in the daylight hours," Yoshioka singsongs.
Kazuha blinks. Was she insane?
“Ah, I was about to ask you something, Yoshioka, but I suppose it can wait—”
Mr. Narumaki is brushing her off with equal poise.
“You should have left a love letter in my locker, my beloved. Though our peers may hold us in contempt for our love, we have to prevail.” Yoshioka nudges Kazuha. "Like this robot princess here. Close your mouth, Kajiura."
"Ignore her," Narumaki tells Kazuha. "She stops if you don't encourage her."
"My love needs no encouragement!"
"Great. Well. I wanted to do this without Kajiura listening in, but you really need to come in for counselling, Yoshioka.”
Mr. Narumaki nods. "Yeah, thought as much. Tell your parents to expect a call." He waves and strides off.
“He couldn’t text that?” Yoshioka mutters as she watches Mr. Narumaki make his way back inside. She turns and catches sight of the face that Kazuha must be making. “What? Never seen some good old-fashioned flirting before?”
Kazuha shrugs. It’s none of her business, anyway.
“You shouldn't take Sugino so seriously. I don't actually have a crush on him."
Kazuha nods. “Sure.”
“Don’t patronize me, oh my god,” Yoshioka says. “He was there for me a lot, alright? I go through shit too. It's not like studybots hold a monopoly on angst! And he just, I don't know. He treats me like a person even when I say weird things. He smiles when he sees me, even if I'm being a brat. I think he likes it when I act out.”
“He's probably married,” Kazuha says without thinking.
Much to her surprise, Yoshioka snorts. “You're vicious, Kajiura, anybody tell you that?” she says. “Don’t expect any more running tips from me now that we’ve had this little heart-to-heart.”
“I would rather lose,” Kazuha tells her honestly, and she shakes with laughter.
“Okay, I think I get why Shinonome hates you so much. You’re insufferable."
Kazuha watches her go and crouch at the start line. She's grinning.
Kazuha used to think that friendship was about being nice to each other. Maybe not. Maybe it looked more like Yoshioka yelling at her in the middle of a race track.
“Your ass isn’t going to kick itself, you know," Yoshioka calls.
Kazuha looks at her with genuine distaste. Yoshioka looks up and laughs at the face she’s making.
“Come on! If you beat me I’ll invite you to our next training.”
Hinata and Momoko had already passed on enthusiastic invites, but for some reason Kazuha’s competitiveness only grows. She takes her starting position.
Yoshioka solidly beats her three, then four, then five times. "Get good," is all she whispers in Kazuha's ear before she leaves.
After school they all walk to the gates together: most of them are headed home, but Kirigiri and Yoshioka are going out with the rest of Class C to karaoke. Yoshioka keeps making faces at Kazuha behind Kirigiri's back. Kazuha thinks about tackling her.
"Hide me from Ms. Sawatani tomorrow," Natori says, before they part ways. He smiles at them. "She's been going really aggro over university lately."
Kazuha blinks, still recovering from the flashbang of his smile.
Kirigiri says, sympathetically, "She still doesn't believe in the no-uni lifestyle?"
Kazuha blinks again, for a different reason this time. Chizuru voices her thoughts: "That's understandable, she's a teacher. You're not going to university, Natori?"
He perks. Kazuha imagines two floppy golden retriever ears on his head pricking up and bites back a smile.
"I want to start working right away," he says easily. "I don't think I'm cut out for academics, do you?"
"Irrelevant. University is more for the degree than the process of learning itself. It’s symbolic.”
Kirigiri snorts and pretends to whisper, “Don’t let Kajiura hear you say that.”
Chizuru turns and looks at her with surprise The brief flash of discomfort from the way they looked when Kirigiri and Chizuru had their heads bent together vanishes in the face of Chizuru’s confused expression. “You don’t agree, Kazuha?”
Kazuha shifts. It’s hard not to make eye contact with Kirigiri, who’s grinning with what can only be described as troll-like glee. Kirigiri always thought her choices in university were dumb.
“I like learning,” Kazuha says. “Not everything, but. I’d like to keep learning about the things I like.”
“Like Math,” Natori says with a shudder.
“But then I would think that the quality of the university that you went to wouldn’t matter as much,” Chizuru points out. “I assumed you were aiming for Kyoto University for the prestige of the qualification. If it’s the process that you enjoy, wouldn’t you be better off in a less cutthroat environment, where you’re free to do as you like?”
Kazuha blinks at all three of them. “I just,” she says uncertainly. “My brother—” but that doesn’t sound right either. Natsuki never actually told her to follow in his footsteps.
She's saved from having to answer when Chizuru's car pulls up to the curb. Sugino shouts her goodbyes and gets in the passenger seat.
"Bye bye," Yoshioka says, twinkling her fingers at Kazuha. "Kirigiri and I will try not to have too much fun without you, Kajiura."
Chizuru leads her into the car before Kazuha can strangle her.
As the car starts pulling out, Chizuru says, "You could come with us to Nagoya, Kazuha. Since Kirigiri and I are both aiming there."
Sugino chirps, “I hear they start their lectures right on time. Feels like that'd be something you're into."
Kazuha looks down at her hands. She thinks of her own ideal of university: walking through empty hallways alone, serene, undisturbed. Invisible. Then she thinks of having Chizuru by her side. And Kirigiri.
Quietly, she decides, “I’ll think about it.”
Chizuru takes her hand. Squeezes it a little. "I'm sorry. You deserve to go to any university you want, but I can't tell you how lovely it would be if we went to the same place."
Kazuha nods. A flush creeps to her face. "Yeah."
The car slides to a stop outside Kazuha's house. "See you tomorrow," she says.
They beam back at her. "Good luck on your university turmoil, Kajiura!" Sugino calls. "Just remember that picking and choosing isn't a privilege us plebs have!"
Kazuha's still smiling when she turns towards her house. She blames the soft pit of joy in her heart for not having noticed the figure on the driveway.
"Skipping cram school again, I see," says her mother. Her sound of her voice runs up Kazuha's back, as cold as ice.
"Come inside. We need to talk."
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