Chapter 15:

43 Days Till the End of Summer

The Last of Our Summers

Her mother's sitting at her usual spot at the kitchen. Kazuha doesn't really get why–Natsuki's the one who cooks, if at all, and the years that Natsuki had moved out Kazuha had subsisted on convenience store food on the way home from cram school.

"You not telling me that you're skipping cram school makes sense," her mother says. Her eyes are averted, fixed on the window next to the spice rack that nobody uses. "You were always such a spineless thing. Like a child, you probably thought that the problem would go away on its own."

A tear goes down her mother's face. Kazuha takes in shallow breaths.

"But the fact that you didn't even tell me that you've given up on your dreams of being someone worthwhile...that hurts. Because that dream was the last thing that made me think you were really my daughter."

She stands up, moves to the edge of the room. The ferns on the charming overpriced mason jars are dying, and she scrapes the dried leaves off one branch and lets them fall on the countertop.

"I suppose this sports day you've signed up for is a hail mary before you give up on your future entirely?"

Kazuha can't speak. A discordant, high pitched ringing has started in her ears.

Her mother is brutally quiet till she speaks.

"I'm trying to be better," Kazuha says, in a voice so small it barely leaves her.

Her mother's face is so, so cold. "What does that mean."

"I don't know." Kazuha's hands are shaking. "But I have friends now. And. They make me feel like I'm able to change into someone I actually like."

Her disappointment is palpable. "So is that your plan? Just play nice with your friends and hope it works out on its own?"

Kazuha quakes. Because that's it, isn't it? Their parents' ideal dream for their children, passed down to Natsuki who passed it down to Kazuha. She's never had reason to examine her life like this, to see how empty and colorless it is.

"I don't know," she says.

"What do you want, then?"

"I don't know. But–"

"Then do you see why I try to guide you? You have no ideas, no hopes, no ambition. All you've ever done is bury your head in the sand and hope someone else takes care of everything for you."

Kazuha's shaking now. "I'm going to be better."

Her mother shakes her head. The disappointment on her face is somehow alien, though Kazuha has caught glimpses of it her whole life. The ringing in her ears is unbearable now.

"That means nothing to me," she says, turning away. "You make it so difficult to care about you."

She doesn't turn back as Kazuha stumbles out of the kitchen.

Her body feels so heavy. Is it because she's tired? That makes sense. It's been a long day.

She thinks about texting Chizuru: I'm okay, aren't I?

She deletes all that and sends, instead: School tomorrow?

Nope, comes the answer. My mom wants to go to a family thing. Have fun at track!

Kazuha stares at the bright square of her phone screen for a long time. Eventually, she must fall asleep.


She doesn't talk to anyone at school the next day. Being in proximity to Chizuru must have made her seem approachable, or friendly, or whatever, because when she's gone even the students who talked to Kazuha about sports day seem to want nothing to do with her.

At lunch, a text from Kirigiri: coming to roof?

Can’t, she texts back. It's only half a lie. Narumaki wants to see us.

He sends her a sticker of a wilted radish. Maybe she should send him a sticker back. She doesn't want to seem weird.

She doesn't send anything.

In the counselling room, Mr. Narumaki hands her some brochures. "I just wanted to give you these," he says. “I know your mother has strong opinions about which university to go to, but Nagoya's prestigious too."

Kazuha stays quiet.

"There's nothing wrong with changing your mind. That's what high school's for, really."

"What do you mean."

She sounds like her mother.

"Well, Kajiura, this may come as a surprise, but not a lot of kids your age come into high school with the aim of getting into a specific university like you did. Their experiences, the friends they make, and the things they like shape their decisions."

He adds, “I know the staff tends to compare you to Natsuki, but it took him a whole midlife crisis to even start to question the things you're figuring out now."

Kazuha hates this. She doesn't want to listen, doesn't want to be compelled.

"…really? Natsuki said that?"

"He did."

Kazuha looks at the floor.

"Can I go?”

"If you promise to consider your options. Ask Natori to come in on your way out."

Even with the warning, she's surprised to find Natori waiting outside as she exists the counselling room. He winks at her as he goes in, a bright, spontaneous thing that startles her.

An Natori catches up with her near the vending machines outside the canteen. She's staring blankly into it, and starts again when he calls out to her.

“Argh, that was torture," he says. "How was yours?"

"Alright, I guess.”

“Hey, at least they seem to be running out of material to pressure us with.”

Natori’s a naturally gifted athlete and a competent student. Unlike herself, he carries the praise easily, but no one can make him care about going to university. Now that she pays more attention to things that happen in class, she picks up on it: their teachers' frustration at what they call his wasted potential. He doesn't seem to second guess his decision in the slightest.

He gives it less thought as he gives to picking drinks from the vending machine.

He grins when he sees her watching him. “Guess what flavor I'll pick.”

He presses the button quickly.

Halfhearted, Kazuha guesses, “Peach?”

“Heh. Lucky guess.” He uncaps it and holds it out to her. “It smells amazing!”

Kazuha sniffs. It does smell nice—peachy, like the lipbalm she uses sometimes. “You haven’t had this before?”

He shakes his head. “Wanted to try something new.” He takes a big gulp and screws the cap back on. “What are you getting? Bleh, boring.” He makes a face when Kazuha points at her juice. “You and Kirigiri are alike in the weirdest ways.”

“Should I make a change?”

His shoulders lift in a laughing half-shrug. “Sure! Let me pick.”

Natori insists that she closes her eyes as he chooses.

She feels ridiculous. Now that she's semi-aware of how notorious she is, it feels like a farce to put on a show like this, where anyone could see. A low hum of static buzzes in her ears.

“Okay, hold out your hands,” he says, and drops something cool and heavy in her palms when she obeys.

When she opens her eyes, a bottle of lemon tea is on her palm, beaded with condensation.

“You used to eat all those sour candies when we were in middle school,” he says, smiling at her surprise. “Besides, it suits you. You’ve always had grown-up tastebuds, even when we were kids.”

“According to Mr. Narumaki we’re still kids,” Kazuha tells him. She doesn’t know what to think, so she opens the bottle and drinks and—

“Ah,” she says, in surprise. “Delicious.”


He keeps walking with her as she attempts to drift away. He keeps slanting little grins at her, offering her drinks from his tea.

“You’re in a good mood, Natori.”

He shrugs, his hand coming up to rub his neck. “I guess? I was looking forward to lunch with everyone.”

“Even when Chizuru's not here?"

The tips of his ears go bright red.

“I know I couldn’t hide it from you,” he groans. “You’re too perceptive, Kajiura.”

“On the contrary, I'd say I'm the most dense person in the whole school.”

“Really? Then I'm that obvious?”

She nods. She can’t stop the smile that curves her lips when Natori groans again.

She takes another sip of her drink. Sour, fading into a lingering sweetness.

“That obvious.”

She had been planning to go back to class, but Natori has led them towards the roof without even noticing.

A hint of a pout flits across his face.

He opens the door to the roof for her. Then—

–it fades into blankness, like a mask shuttering over his face.


She follows his gaze. A discordant note in her ears again as her heart swoops to her stomach.

Kirigiri and Yoshioka are sitting close together.

They’re facing each other, both quiet, not speaking—and then Kazuha realizes with a sickening twist in her stomach that they’re sharing Kirigiri’s earbuds.

As she watches, they catch each other’s eye, and crack big smiles. It’s so private that Kazuha—who has stood by Kirigiri’s side through all his lowest moments for fifteen years—feels it crash through her like thunder.

Yoshioka raises her chopsticks, and the way Kirigiri ducks his head to eat it whatever she's offering is a mirror of all the toast Kazuha has fed him in the hushed quiet of their mornings.

Behind them, the sky is so blue.

“Oh,” she hears Natori say, distantly. "I didn't know they were still together."

Oh, she echoes in her head like a parrot.

The cacophony in her head is louder than ever. A note held over the thudding of her heart, the crunch of the ground under her feet, the beginnings of a headache drilling behind her temples.

“Hey, Natori, I just remembered something, gotta go.”

He looks at her. His eyes are still wide, though his mouth has a sorrowful cast to it already. “Kajiura, I'm sure there's—"

“I just remembered something,” she repeats. When his hand lands on her shoulder, she shrugs him off. “Just tell them—I. I remembered something, so I had to go.”

She's hardly turned around when she bumps into Hikari.

The thudding in her ears stops.

Utter silence, like a held breath.

"Oh, it's Kajiura. Spying on Kirigiri, how pitiful."

In the empty silence of her mind, Kazuha feels as sharp as razors. Her mouth is full of the taste of the sea.

Hikari pauses for a nano-second, her big eyes widening even further as she looks up at Kazuha. Kazuha's on a higher step than Hikari is, but even if their positions were reversed Kazuha would be taller.

Their positions are not reversed.

Even the timer above her head only comes up to Kazuha’s chest: 00:00:05. She'd forgotten about this timer of Hikari's.

Kazuha slashes her a grin. “Hikari is as cute as ever.”

She goes white. “You little—”

One of her middle-schooler-sized friends puts her hand on her shoulder and hisses something that sounds like she’s not worth it! but Kazuha recognizes the look in Hikari's eyes.

They both feel it: something that's been a long time coming.


“It’s like every time she badmouths me, Hikari grows a little cuter,” Kazuha says, still giving her the same sharp-toothed smile. “Middle school was an important time for you in the cuteness department, wasn’t it?”

“What the hell’s wrong with you,” she snaps. She shrugs off the hands of her little whispering minions.

Kazuha can barely see who's around them. Her vision has tunneled, badly.

"It's about time you found out how pointless liking someone like Kirigiri is–”

Kazuha clicks her tongue. “Oh, so Hikari-chan was trying to warn me? Being nice is such an ugly look on you though!"

She takes one step down. They're on adjacent steps now. She feels a thrill at the way Hikari flinches.

"I’d hate to end a winning streak. You really should go back to spreading rumors around school that I’m a pathetic lying bitch, Hikari. You're too good at it to give up now.”

She doesn’t even see the slap coming. She catches Hikari’s little hand as she draws it back, the expression on her cute face one of fury and horror.


“You’re right,” Kazuha says. The eerie silence in her head echoes. She feels vaguely sorry for the way Hikari struggles to free her hand from Kazuha’s iron grip. “This is the nicest thing you’ve done for me.”

She puts a hand on Hikari's shoulder. "For what it's worth, I used to like you way more than Kirigiri ever will."


She pushes.

Haru Yumera
Steward McOy
Kya Hon
Xan Ti